Since the 1920s, there has been a market consensus that branding is vital for industry. We had the international emergence of brands that are household names now – Dr. Pepper, Campbell’s, Heinz, General Motors, Uncle Bens etc. In 1988, brands suddenly became equitable in themselves – when Phillip Morris purchased Kraft for 1.2 billion dollars, which was six times its value on paper. They paid a huge amount simply for brand ‘Kraft’.
Since then, the vast majority of spending for companies went directly into advertising. This created an environment where less ‘things’ were made, but brands became eternal. This is now the norm.
Naomi Klein mentioned all of this in her book “No Logo”. The reason I raise this story now is because branding has once again entered public discussion, and it needs to be said that this could benefit us greatly. I will admit I’m no great fan of this method of advertising or the monopolies it creates. It manipulates consumers and edges out local competition. Yet, branding could now be one of our greatest assets.
Stephan Browning, who is a retiring Green MP, had a private members bill for mandatory country of origin labelling which recently passed its first reading unanimously. While this is the first of many hurdles it must jump, it signals some enthusiasm for the idea. The reason I support it is simple. It stimulates local economy, giving a brand (New Zealand) the ability to compete with international companies who, through sheer size and pricing capacity, muscle their way into our kitchen. It also makes it easier for consumers who may not be aware that they are purchasing form countries who breach human rights law, for example Malaysia and child labour. When you look at a product, it is hard to specify exactly where it comes from. This bill will clarify exactly where you are buying from. This would hopefully increase demand, and consequently supply, for local products.
Our branding, and the way we use it, is important for New Zealand and Hawke’s Bay. It can provide clarity and give shoppers a clear choice.
In Hawke’s Bay our “GM Free” brand is worth hundreds of millions. In one transaction alone there was a 30% mark-up of value when selling to a foreign market simply because Hawke’s Bay apples are organic. Browning’s mandatory labelling idea will supplement our GM-Free brand internationally, and it will provide incentive for local growers and producers. Simply, it makes it easier for anyone to access a very competitive market with some kind of advantage. Hopefully it will break the stranglehold some brands have.
It is important to note that branding also plays a role in our environment. Any government needs to focus on is our “clean, green” brand. The Ministry for the Environment valued this valued this at billions of dollars, and tourism is arguably our biggest national drawcard. Currently, this government is failing to preserve that status and the story of our failing environment is being told all over the world. If we accept the narrative of a brand being to our benefit, than it makes sense to preserve our ecological systems and our natural environment. To protect our environment is not only the right thing to do morally, but economically also.
Branding is important. If this is the way the world works, then we should do our best to be the better for it. The bill put forward by Browning would work only in our favour – New Zealand companies, and even individuals who enter the market, would find their products proudly displayed with a “New Zealand” label. Personally, I would rather buy from a local producer if everything else was equal. We see the scandals of global companies driven by profit, and we choose not to purchase from them if possible. Say what you will, but there are better forms of accountability for exploitation in New Zealand than in many places around the world.
Naomi Klein mentioned that less ‘things’ were being produced because companies poured money into branding and cemented that as their main driver of profit.
I believe that we can do both. We can use our brand to boost investment in local industries, produce more and take solace in the knowledge that we can harness the power of branding for the benefit of the people and the environment.
Damon Rusden is a chef, journalist and law student with an avid belief in civic education and accountability. He is also a Green Party candidate.