Australia's brand

Last month we began writing a regular column on branding for The Melbourne Review. This first of our articles begins an exploration of the state of ‘brand Australia‘.

Yes, we escaped the financial meltdown of 2008 relatively unscathed – but to a large degree, this was gifted to us by the strength of the current resources boom. However, the resulting two-speed economy is, by default, shaping significant industry re-structuring.

The booming resources-fueled Australian dollar is also beginning to shape our future. Exporters and import competing businesses are finding it more and more difficult to compete, simply because whatever previously defined their competitive edge has been significantly discounted. In terms of foreign trade, the two star performers, education and tourism, are being seriously squeezed.

branding agencyPaul Cleary, in his recent book Too Much Luck: The Mining Boom and Australia’s Future (Black Inc.) cites that numerous studies around the world over a long period have found an inverse relationship between natural resource endowments and overall prosperity. He argues there is a broader effect that takes place as resource wealth drives the local currency up and sucks the life out of the rest of the economy.

Add to this what economist Michael Spence highlights in his book The Next Convergence: The Future Economic Growth in a Multispeed World – that many advanced western economies, like the US, are only showing employment growth in what he refers to as ‘non tradeable’ industries, such as health care and Government. In Australia we have a similar trend, with the biggest job growth in the four years since Labor came to power being the 250,000 jobs that have shifted into the healthcare and social assistance sector, along with 103,000 jobs added to public administration and safety. In the 1960s, social assistance transfers amounted to around 4% of GDP in Australia, now they have doubled to 8%.

Spence also highlights the role that globalisation and technology are playing in moving the world closer to a single market for labour. The movement of work abroad in the search of lower labour costs is no longer confined to manufacturing, but also now includes white collar jobs from computer programming, to copy-writing and back office legal tasks.

Add to these structural changes the cry from the business sector that Australia in a more general sense is losing the battle to be internationally competitive, and has become a high-cost, low productivity country, complacent about what is needed to secure its prosperity. Business Council of Australia president Tony Shepherd summed up their mindset (and frankly also ours) brilliantly when he said Australians were adopting a ‘magic pudding approach’ to the economy, relying on the resources boom rather than taking difficult decisions to boost competitiveness.

The world has changed enormously in the past few decades and we need to change with it, but we are lacking a coherent game plan. A game plan that puts sectorial self interest aside and adopts a nationwide mindset as to how we should forge our future together. We are therefore advocating that the nation’s major stakeholders come together and adopt a nation branding mindset. True branding, not in the sense of logo or a strap line, but where all key stakeholders within Australia engage in structured conversations about our future. Representatives from industry, Government, NGOs, the arts, education, health, agriculture, media and other relevant sectors, along with members of the wider community need to participate in deep, factual and informed dialogue around the desired pathways for building Australia’s future prosperity.

We all intuitively understand the role brands play in our purchase decisions. What we need to do now is expand our brand paradigm to the context of the brand owner, and the planning and decision making involved in successfully building a brand. Australia is our brand, we all own it, and the question is how we are going to responsibly develop it.

When one reflects on the public utterances about concerns over Australia’s economic future, it is all a little one-dimensional. It is largely focused on the need to increase productivity and remove bureaucratic red tape. There is an underlying tone that implies that whatever needs to be done, it is someone else’s responsibility to do it. However, an authentic and rigorous nation branding project has the power to imbue a shared sense of responsibility for the future prosperity of Australia.

Finland published its brand plan for the future in 2010. As a case study it is notable not just because of the noble and inspiring mission it has set for itself, but also because it is a reminder that in the competitive frontier of globalisation our competitors are turning their mind to how they wish to position themselves relative to Australia and other countries. It also provides us with a useful model of how to weave culture, social conscience and commerce into a holistic vision for the future.

Interestingly, over the years Australia has been referenced in various marketing publications as a country that has undertaken successful nation branding. But from our perspective it has never truly moved beyond positioning Australia as a remarkable tourist destination (which it is). However, the speed of globalisation on every front calls for a far more comprehensive brand mindset. And fast. We need a game plan capable of directing our focus and investments.

Which industries and infrastructure do we build? What capabilities and knowledge do we nurture? How do we increase productivity and share the rewards? What is it about our products and services that positions them positively in world markets? How do we transfer the economic wealth we are currently generating from mining into a foundation for the prosperity of future generations?

Australia is our collective brand. We have a shared responsibility to actively manage its future prosperity. We need to get cracking; we need to start the conversation in earnest today.

Peter Singline & Dave Ansett
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