New Zealand

Too much Kiwiana?

by on 23/09/2013

Why would I want a picture of a Tui on my tea bags? Does a graffiti of NZ flaura and fauna really make a concrete parking building any less ugly? Does a kowhai flower on the front of coffee packaging make it ‘ours’?

It seems to me that a lazy reliance on kiwiana motifs in design is on the increase.

As designers do we really want to be part of an industry that says, “If you’ve run out of ideas, just stick a cheeky kea on the front and say, ‘G’day broNo.8 fence wire,’ and every good kiwi will come and buy it?

I’ve been guilty of it too. When the client has a tiny budget, wants it yesterday, and the product has virtually no point of difference over its international counterpart, it’s easy to pull out the good old kiwi/koru concepts. In fact, in one recent brief for a product to be sold internationally when I asked what the USP of the product was I was told, “It’s kiwi.” That’s not a USP, that’s a country of origin!

The thing that worries me is that some people seem to see using clichéd symbols of kiwiana for commercial purposes as some sort of way to show national pride. We laugh at the Brits with their pictures of the Queen on a packet of biscuits, or worse still the Americans with their stars and stripes on… well, just about any American product. Do we really want our design industry to go down that route?

I get that as New Zealanders we should promote New Zealand made products and achievements. We’ve done a lot of work with Buy New Zealand Made and are proud to use kiwi imagery to celebrate innovative local businesses. The campaign is called Buy New Zealand Made therefore kiwi related imagery is relevent.

New Zealand Made

New Zealand Made


My objection is in the way we accept kiwiana imagery used on irrelevant products. I struggle to see why we have a tui in the Southern Alps on the box of Twinings New Zealand Breakfast tea? The tea was grown in Asia, and Twinings is an English company. Apparently it’s been blended to ‘our tastes’. Really? It tastes exactly like English Breakfast tea to me. But, because it has a native bird on the pack, I feel compelled to choose it over the non-NZ brands. Similarly Robert Harris has Espresso Roma packs with a Fantail on the front — something of a mixed message there, surely?

espresso roma

Espresso Roma

Twinings Breakfast Tea

Twinings Breakfast Tea


Of course, Kiwiana has its place — in tourist shops, or when promoting something uniquely kiwi overseas. The America’s Cup venue in San Francisco was awash with kiwi imagery, and quite rightly so. It was an opportunity to sell the charm and innovation of our country in a land that’s largely ignorant that we even exist. Therefore the clichés of sheep, the colour black, and kiwi birds were used to represent our points of difference over the other nations competing. I loved the Waiheke Island Yacht Club’s branding at the Americas Cup — celebrating our identity with wit and style out in the world.

Waiheke Island Yacht Club

Waiheke Island Yacht Club


So go ahead, celebrate our identity, tell the world we’re great, just think about whether a product really is uniquely Kiwi before you pull out the Kiwiana.



Nigel Smith


Nigel Smith leads Transformer, a small but perfectly formed Auckland studio, producing design-led, expertly crafted, strategic brand solutions. He has over 20 years design experience, starting in London working on brand identities, CDs, exhibition graphics, brochures and magazines. He then came to NZ in ’99 and worked for various Auckland design companies before starting Transformer in 2002. Transformer have always had an eclectic mix of clients and projects encompassing real estate, healthcare, professional services, retail, music, non-profit and more. Nigel says he loves the variety of design work in NZ:
“One day we’re doing a brand ID for a Buddhist Monastery, the next it’s a website for the Hilton in Surfers Paradise!”

Nigel is a professional member of DINZ. He’s old enough to remember designing pre-Mac but still has a youthful enthusiasm whenever a new brief comes through the door. He’s an artist (which means he sometimes arrives at client briefings with oil paint on his car and his person). He’s also a pom so don’t get him started on football or the weather.


Comments (8)

  1. 11:11 am, September 9 2013

    The Tui is an attempt to ingratiate Twinings into our cultural heritage like a visual retrovirus. You don’t have to be a replicant to have embedded memories.

  2. 8:48 pm, September 9 2013

    Enjoyed this thx. Bit surprised that, having written this nice reflective piece, you feel compelled to buy the one with the native bird on it! Gary and my new book (see link) showcases about 800 images from early NZ advertising and, overall, there was v.limited use pre 1960s of what we’d now call kiwiana. Just another trend passing through? Unrelated, I personally thought the Waiheki gig in SF was a bit under-NZ-ed in its design (incl lack of NZ wine!) but a nice venture nonetheless.

    • 3:15 pm, September 9 2013

      Thanks Peter. Your book looks great – very interesting. You’re dead right that it’s strange that I felt compelled to buy the one with the native bird but I suppose that’s the dilemma that made me write this in the first place.

  3. Vicky
    6:25 am, September 9 2013

    Interestingly, on the other side of the world in the UK I’m seeing just the opposite: NZ brands such as Anchor and Canterbury (yes, I did a double take when I saw Canterbury NZ clothing all around me!) deliberately tuning down their Kiwiness. Canterbury NZ is now just Canterbury (I suspect leading some people here to assume it means the UK place) and Anchor merely says it’s made in the UK with no mention of where the butter came from!

    • 4:15 pm, September 9 2013

      Thanks Vicky. That’s very interesting. I haven’t been to the UK for a few years. Last time I was there my UK relatives seemed to have very good things to say about NZ products and had definitely picked up the clean green, high quality, boutique etc kind of messages around food and wine products. I had no idea Canterbury were in the UK market.

    • 4:48 am, September 9 2013

      In the last few years in the UK there’s been a massive push for local food and a big backlash against food miles which is why Anchor is keen to appear less Kiwi. Supermarket labelling, particularly of fresh fruit and veg, even gets down to county-specific geography, and the Union Jack is displayed prominently. One of the only products ‘proudly New Zealand’ is wine.

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