This week, Prime Minister John Key compared New Zealand's global "100% Pure" tourism marketing campaign to a fast food ad. "It's like saying 'McDonald's, I'm lovin' it' - I'm not sure every moment that someone's eating McDonald's, they're loving it . . . it's the same thing with 100% Pure," he said.
"It's got to be taken with a bit of a pinch of salt."
Mr Key, who is also the tourism minister, made the claim amid the fallout from criticism by Massey University freshwater ecologist Mike Joy, who told The New York Times-owned International Herald Tribune that New Zealand's clean, green global image was fast becoming divorced from ecological fact.
A committed environmentalist, Dr Joy has been sounding the alarm over the nation's environmental woes for years, but when his two-month-old quotes went to print in the Tribune and online in The New York Times on November 16, the runoff really hit the river.
"There are almost two worlds in New Zealand," Dr Joy told Charles Anderson, a Kiwi journalist writing as an intern for the Tribune. "There is the picture-postcard world, and then there is the reality."
The comments came ahead of a major push by Tourism New Zealand (TNZ) around The Hobbit trilogy, which begins ramping up after this week's Wellington premiere.
It's not the first time the prime minister and the scientist have locked horns with the world watching. In May last year, Mr Key was grilled on BBC World's Hardtalk by interviewer Stephen Sackur.
Sackur questioned the 100% Pure tag and interrogated Mr Key about Dr Joy's assertion that New Zealand was "delusional about how clean and green we are".
Sackur confronted the prime minister with Dr Joy's research-based rigour. Mr Key kicked for touch, dismissing academics as being like lawyers with an opinion for hire.
"He's one academic, and like lawyers, I can provide you with another one that will give you a counterview."
In 2009, British environment writer Fred Pearce, writing in The Guardian, gave his "prize for the most shameless two fingers to the global community" to New Zealand, accusing this country of a "greenwash" for trading on an increasingly shaky notion of eco- credibility.
In the latest stoush over the accuracy of 100% Pure, Dr Joy was pounced on by Climate Change Minister Tim Groser, who called his comments "deeply unhelpful".
In an email to Dr Joy titled "Ego Trip" (later leaked by Green Party co-leader Russel Norman), backroom government lobbyist Mark Unsworth labelled the environmental science lecturer a "traitor", accusing him of sabotaging the tourism industry and national economy by airing the country's dirty laundry in the international media.
But the science behind Dr Joy's statements seems to stack up - we are slipping.
In the Tribune piece, Dr Joy cited Yale University's Environmental Performance Index for 2012, which ranks countries on a range of performance indicators, from air quality to land use to the quantity and quality of fresh water.
Wedged between Iceland and Albania, New Zealand ranks 14th out of 132 countries - in 2006, we were No 1.
But the index also tracks environmental performance trends, measuring a country's progress over the past decade. Under this formula, New Zealand ranked 50th, between Armenia and Slovenia.
This week, the scientific community was quick to rally round Dr Joy - he was endorsed by, among others, the New Zealand Association of Scientists and New Zealand Ecological Society president Mel Galbraith, who said: "It is sad that the Government is choosing to attack individuals, such as Dr Mike Joy, rather than listening to what is being said about the ecological problems facing New Zealand and providing sufficient resources to remedy the situation."
The statement went on to list sobering examples of the environmental slump - the critical state of native biodiversity, steady environmental decline due to human modification, the impact of invasive species and climate change, the deterioration of the majority of our waterways, the continued rise in numbers of threatened native species and swathes of forest, dunes and wetlands degenerating.
In this context, questioning the authenticity or wisdom of Tourism New Zealand's international marketing strategy is as old as the campaign itself, which was launched on July 31, 1999 to the sound of Crowded House's Don't Dream It's Over.
The national tourism agency can't put a dollar figure on the total cost of 100% Pure over its 13-year run, citing commercial sensitivity and the campaign's integration with TNZ's overall marketing budget.
Although TNZ corporate affairs general manager Chris Roberts has grown used to taking flak over the campaign, he says 100% Pure remains "the envy of every national tourism organisation in the world".
"A couple of times every year for the past 13 years, someone has questioned through the media whether the 'gloss' may be coming off 100% Pure."
Insisting that 100% Pure is simply a tourism campaign and not a "brand for New Zealand", Mr Roberts says the campaign continues to "resonate with the people who matter to us - those who are thinking about travel to New Zealand".
"International visitors understand that 100% Pure is about a tourism experience, and that it is not an environmental promise. But they do hold our environment in high regard.
"The occasional negative article does nothing to blunt the overwhelmingly positive impact of 100% Pure."
With offices in Auckland, Wellington, Sydney, Seoul, Shanghai, Tokyo, Bangkok, Singapore, Mumbai, Los Angeles and London, the agency's total government funding in 2011-12 and again for 2012-13 was about $84 million.
Over the past five years, TNZ was given baseline funding of $69m, boosted by one- off funding each year - $30m in 2010-11 and $20m in 2009-10.
On top of the government's stake, the agency gets extra cash from tourism partners such as travel companies, airlines and regional tourism organisations for joint marketing ventures. Last year that reserve stream was around $25m.
"On the back of 100% Pure, New Zealand has built a powerful and valuable tourism image since 1999," Mr Roberts says. "100% Pure has proved extremely adaptable and has relevance across all markets, all travel sectors and all types of media."
Dr Joy says he does not have a problem with promoting New Zealand internationally - he just thinks the country has to at least aspire to the 100% Pure tagline.
He is also perplexed that international press coverage seems to be one of the few catalysts for a national debate here about the environment.
"It's crazy that the politicians will only listen when someone outside, like The New York Times, points it out. It's sort of like you have to embarrass them into doing something," Dr Joy says.
"It seems like if we could just keep it our little secret and do our own thing, then we could just carry on and destroy the place."
DR MIKE JOY: Massey University freshwater ecologist
As an independent environmental scientist and freshwater ecologist, my job is to gather facts on the state of the environment and present them without fear or favour. As a university academic I have a further important role to be the conscience of society.
The International Herald Tribune article citing me that questioned the 100% Pure tourism campaign sparked some nasty attacks on my research and character from Government, ministers, a government lobbyist and journalists. None of the attacks addressed any of this factual referenced information; rather, the responses seem to reflect incredulity, revealing an alarming level of unawareness of reality.
The facts on New Zealand's environmental status speak for themselves. We now have the highest proportion of threatened species in the world. An indication of our freshwater plight is that the list of threatened species includes 68 per cent of our freshwater fish and our only freshwater crayfish and mussel. We have destroyed more than 90 per cent of our wetlands, 68 per cent of our ecosystems are threatened, and 96 per cent of our lowland waterways are unswimmable.
Our lakes are also impacted with 43 per cent of all lakes classed as polluted and most of those lakes are lowland. In dairy farming areas, groundwater nitrate levels are rising quickly and human health is also directly impacted with an estimated 18,000 to 34,000 people annually contracting waterborne diseases. Soils in dairy areas are reaching heavy metal contamination levels from over-fertilisation, threatening our future food security and exports.
A recent international peer- reviewed comparison of our environmental performance revealed we ranked about 161st on our per capita performance and around 130th for overall impacts compared to 180 countries. This stark reality shows that we are totally failing to live up to our image. Economist Gareth Morgan accurately summed us up recently as "environmental pariahs clinging to resource-depleting practices".
The 100% Pure logo is an attempt to differentiate New Zealand from the rest of the world and I applaud this. It is crucial for tourism and selling our primary produce to the world that we are seen as clean and green. But we can't lie; we have to be seen to at least be aspiring to the claim and it is patently obvious we are not as we are getting worse, not better.
Agricultural intensification is the main cause of our environmental demise and has moved way beyond sustainable levels, especially during the past two decades. Unfortunately, this Government's response is to promote more intensification. This will inevitably drag us even closer to the bottom of world rankings.
We don't need to rebrand - what we must do is live up to our brand before we lose it.
ROB MORRISON: Chairman of green business lobby group Pure Advantage
100% Pure is a highly successful marketing campaign - there's no question of that. But of critical importance is the clean, green reputation that underpins this campaign. New Zealand's clean, green image has real, measurable value. In December 2005 it was valued at $20.17 billion a year. In 2008 a PwC survey found that more than 80 per cent of New Zealand exporters believe that New Zealand's clean green image is vital to their export profile.
So, if the clean, green image has real and measurable value, surely it makes sense not to undermine its credibility?
The reality is that New Zealand is in an unenviable position. For many years now we have slipped down the ranks of the OECD's performance indicators and, despite the hype to the contrary, we continue to slip down the environmental rankings. In 2006, New Zealand was ranked first on the Yale Environmental Performance Index. By 2012 we had slipped to 14th. We have the fifth highest emissions per capita in the world and 77 per cent of our threatened species look set to decline.
As Sir Paul Callaghan, a trustee of Pure Advantage put it: "We believe that we have a clean economy and a clean green image, and do not see the lack of honesty which surrounds this branding. We are merely a small population spread over a large area which provides an impression of clean and green."
Why is protecting and enhancing New Zealand's clean and green image so important? Predominantly because New Zealand remains a low value-added commodity producer, with the need to rely on foreign borrowings to sustain its way in the world; using New Zealand's clean, green advantage is one way of rectifying that.
The global shift towards green growth represents an enormous opportunity for New Zealand to shift what it currently produces and could produce, higher up the value chain. However, for New Zealand to be successful internationally, we need to be successful domestically. This won't happen by chance. Our clean, green image gives us a competitive head start - but it will only get us so far. We need to walk the talk. The better we are at walking in New Zealand, by improving the sustainability of what we do here, the more likely we will be successful at running internationally - by accessing green growth markets globally.
There is universal recognition that New Zealand's clean, green brand is valuable; however, the last detailed attempt to estimate the value of the brand is more than a decade old. Given the importance of this brand, it would seem worth updating this research and investigating how brand value has changed over time. At the very least, recognition of what our clean, green image is worth to New Zealand might just give us the incentive to start doing more to look after what actually gives us that image.
At Pure Advantage we are working with business in the widest sense to take the next steps, and then ultimately for the government to recognise that, for New Zealand, the way of the past is not the way of the future. That growth and being green are compatible, that green growth is value-adding, not value- destroying, and the sooner we recognise this, the better for everyone.
PETER BIGGS: Chief executive, Clemenger BBDO Melbourne; former Wellington ad-man
"I turn again to simplicity. I turn to purity."
With these words, Genghis - the greatest of the khans - captured the essence of successful marketing - and why the 100% Pure campaign has worked so powerfully: Develop a compelling positioning which you can own and substantiate; express and magnify it with utter precision and simplicity; execute it with accuracy; remain ruthlessly consistent; keep it constantly fresh and relevant. It's amazing how so many brands get this wrong. 100% Pure is not one of them.
Remarkably, the 100% Pure campaign has been running since 1999 and, for that, I take my hat off to the marketing team at Tourism New Zealand. It is a temptation for many marketers with a long-running campaign to change it. You see it happen time and again.
Organisations get bored with campaigns long before consumers do. As well, it's always very tempting for a new chief marketing officer to make their mark early the easy way - either change the existing marketing campaign and/or change their advertising agency. It takes guts and humility to stay with a campaign which works.
The only time you should change something is when it's broken or outlived its usefulness. 100% Pure is neither.
When it began, the campaign captured a human truth - that is, the majority of people around the world do see New Zealand as far away and - because of that - untouched. The campaign has also cleverly evolved with time - 100% Pure has expanded beyond an environmental positioning to offer Pure Adventure, Pure Experiences, Pure Food, Pure Sport which, again, capture contemporary New Zealand: A country of extraordinary intensity, an intimate place geographically which also offers visitors an unmatched range of experiences.
All the great brands exploit a tension because tensions capture consumer interest. 100% Pure creates a clever tension between intimacy and expansiveness and this set of opposites sparks curiosity and creates talkability - something very few brands, playing in a worldwide space, manage to do.
As Kiwis, we have to be provocative and intelligent when it comes to promoting ourselves and our country because, let's face it, New Zealand doesn't have the massive advertising budgets which other nations and economies possess. In the 21st century, the New Zealand approach is the way to go - we live in an "attention economy" where consumers are the media channel, co-creating and passing on brand content. So, when it comes to cutting- edge marketing campaigns, which all seek to drive "earned" media - as opposed to "bought" or "owned" media, scale and weight are being replaced with speed and agility. And the 100% Pure campaign is perfectly designed for velocity and manoeuvrability.
And it works. There is no doubt it has created a point of difference for New Zealand; it brings in the visitors; and it gets them to spend their money.
100% Pure New Zealand - live long and prosper.
MARTIN SNEDDEN: Tourism Industry Association chief executive
People can slag Tourism NZ off as much as they like but, for more than a decade, the 100% Pure marketing brand has served New Zealand really well. It is a brand which still has international cut-through and resonance.
Among all the clutter surrounding international destination marketing, it is a brand that has stood the test of time.
Furthermore, thus far our international visitors confirm that, in their eyes at least, New Zealand delivers on its promise. Each year Tourism NZ conducts a "visitor experience monitor" survey. In the 2011/12 survey, visitors gave New Zealand a "highly satisfied" 9 out of 10 rating for its natural environment.
So, instead of this "marketing brand" sideshow debate, why not spend time grappling with the real issues, such as how much do we really value our environment? Are we happy with the current state of our environment? Are we satisfied that we are doing enough to protect our environment? Have we got the balance right between essential, but challenging to manage, economic activities and sustainable environmental protection?
If we're being honest with ourselves, we'd probably admit that most of us have put environmental concerns on the backburner since the beginning of the global financial crisis. We've persuaded ourselves that, where we have to make a short-term choice between the two (with mining being a possible exception), a stable economy in difficult times has generally taken priority over environmental concerns. Also, it could be that the whole public debate got so complicated most of us ended up shutting our ears to the confusing noise.
But maybe the worm is starting to turn. Maybe this debate is signalling that the environment is seriously back on the agenda. Maybe there is a growing consensus that we should not be prepared to accept that the current balance is right.
Embracing the recommendations from the Land and Water Forum would be a good place to start. We "get" the importance of water. We have credible evidence that our water problem is bad and getting worse. We know it is a problem that we can fix. And we have a whole bunch of agreed solutions that we can get stuck into right now.
Let's be prepared to listen to and think carefully about the real essence of what Mike Joy is saying. We know we have an environmental problem. We know in our hearts that we need to fix it. Let's get on with it.
- The Dominion Post