2012 State of the NZ Merino Industry–Part I–Fibre & Brand

As part of my ongoing cultural research into NZ merino, today I attended the NZ Merino Company Conference, which brought in about 600 people.

The first session introduced us to NZM’s fibre partners.

From Italy, Reda, Loro Piana, Cariaggi and Rewoolution.

From the UK, Johnstons of Elgin and John Smedley.

From Germany, Südwolle.

From Japan, Nikke.

From China, Erdos (“There are more millionaire households in China than there are people in NZ!”).

From the USA, Smartwool and Ibex.

And from NZ, Icebreaker, Designer Textiles and Armadillo.

I was really impressed by the Armadillo folks–who make “merino armor” for soldiers, firefighters and other “professional risk takers.” They saw the horrifying burns that so many soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered because they were wearing synthetic base layers and got caught in IED explosions; rather than melting into the skin, merino effectively puts out the fire. (Soldiers aren’t supposed to wear synthetics in combat situations for this very reason, but it still happens.)

As an industry clearly invested in luxury markets, I was really surprised that NZM didn’t jump at the chance to partner with the VUW scientists who embedded gold and silver nano-particles in merino. I was also surprised that we didn’t get to see any medical products. As someone who, for the rest of my life, will need to wear hardcore compression socks while flying, let me just say that Encircle socks are full of win.

But NZ Merino is also moving into mid-micron fibres for the interiors market, and there were some lovely–see above and below–handmade rugs from Ascend. These folks also demoed a very nifty QR code-based (I think) iPad app that allows designers to visualise what a particular rug would look like in a space.

NZM’s Zque (pronounced “zee-queue”) brand is at the heart of all these partnerships.

What is Zque?


Zque App

As you can see from the video above, their app is a bit like Icebreaker’s baacode, but for your phone. Given the sentiment that QR codes kind of suck and people don’t actually use them, as well as the recent buzz around Google’s Project Glass, it’s not surprising that they want to be moving onto some sort of augmented reality app. But let’s hope that NZM avoid gimmicky marketing and instead go for some quality interactive storytelling like in Copenhagen Museum’s VÆGGEN project–which is already a couple of years old and still more awesome than a lot of new design I see.

But the important point here is that these folks really know their brand. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many photos of alpine mountains and crystalline lakes and big dramatic skies and flocks of sheep flowing majestically across the landscape. NZ Merino is sold as the world’s purest fibre from the world’s purest environment; it is all about authenticity.

One of the most interesting moments of the brand discussion was when CEO John Brakenridge showed the clip from Food Inc. on how chicken is produced today. Explaining how powerful social media is in getting people to think/worry that all agriculture is like this, Brakenridge said that NZM needs to make sure that they show a different story, the real story of how they’re different.

Of course, one of the cool real stories is that merino is biodegradable and NZM did a great job of showing what that looks like:

But let’s get back to the market they’ve actively claimed. NZM targets customers who want to know where their clothes come from, what the farmers are like and how the animals are treated. Ethical consumerism is more complex than they seem to think, but perhaps that doesn’t matter. There are great stories to be told, and they work hard to tell them.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if all the focus on purity and authenticity and ethics doesn’t miss the stories that are more complicated and less aesthetically appealing–and maybe even more interesting and valuable.

I’m also not sure how they’ll be able to maintain their brand identity if they plan to respond affirmatively to today’s demand from their fibre partners: “WE NEED MORE WOOL!”

Next: 2012 State of the NZ Merino Industry–Part II–Beyond Wool & The Role of Science & Tech