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Kiwi Code #3: Social Equivalence

Couple standing infront of house

New Zealand is an equitable and egalitarian country. Right?

In a nutshell

  1. Everyone has a role to play in achieving social equivalence and brands are expected to step into theirs.
  2. Small changes add up. Do what you can as a business, and New Zealanders will appreciate it. 
  3. The code has shifted from less levelling up and more widening the field of equality.

New Zealanders certainly want to believe this is the case. Social equivalence as a cultural code is still as significant as it was when we first researched the Kiwi Codes five years ago – but now, we’re starting to see a more nuanced understanding of what this really means.

Everyone has the right to fair go

The term ‘social equivalence’ encapsulates New Zealanders’ acute sense of fairness. We believe in respect and fairness for all. This is embedded into our identity as a nation and hasn’t changed in the past five years: we still believe in and want social equivalence.

Only in a country where social equivalence is a strong cultural code could a television show about consumer complaints being addressed and rectified enjoy four and a half decades on air. Fair Go is the nation's second longest-running programme after Country Calendar, with questions of how many biscuits in a packet – or bits of hokey pokey in ice cream – being treated seriously, because no one who believes in fairness likes being ripped off.

Our fondness for social equivalence is clear in other television appearances, too. In ASB’s Good as Gold, a TVNZ segment of 7 Sharp, ordinary people are celebrated for their work within their community. Gayle and Gary Dickinson were recognised for their selfless efforts to make up to 15 shopping trips a day to help the elderly or housebound during COVID lockdowns. The actions of everyday, unpaid people doing their bit to help others in the community resonates strongly due to the social equivalence code.

Now, we’re seeing a real desire for social equivalence to drill down deeper – New Zealanders want good quality biscuits for their money, but they also want to see fundamental social equity creating a level playing field for everyone.

Dialling up fairness

Many New Zealanders’ belief in fairness stems from a historical idea of being a classless society. This was a country where many believed that if you worked hard, you could succeed.

Today, there are greater divides in culture and wealth that put up barriers to fairness which can't be ignored. Real social equivalence runs deeper than treating everyone with day-to-day respect - it also involves looking at the fairness of the system itself.

Since we first identified social equivalence as a cultural code there has been a growing awareness of the systemic change needed to achieve a level playing field. There is a difference between equality and equity. Some have long been acutely aware of this difference, but many New Zealanders are just starting to understand the distinction and realise just how uneven the playing field really is.

The stark reality – within New Zealand society there often isn’t fairness for all – has been thrown into relief. As a nation, we’re starting to face up to the fact social equivalence needs to be addressed with substantial measures. However, understanding is a double-edged sword: with more understanding comes greater tension.

We are seeing changes, such as adoption of te reo Māori into the mainstream and more celebration of the rainbow community than ever before. But there is a sense of unease that some issues, such as racial equality and quality of life for lower income people, are being swept under the carpet. 

The COVID-19 pandemic intensified many New Zealanders’ growing awareness of social inequities. The exceptional circumstances of the past few years have cast a light on the yawning gaps in our society. Now, as we navigate a difficult economic situation, there is a heightened level of anxiety and uncertainty around the size of the problem that needs tackling.

In response, there is great loyalty to people who take the lead in their respective areas. Girls That Invest, for example, are acting as leaders by financially educating and empowering women and have earned themselves leagues of devoted fans.

Small changes can add up over time 

New Zealanders might beat themselves up for not having reached an ideal state of equity, but we’re still doing well on the world stage.

New migrants and certain ethnic groups still view New Zealand as a positive and hopeful place of opportunities, with an egalitarian society compared to other countries.

New Zealanders’ focus on and desire for social equivalence can be a key factor in driving organisations to be more active in facilitating change, leading to positive outcomes in the long run.

For brands, social equivalence challenges are too significant and too important for New Zealanders to ignore.

The government and communities have been pushing for change in the past few years. While this is a step in the right direction, change is slow and it’s felt that there is a lot of talk and not much action.

Brands can show their commitment to social equivalence by taking measurable actions. People are looking to companies to participate in society and be part of fixing the problems they see. They don’t want handouts or band-aid solutions, they want to see genuine engagement in bettering society for everyone. Everyone has a role to play and brands are expected to step into theirs.

Brands and organisations are not expected to solve all the issues that get in the way of equality but they do have to acknowledge them. Taking small steps in the right direction – in ways authentic to your brand – can go a long way toward cultivating respect in consumers.

One example is The Warehouse’s healthy heater swap, recycling old unflued gas bottle heaters with free electric ones. The Warehouse might not be able to solve the problem of cold housing, but they can play a small part in making sure all New Zealanders have access to healthier heating.

Meanwhile, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei signed a deal with NIB Insurance and is now able to offer all 5,000 registrants free health insurance.

More and more businesses are getting on board with TupuToa, an internship programme helping to foster young Māori and Pasifika leaders by giving them opportunities to work within large corporations where they have traditionally been excluded. Datacom, Fletcher Building, Foodstuffs, Suncorp and Countdown are among the sponsors of the programme.

Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA
Colleen has a curious and strategic mindset fueled by 40 years of experience in business across Europe, North America and APAC countries. With a fascination and deep understanding of what it is to be human, specifically applying principles from cultural sociology, social psychology, behavioural science, and cultural analysis, she brings breakthrough insights to brand strategy, creative development and customer centricity.

Understand the forces of culture and shape radical ideas

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