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Brands are a carefully crafted alchemy of logic and magic. Their ability to win over the hearts and minds of those they wish to influence makes them an important and highly valuable intangible asset. They are visible and tell stories that are often compelling, but are often also cosmetic and quickly exposed as such. 
A brand is essentially the promise a company is making to its audiences, and it can own and shape that promise. It’s what the company ideally wants its stakeholders and influencers to think of it. But your reputation is actually what your stakeholders think of you and how they see you, regardless of what you want them to believe or what promises you make.
A positive reputation is built on what you actually do; not what you say you are going to do. One tiny nuance, one bad review, and your brand could be stone cold dead in a heartbeat. Through actions, not words, smart companies build trust and create positive reputations that ensure their brands are not damaged.
You might have a new product that will take the world by storm, but if you don’t deliver on time; or understand your customers’ and consumers’ values; take time to set up relationships;  have the right kind of people representing you; or ensure your company is honest and transparent; you might as well rest your product in eternal peace before even starting.
Anyone with a keyboard can become an opinion-former – able to make or challenge your company, product or even your country’s brand promise. This super-scrutiny can be sometimes deflected by slick advertising and marketing, but these days ‘spin’ and the old crisis management plan of deny/delay/destruct just doesn’t cut it.  
Losing your reputation is generally catastrophic, and hard to turn around. That’s why I always ask New Zealand companies what their motivations and expectations are in exporting. Do they want to spread the word about a company or product they feel passionate about? Do they want to make the world a better place? Have they got something that no one else has but desperately needs? Or are they wanting to make a lot of revenue quickly?
The latter is obvious, but not a good driver in itself. I see plenty of young companies wanting to enter lucrative European markets to make a quick buck. That may be possible in fast-moving sectors like technology, but for most, exporting is an investment and it’s usually a long-time thing. 
There’re plenty of snags along the way to overcome, however. Any company exporting into Europe needs ‘ambassadors’ on the ground who completely understand and are committed to the company and its strategy. All too often I come across company representatives who are clearly working independently of the mothership; either because there is no clear direction or they don’t agree with the direction (“Head office doesn’t get it”). It’s not hard to see that this lack of engagement around an agreed and well-thought-through strategy can lead to all sorts of reputational issues.
Be realistic
Unrealistic expectations are another issue for New Zealanders. Entrepreneurs arrive in Europe after massive success at home or around Australasia, and expect the same success here. What they don’t factor in is that there are ten times more competitors here; that Europe doesn’t share a single culture and language; and that the tone of voice employed successfully in one country may be met with total perplexity in another. 
Getting into the four or five top-of-mind brands based on a clearly articulated proposition in your particular market is the key to success. Competing on price, especially from New Zealand, is not a sustainable alternative.
At the same time, you need to have good budgets to work from. Social media channels in Europe are typically free to access, but landing at Heathrow with five thousand pounds in your back pocket for a full-on marketing campaign just isn’t realistic. Nothing comes without a realistic budget to invest, but how you use it is the most important thing.
That’s why it never ceases to amaze me how New Zealand companies don’t collaborate.  Sharing your niche networks, knowledge and experience is good sense, but a lot of sectors – such as the wine industry – appear to be self-centred and self-serving. A company like Villa Maria, for instance, understands perfectly what it is and who it produces for. In fact, it absolutely nails it. But the industry is marred by back-biting and mistrust.
Plenty of great Kiwi brands do well overseas: Air New Zealand, Comvita, Villa Maria to name a few. They punch well above their weight because they understand the values and preferences of their audiences, articulate their brand promise consistently and understand that a promise delivered builds a positive reputation. The end result is that they attract top people to work for them, their customers believe in them and markets invest in them.
But it’s fair to say that those ‘great ones’ haven’t been as numerous in the past ten years. Ask yourself, what’s new?  Who’s new? New Zealand is one of the world’s successful economies, but the world is rapidly changing and countries like Ghana, with economic growth hitting 16 to 17 percent yearly, represent a new competitive threat, the likes of which we have not seen since the rise of Asia’s tiger economies. 
New Zealand has a lot going for it. Like Apple, it’s a brand many are prepared to look upon in a positive light. The world’s most successful company isn’t the greatest corporate citizen, but the promise it makes it generally delivers on. Apple’s success is based on difference and being different. New Zealand shares some of the same alchemy that makes difference a key ingredient of success. 
You don’t bang your drum that often, and your sanctuary status and your humanity often projected through a ‘can-do naivety’ about the world is positively endearing. There’s a sense that New Zealand offers the promise of an alternative and better way. It’s a promise that exporters would do well to capitalise on. 
But bear in mind, a brand promise is one thing. In this ‘joined-up’ world, reputation is everything.
Neil Gaught is a Beachhead Adviser for NZTE based in London. His expertise is in defining and developing reputation-building positioning strategies for corporations, NGOs, government institutions and start-ups worldwide. He lived in New Zealand for six years until 2009, working with some of the country’s top corporate and public-sector bodies.
Neil’s top tips for brand cut-through:
Do your homework – ask the right people the right questions at all levels in your target market, to understand who they are and what they actually want.
Know exactly who your competitors are, how they are positioned and what their propositions are.
Be crystal-clear about the benefit or value of your product.
Make your brand a compelling proposition that fires the imagination. But make sure it’s a promise you can live up to.
Keep it simple – clear internal communication and engagement is key. 
Neil Gaught is a Beachhead Advisor for NZTE based in London. 
Glenn Baker

Glenn is a professional writer/editor with 50-plus years’ experience across radio, television and magazine publishing.


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