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Calm down, NZ Herald. The new Auckland slogan search was fine

Why is everyone hating on the Council’s latest attempt to sell Auckland to the world? Actually, is it everyone, asks Simon Wilson – or just the Herald and the other usual cynics?

No subject is more guaranteed to provoke ridicule than a city slogan. No ridicule is more likely to be attended by outrage than a slogan that cost too much. And no council is more likely to cause public offence for waste and stupidity than Auckland Council. Why is that?

The Herald reported last weekend, in that tone of weary scorn it adopts whenever the council spends any money on anything, that the council has wasted $500,000 on a new slogan for the city. The slogan is: “Auckland: The place desired by many”.

Quite why the Herald, and its Super City reporter Bernard Orsman in particular, seems to feel it necessary to sneer at everything the council does is a mystery. There’s lots the council does that’s wrong, but if the paper was able to discern a difference between valuable and truly wasteful spending it would be far more effective in helping to shut down the latter.

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

So, what really happened? First, it’s the job of ATEED (Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development), the council’s promotion arm, to sell the city to the world. Auckland wants businesses to set up here and investors to help them. It wants migrants ready to help grow the economy and events that attract visitors who will spend money. It wants tourists.

None of that will happen as much as we need it to unless the city promotes itself abroad. So the city needs a marketing strategy. That’s what the half a mill has been spent on: developing a campaign to attract people and money into the city. Is kneejerk complaint really the right response to that?

This is no rogue CCO operating independently, either. The governing body of council charged ATEED with the task and reaffirmed that instruction as recently as July this year. ATEED has kept the governing body and its relevant committees informed of progress and councillors have supported that progress.

ATEED’s campaign used to be called “Global Auckland” but that became “The Auckland Story”. Personally, I find it a bit loathsome that advertising people have become so obsessed with “telling our story”. Such stories are designed to make us feel sentimentally attached to a product while distracting us from whatever undesirable qualities it may have. Stories used to have a higher purpose than that.

It’s not the only way to sell a city, or anything else. “Absolutely Positively Wellington” didn’t have a story. But these days stories work, clearly, because they keep producing them. We all now live with the stories of coffee, telcos, jeans, even charities.

Because of that, ATEED would be stupid not to create an Auckland Story.

So how did it spend $500,000? Not on a slogan, but on the whole project. It was a two-year spend. They surveyed 55,000 people. Did a lot of research with public and private sector groups with an interest in the city. You know, the “stakeholders”. My suspicion? Maybe too many focus groups, but I’ll cheerily admit I have an aversion to them. They ran a successful social media campaign with the slogan LoveAKL. And they developed the story – that is, employed people who know how to write a narrative and create the audio/visual communication tools to present it.

Was the cost too high? I don’t know. The Herald doesn’t, either. It made no attempt to benchmark the spend against any other similar campaign. But, for the record, when the current New Zealand government went through a similar exercise to create the “New Zealand story” it spent $2 million.

Was Global Auckland a good project? We don’t know that either, because we don’t yet know enough about what’s in it.

Should the council engage in projects like this? From time to time, of course it should.

There was more. The Herald complained 115 people had worked on the project, which was simply untrue. There were, says ATEED, three people, and a bunch more staff turned up to a “one-hour brainstorming session”. Anyone with even a glimmer of understanding of modern business will know that was a good idea. When you invite staff to contribute creatively to projects, rather than assuming the bosses and the specialists have all the good ideas, it’s productive for the project and for the organisation.

Since the Herald story broke it’s been disheartening to watch the response of some of those close to the project. Michael Barnett, head of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Global Auckland advisory committee, said, “We don’t need a bumper sticker strategy”. Instead, he suggested, we should create “a compelling Auckland story”. Dear god. Was he asleep at the meetings or did he just not turn up?

The Ngāti Whātua Trust Board complained “a lot of time and money could have been saved by simply engaging with iwi and the community”. Perhaps Ngarimu Blair, representing Ngāti Whātua on the advisory board, was also asleep, or absent, or both, because that’s exactly what ATEED did.

As for Cr Rent-a-Quack, Dick Quax, he called the whole exercise “an outrageous raping of the ratepayer”. Listen, Dick. You can’t talk about rape like that. And you were on the council when it voted for the project. And you believe in business development, don’t you?

New mayor Phil Goff has distanced himself from the project, which he had no part in creating. His response is understandable but also disappointing, and he must feel like he got whacked on the back of the head when he wasn’t looking. Understandable because this is not a fight he needs to pick so early in his tenure. Disappointing because overseeing the way Auckland sells itself to the world is an important part of his job, and he can’t hide from that.

Whacked on the back of the head because it was his introduction, if he needed it, to the reality of being a mayor or council in this town. Which is this. Whenever you try to do something there will be a whole bunch of people, some of whom you thought had helped you do it, who will stand on the sidelines and just keep shouting “Bullshit!” The Herald will be conducting them.

As for the slogan itself, sadly, it’s not great. But there’s no such thing as a new city slogan that everyone will like. It does have the advantage that it invites the curious to find out why the city is popular. That’s good.

But it isn’t snappy so it won’t be memorable. And it isn’t distinctive: all good cities are desired by many. What distinctiveness it does have is buried in its origins, as the supposed translation of Tāmaki Makaurau, the Māori name for Auckland. That is disingenuous.

“Desired by many” is a new meaning for makaurau. Makau is a word for lovers, or sometimes favourites, and rau means a hundred, or more loosely, an awful lot.  ATEED’s own website gives the translation as “Tāmaki desired by many lovers”, and Te Ara, the official New Zealand encyclopedia, refers both to “numerous lovers” and “a thousand lovers”.

The city of a thousand lovers is a brilliant slogan, which in its innocent form totally conjures a city the whole world would want to live in. Alas, we are not innocents. A city defined by everyone cruising for sex? Not so good. Besides, “city of lovers” doesn’t quite have the breadth of purpose the council needs. Not to mention, there’s the small matter of our being the city whose former mayor gave lovers everywhere a very bad name.

So, basing the slogan on a Māori proverb? Good. Sanitising the proverb in translation? That’s a flawed way to build a reputation, especially as the new version is far less evocative than the real one. #Desiredbynotmanyifany

The tricky thing about developing a slogan is that you could put 100 overpaid advertising geniuses in a room for a week and they still might fail to come up with a single good idea. But a clever person might think of the perfect line in the shower tomorrow morning. Creativity, damn it, is fickle.

The fact is, though, the campaign isn’t dependent on the slogan. Auckland needs to sell itself, ATEED is the right body to lead that process, and telling a good story is a good way to do it. Back to the shower cubicle for the slogan, please, and for Christ’s sake don’t get a focus group in there with you.

But as for the project itself, let’s be having it. Because Auckland, we know we need to compete and we’re down here at the bottom of the Pacific but we’re not really, are we? Because aren’t we going to become the leading edge?

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