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The FernMark, KiwiBuild and Three Waters logos, surrounded by questions marks
Image: Tina Tiller

PoliticsApril 13, 2023

Three Waters, KiwiBuild and the limits of branding

The FernMark, KiwiBuild and Three Waters logos, surrounded by questions marks
Image: Tina Tiller

It has become a toxic political brand, so Three Waters is being buried. Duncan Greive asks why it needed a name and a logo at all.

“Fundamentally, it’s about water infrastructure.” With that, prime minister Chris Hipkins signalled that Three Waters, the name, was dead, and would resurface with a much less exciting new brand. “Let’s call it what it is,” he said. “It’s about making sure we have affordable water infrastructure improvements.” 

Three Waters first surfaced as a name in 2018, but over time acquired a whole brand and campaign. Over the past year it has became politically toxic, due to a bundle of fears around the dispossession of local ownership and a paranoia-inducing phrase, co-governance. It has become this term’s KiwiBuild – a central, decades’-long policy which foundered in part because decades’-long policies, as the name implies, take decades to show their worth. 

Yet that only explains part of the failure. Three Waters and KiwiBuild also ran into trouble because in creating shiny brands to sell the policies, they also provided a handy shorthand for opposition politicians, gallery journalists and conspiratorial social media accounts to discuss them. Each points to the severe downsides which exist to this government’s growing desire to wrap brands around policy work and the public service. 

Where brands make sense…

The idea is superficially appealing – create a name and sometimes a design scheme which makes ordinary working people really feel the value for money they get for their taxes. There is also a clear political upside too. When a piece of reform sticks, it continues to be associated with your party long after you leave power. 

When you think of the fifth Labour government of Helen Clark and Michael Cullen, you also think of KiwiSaver and Working for Families – two trademark policies which have endured for multiple governments. Each is now part of the super-brand that is Labour, the record it can cite to ask you to trust it to govern again each election cycle. 

The state is strewn with examples of brands, with an overall architecture and official guidance on how to use the New Zealand Government Identity. The FernMark, that ubiquitous black and white symbol used on thousands of export products, is a closely guarded, government controlled brand. Agencies from NZ on Air to Work and Income exist to provide a way for audiences and clients to engage with the state and its outputs within specific areas. The job of the public service would be somewhere between difficult and impossible without the ability to wrap names and logos around its work.

The ubiquitous FernMark branding

…And where they don’t

Still, there is a limit to the usefulness of branding within the public sector, which Three Waters and KiwiBuild chillingly illustrate. Three Waters came from from a universally acknowledged issue, in that our drinking water is literally killing people, and our sewage is flowing in the streets. Likewise, KiwiBuild arose out of rampant house price inflation which left working people unable to afford to buy or rent an adequate home, and our most vulnerable living in cars.

There is no political constituency attempting to defend the status quo here. Where Labour has got itself into trouble is in wrapping a brand around its intention to fix something, as opposed to the finished product. The problems exist because they are very hard to fix, thus it was near-inevitable that the fix would not go smoothly. Opponents would say that they compounded this by over-promising to a near fantastical degree in KiwiBuild’s case, or over-complicating in Three Waters’. But regardless, the work was made far harder precisely because there was the convenient hook of a brand around which to hold the conversation.

It’s worth considering a counterfactual where, as Hipkins now suggests, Three Waters was called the “water infrastructure reforms” from the start. It’s hard to imagine signs protesting that phrase alongside our rural highways, nor the debate around them leading the news. The idea that the governance of an arcane piece of infrastructure reform would be a multi-month open wound of a news story defies belief. The government spent $3.5m on a contentious and later dropped ad campaign to push the reforms, one which seems to have only served to calcify suspicion around them.

Sometimes the best brand is no brand at all

This is also illustrative of a broader truth about branding, in that its function is becoming more perilous and sometimes harder to justify in this new media era. When a single TikTok can cause lasting chaos for an individual or organisation, there is something to be said for simply being absent from those services unless it’s absolutely unavoidable. The official Facebook page for Three Waters Reform Programme NZ has a paltry 1,200 follows, and has neither posted nor advertised since August of last year, perhaps because the comments are exactly as enlightened as you would expect them to be.

Much of this only happened because the political decision was made to brand the reforms, rather than allow them to plod through as a meat-and-two-veg policy programme. Were that to have happened, they might still have got into trouble, but it would be that routine background noise typified by the RMA reforms, rather than the hurricane strength conspiracy-creating vortex that has enveloped Three Waters. 

It feels telling that the one enormous communications success of the current Labour government had a very different dynamic. The admired and awarded Unite Against Covid-19 campaign had an immediate and time-bound goal, and the function of communications to achieve it was unimpeachable. 

The same cannot be said for KiwiBuild or Three Waters. Nor, for example, the expensive Corrections ad campaign forced off air by the ASA due to “white saviour narratives”. It tends to suggest that this government’s reliance on highly engineered communications as needing to be baked into all facets of its work has run too far, and should be deployed much more judiciously in future. Hipkins’ rebranding of Three Waters as a yawn-inducing infrastructure reform programme could be seen as the start of a new campaign to make the public service boring again. Counterintuitively, becoming more invisible might be one thing which actually restores faith in the whole institution.

Keep going!