Tourism NZ CEO Kevin Bowler on moving on from Middle Earth, using data and why Australia is now their only traditional advertising market

Kevin Bowler, chief executive, Tourism New ZealandKevin Bowler is the CEO of Tourism New Zealand, the creator of one of the world’s longest-running tourism campaigns, 100% Pure New Zealand.

In this interview with Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks at New Zealand’s High Commission in Singapore, Bowler talks about the new ‘Every day a different journey’ campaign, developing a 15 year-old idea in consultation with Maori elders, and how the organisation is using data to convert the curious into visitors.

A number of countries in the region have been having a tough time attracting tourists recently, including Singapore, which saw a decline in tourist visits in the first quarter of this year. Are you facing the same problem?

No. Our numbers are up 6.9 per cent year on year. Visitor spend is up 20 per cent. We have a very strong tourism sector, and the numbers from the emerging economies continue to strengthen. We’re also seeing growth from markets like Europe and the United States. We just had a record June, with a total annual arrivals peaking at three million international visitors.

Tell us about the latest campaign, ‘Every day a different journey’.

It’s an ongoing evolution of 100% Pure New Zealand. Over the last four years we’ve created a bridge between Middle Earth and 100% Pure New Zealand, and some campaigns have worked well with Air New Zealand and other partners. Here’s an Air New Zealand flight safety video featuring some of the cast from Lord of the Rings.

We’re at that point where we need to move on from the Middle Earth connection. We need to ask what are the things we need to communicate to motivate more people to visit. What’s been missing is showing the depth and range of experiences.

What we don’t suffer from is an image issue. But people don’t know what they’d do what they’d get to New Zealand. We want to emphasise the diverse range of experiences, and how easy they are to get from one another. You can literally take a glacier walk or go skiing in the morning, and be on the beach in the afternoon. No one has a monopoly on great scenery, but we do have amazing diversity over short distances. New Zealand is an amazingly compact country.

An ad from the Every day a different journey campaign:

Why do you think tourism numbers are holding up so well in New Zealand?

It’s combination of things, but currency has not been an issue. One thing we know is that New Zealand sits on millions of people’s bucket lists. And the Middle Earth connection is significant for many people. They’d always planned to go, and they’ve said let’s go now. At its peak, 15 per cent of visitors would say they’d come to New Zealand because of Middle Earth. That’s a big factor. With destinations there’s a cycle of popularity that starts to build, and we’ve benefited from that.

How long can New Zealand cash in on the Lord of the Rings connection?

We’ve enjoyed one of our strongest periods of growth in the wake of the Peter Jackson films. But people still go to Switzerland because they’ve seen and love The Sound of Music. Ten years have passed between Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. It’s a lasting legacy attraction that I think will keep delivering for us over the long term.

On location for The Hobbit beside Pelorus River in Marlborough, New Zealand. Pic: Tourism NZ website

On location for The Hobbit by Pelorus River in Marlborough. Pic: Tourism NZ website

What’s the situation like now in Christchurch, which was hit by a massive earthquake not long ago?

We’re half way into the recovery phase, four and a half years after the earthquake hit. There’s still quite a lot of work to do to reestablish the infrastructure. But when it’s complete, Christchurch will be a much more modern city. It’s a great opportunity to reinvent a city. It will be most the modern and intriguing city to visit over the next five to seven years, with great hotels and a worldclass international airport.

What are your priority markets in Asia? 

Source: Tourism New Zealand

New Zealand’s top source markets

Asia is our most exciting region, and China is the biggest market. We’re growing fast – for full year to the end of May, tourism visits from China were up 29.3 per cent. Month on month, they’re up 45 per cent. We’re seeing staggering growth, and China is now our second-biggest source market after Australia. Canada and the US are growing quickly too, but not as fast. In Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, India and Indonesia we see enormous opportunity. We’re over-investing in these markets as they’ll be big sources of growth in the future.

How do you localise the work for different markets?

It’s a spectrum. Locally, we optimise images, talent and the types of experiences we show in our advertising. We think about young travellers coming from Europe, whereas we focus on family and honeymooning couples from India. There’s plenty of scope for local offices to adapt their work and tune in to the local audience.

Which agencies do you use?

Razorfish and their affiliates handle platforms and channels, as most of our work is digitally deployed. The core creative work is handled by Whybin\TBWA Sydney.

Tell us about the origins of 100% Pure New Zealand.

The new brand identity100% Pure New Zealand came about way before my time [Bowler joined Tourism New Zealand five and half years ago from Yahoo!Xtra, where he was CEO. He has worked in senior marketing roles for Telecom New Zealand, New Zealand Dairy Foods and Unilever]. It was an M&C Saatchi Sydney idea that was introduced 15 years ago. Prior to that, there was a real absence of a country brand. It was just a series of rolling campaigns, depending on which partners and messages we wanted to get across.

It was bold to focus our investment around a single idea. When it happened it was controversial, and it took a while for people to get behind it. Now, the difficult thing is not to mess with it too much, and to deepen it and take it down a different path.

How have you developed it?

A year ago, we looked at the print work. It was beautifully shot, but the location could have been Tasmania or Scandinavia. We wondered how we could change the design system and reimagine the print work in such a way that was deeply and intrinsically rooted in New Zealand.

It took us a year to do.

We introduced a new type face carved out of native timber using a traditional technique, based on the principle of Niho niho. This goes back to Maori legend around lost family members. Three lashings or markings in wood represent three questions: How are you? Where are you? When will you return? We’ve introduced the three lashings dimension that makes the brand identity more distinctive.

We worked with Maori elders to help us understand what we could and couldn’t do. There’s a really strong indigenous cultural buy-in to the idea.

When we researched the design in the US, they didn’t literally understand what the markings meant, but they thought it looked tribal and interesting.

Really, the drawings didn’t take us a year, the talking did. There was a lot of discussion involved about why people come here. Why do visitors love New Zealand so much? Yes, it’s beautiful country, but it’s really the warmth of the people. Manaakitanga is a Maori term for embracing visitors like family. Once you’ve been to New Zealand, you’re part of the family. There’s a deeper sense of connection, which sits really well with Maori people. They could see enormous value in us bringing to life that hospitality.

Here’s a video that explains the change of the 100% Pure New Zealand brand identity.

What other tourism campaigns do you admire from around the region?

Incredible IndiaI’ve always been attracted to the Incredible India campaign, particularly the use and vibrancy of colour. Some of the work from Korea is good too. But to be honest, I don’t spend a lot of time looking at what other tourism boards are doing, with the exception of Australia.

So what are your influences as a marketer? Tourism New Zealand’s function is primarily marketing.

I don’t look at the travel sector so much. I’m interested in things that disrupt and change industries; things that are product and service led, not marketing led. For instance, what Uber and Airbnb have done – take a regulated space and rethink it.

Which channels do you use to reach your audience?

The answer starts with a really tight definition of who you’re trying to reach. We have a massive advantage in that people are really interested in what we have to offer. If you contrast that to consumer package goods, well people just aren’t as interested.

We’re trying to meet the needs of an audience that is hungry for content, and a responsive website is really important for that. We get 20 million visits a year to our website. There are 18 versions of the website; 17 different country versions and one international version. That’s our advertising platform, really. What we do outside the website is to get traffic back on to that space. If you’re interested in freshwater fly fishing, we want to bring you into our space.

From Facebook, you can see the impact of ad exposure on long-term decisions about travel. It’s a good example of a platform where the audience is large and logged on. Over time we can learn who is traveling where because of their geo location. If we advertise to you today we could keep an eye on you for a year and see when you come to New Zealand. That’s giving us confidence, and it’s giving us more efficiency and effectiveness in our advertising and messaging.

How is the way you are spending your advertising budget changing?

The only market where do a lot of traditional advertising is Australia. The reason is that New Zealand has a big footprint in terms of people wanting to travel from Australia; it’s low cost and easy. In just about every other market, everything we do is digital, or around 80 per cent is digital. We’re laser focused on people who are actively considering New Zealand as a place to visit.

Celebrity fathers and their boys at Te Puia in Rotorua.

Celebrity fathers and their boys at Te Puia in Rotorua.

To reach broader audiences, we’ll use PR. And depending on the market, we’ll use what is traditionally known as product placement. The biggest and best we’ve done is with China’s biggest reality TV show. We pitched it to be shot in New Zealand. Each episode reached over 70 million people. It was called Dad where are we going? [The show featured celebrity fathers and their children traveling around New Zealand to mystery destinations where they complete various tasks). Last year, it was biggest reality TV show in China.

What are your hopes for the next 12 months?

Compared to what we are hearing in other countries we’re incredibly confident. We have new connections to Buenos Aires, and there are now flights to Houston and other services to the US. There will be more services out of China too, and we’re looking to grow out of South Asia. We think it’s going to be a record year for tourism in New Zealand.


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