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Why Kiwi exporters don’t tell stronger stories

In May 2003, in an office in New York, Martin Gold the president of Martin Scott Wines Ltd, which then had a portfolio of 300 wineries, looked at me and said about New Zealand:

“The people are dynamic and exciting, the country is beautiful and the product is wonderful. I fell in love with all of it. You have a great story to tell.”
Why then do many of our exporters tell weak stories?

Perceptions research by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise shows that in all our main markets Kiwi exporters are perceived as underselling themselves. They are not developing strong emotional connections through persuasive storytelling.

In a study of exporters’ websites recently, I noticed that three key elements in good storytelling were repeatedly missing:

  • market demand was not stated
  • interesting detail about the main players in the company was absent
  • where the New Zealand location was highlighted, it was not used to show how it shaped products and services.

By articulating the ‘market pull’, exporters build a bridge with prospective customers. Even some of our leading exporters don’t profile the market demand on their website.

For example, one of our honey exporters talks only of the quality of their honey. They don’t talk about how in stressful societies, where people are trying to stay healthy and active longer, manuka honey has ingredients that will help them – and yet that is really the hook for their product.

Many exporters have few details about their main people. You will just see their name and title, or perhaps, “My grandfather established Smith & Sons in 1926. Two generations later, we are still going strong.” Now, there is a compelling story under there – it’s just not told.

On the other hand, Icebreaker and Trilogy are both good at weaving personal anecdotes into their stories. “Our father arrived chainsaw in hand to carve a great hole in the wall between our two offices,” the Trilogy sisters Sarah and Catherine write. Interested? Anecdotes are vital detail in a good story.

All exporters know that New Zealand has a strong perception overseas as being ‘clean and green’. Companies that want to be associated with that image need to demonstrate, however, how it shapes their products and services. NZLavender shows with images of Canterbury fields how they create its lavender oil. But a textile manufacturer that featured scenic images of Horowhenua made no link between its setting and its textiles, other than to say they were manufactured there.

Why are these three elements repeatedly missing in good stories? There are several possible reasons.

One is because to do it well you do need the perspective of an outside writer to dig for and identify what is interesting. It’s hard, skilled work writing in a style that demonstrates and shows, rather than one that under or overstates.

Another reason is New Zealanders’ modesty and understatement – we don’t talk about ourselves as easily as say Americans do. But have a care, that understatement can be misinterpreted in overseas markets as being conceited, giving an impression that we’re not ready to empathise with customers’ situations.

Building a personal story means you also have to put yourself on the line, and that’s scary for all of us.

In reviewing your story ask, “Would that touch a customer as a person?” That’s the key to any good story. It’s also the hardest part to get right.



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