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CMO50 2020 #26-50: Susan Coghill

  • Name Susan Coghill
  • Title Chief marketing officer
  • Company Tourism Australia
  • Commenced role May 2019
  • Reporting Line MD, Pip Harrison
  • Member of the Executive Team Yes
  • Marketing Function 5 direct reports; 40 in team
  • Industry Sector Tourism
  • 2019 ranking New to CMO50
  • Related

    Brand Post

    Pausing a high profile, multi-million-dollar campaign in-market soon after launch, and just as it was getting great traction, was both a heartbreaking but very necessary decision, for Susan Coghill and Tourism Australia. And it was just the first of many pivots in 2020. “Within a matter of weeks, we had created an entirely new domestic unit within our business and launched an entirely new campaign to galvanise the nation to support the tourism industry in its recovery from the impacts of devastating summer bushfires,” Coghill told CMO. “Exhausting and motivating at the same time.”

    The previous 12 months were intense with the development of a new brand campaign, production of Matesong for the UK, the pivot to domestic marketing while working to repair Australia’s destination brand image overseas after the bushfires. And then when faced with yet another crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic that directly impacted the tourism industry in a such devastating way, the team need to scenario plan, develop response strategies, re-strategise, engage partners and produce creative marketing solutions to inspire Australians and help rally and support the industry through really tough times.

    Marketing effectiveness

    “Australia’s tourism industry has faced its most challenging period in history over the past nine months, with the devastating summer bushfires dealing a hammer blow, even before the COVID-19 hit,” Coghill said. When the global pandemic closed international borders, the temptation would have been to go quiet. “Instead, I led our organisation’s bold response with clear objectives to ramp up domestic marketing for the first time in eight years, to build demand in the short-term and keep international demand high for when borders reopen,” she explained.

    And while this period has presented challenges, it also presented some opportunities. “With TV viewership up 63 per cent, internet browsing up 70 per cent and live content viewership across social channels nearly tripling from March to April, we had a vast reservoir of people dreaming of their next escape,” she said.

    Tourism Australia launched two linked initiatives in this period. The ‘Love Australia Project’ aimed at domestic was a first-of-its-kind broadcast integration with The Project: a one hour special, telling the country’s tourism story - not just wonderful destinations but the amazing industry operators, who are the backbone of the tourism economy.

    And then ‘Live from Aus’ followed, which was the largest, most ambitious live-streaming event ever undertaken in the country, all during lockdown and with 32 diverse ‘virtual holidays’ live-streamed over a weekend. “From crocodile wrangling in the NT to Indigenous mud-crabbing experiences, we developed a bespoke livestream system that could ingest live feeds from any device; from professional multi-camera rigs in Manly to 4G enabled smartphones in the Outback. Each feed was piped into our custom broadcast studio, staffed around the clock by a specialist crew, who overlaid graphics and streamed simultaneously on Facebook, YouTube and,” she said.

    “The results have been fantastic: engaging 35 million people across 40 countries, generating 226 million social impressions and 1,765 pieces of media coverage and a 141 per cent increase in industry leads.”

    Influencing change

    Tourism Australia’s (TA) remit over the past eight years has been purely international. As the bushfires intensified, it needed to play a dual role: to stimulate domestic demand, while protecting international demand. Coghill said the domestic focus is crucial to offset the drastic decline in overseas visitors in the short-term, but also to ensure our tourism industry survives this crisis, ready and able to provide world-class experiences to future international visitors.

    “Without significantly increasing headcount, I have led a significant structural change within the business. Within days of the New Year’s fires, I divided our existing team into international and domestic pods and reassigned roles accordingly,” said. “I boosted resources for research and shifted the approach from infrequent snapshots to a more fluid, always-on approach,” she explained.

    From a standing start, TA has quickly established operating rhythms and lines of communications with its domestic counterparts, including weekly calls with the state tourism organisation CEOs and CMOs. “This rapid retasking of resources has meant that we managed to turn around our first domestic campaign ‘Holiday Here This Year’ in only a matter of weeks after the worst of the bushfires, while also maintaining our international focus,” she continued.

    “In order to make this happen, I allocated funding for the domestic campaign from our international markets, while working on TA’s business case for additional government funding. On 19 January, the Prime Minister of Australia announced a dedicated bushfire recovery package, including $61 million allocated to TA’s initiatives, with the PM saying Australian tourism is facing ‘its biggest challenge in living memory’.”

    Data-led marketing

    After pausing its Matesong campaign in early January Coghill drove the organisation’s four-stage recovery (Panic, Restricted Movement, Rising Optimism, Free Movement) to direct its marketing efforts. The challenge, however, was understanding exactly which stage of recovery each of its 15 international markets and Australia domestically was at. “With the bushfires and COVID-19 environments proving ‘fluid’ - literally changing by the second - our data needed to be timely, to say the least,” Coghill explained.

    “I established the Green Light Project dashboard to keep us, and our state partners, informed along the ever winding path to recovery. The dashboard pulls together data from existing TA sources as well as a range of custom- built feeds designed for the speed of the moment.” 

    The dashboard outlines the most important lead indicators, from border status, aviation capacity, forward bookings, travel search and consumer sentiment tracking to provide a robust and up-to-date view of the world. The dashboard is used by a variety of stakeholders from TA’s own market leads as well as state and industry organisations. The dashboard has also informed the strategy for our recovery campaigns. For example, the ‘Love from Aus’ campaign, a ray of Aussie optimism amongst the gloom, was aired in markets that showed significant levels of pessimism about the future. “It was named one of the most emotionally engaging ads during the pandemic, coming in at #3 in a global survey by Unruly (the highest of all Australian ads),” she said.

    CX capability

    As fires dominated news pages and news feeds around the world, with many of the images going viral, it raised awareness of the plight of our country, regional communities and wildlife, but it also served to fuel misperceptions.

    “Misperception of the extent of the bushfires quickly spiralled out of control. Existing travellers were cancelling trips to destinations like Cairns that were hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest fires,” said Coghill.

    “As ever, images tended to make the most impact. One in particular went viral and was shared by the likes of singer/ songwriter Rihanna (97 million Twitter followers, shared 71.5K times from her tweet, and liked 334K times). While it was captioned as a satellite photograph it was in fact a visualisation that dramatically and evocatively overstated the true extent of the fires.”

    TA’s response was simple, but incredibly effective. It developed an accurate fire map of Australia and housed it on a bushfire safety hub on The map was translated into seven languages, updated daily and served as an important factual resource for travellers, industry and media. “The safety hub and alert banners received 415,000 unique visitors and the bushfire map itself received 91,000 unique visitors with over 121,000 sessions,” she noted.

    “We had run some rapid global research to understand perceptions of the fires in early January and the results were staggering. Fully 61 per cent of international respondents believed that over half of the Australian continent had been directly impacted. The reality was only around 3 per cent. This insight combined with the fire map formed the basis for a concerted earned media blitz picked up by a multitude of foreign titles. The likes of The Washington Post, BBC, Forbes, the Straits Times, and The Telegraph (UK) featuring the myth-busting story prominently.”

    Commercial acumen

    TA has spent decades and invested over a billion dollars in Australia’s destination brand. However, right now, tourism operators are struggling to survive the next few months. “Never have the long, and the short, been more important,” Coghill noted. 

    “To cushion the blow of closed international borders I’ve focused our marketing efforts on the one place we can still activate short-term demand and keep at least some tills ringing - the domestic market.”

    The offering is ‘Holiday Here This Year’, a deliberately broad campaign designed to motivate all Australians to travel. “But I’ve also deliberately targeted segments within the domestic audience who are more responsive to travel in the short term, such as high-end travellers who are more insulated from the economic downturn,” she noted. “Our Luxury Escapes partnership has exceeded targets by 300 per cent and product views on their intrastate travel were up 180 per cent year on year.”

    In another pitch, road trips are perceived as a safer mode of travel during the pandemic. “We partnered with holiday rental company Stayz in July and achieved more than 90 per cent above target.”

    On the international side, to protect our investment in demand and possibly even steal the market share of competitors who have paused activity, TA has maintained activity in all 15 of its international markets. “I expect the ROI for this investment to be seen in the medium to long-term - an approach endorsed by Robert Brittain when launching his study with Peter Field,’ Winning or Losing in a Recession’.”

    “[Tourism Australia] are not spending as much as they were, but they are one of the ones that is still active out there, especially in the UK. There will be a lot of Poms wanting to come to Australia and brand building will pay off in the long term.”

    COVID-19 innovation

    TA’s rapid transition from ‘Matesong’ to ‘Holiday Here This Year’ is a story of ‘bold-meets-agile’, Coghill told CMO. “In December, I made our biggest investment in the UK for a decade. Just weeks later, I’d curtailed that campaign due to the worsening bushfires and then led the charge on Holiday Here this Year - a successful initiative to boost domestic demand,” she explained.

    “Matesong debuted on Christmas - a love song to a Brexit-weary Britain, featuring Kylie Minogue and preceding the Queen’s speech, it was designed to create impact and momentum in a key market, where we’ve seen a tapering in consideration and intent.”

    The initial results were enormously heartening, with 46 million video views, total reach of 2.9 billion, 17,772 news articles and $40 milion EAV, #1 searched holiday destination. “Before lamenting the impact of the bushfires in his Marketing Week column, Mark Ritson said ‘‘Matesong’ was a wonderfully executed bit of advertising. A big idea. A great score. An amazing backdrop. An Antipodean tongue planted firmly in cheek. A brilliant media placement within the traditionally dour Queen’s Speech to set the context.”

    “However, as the bushfire situation evolved, I made the heartbreaking call to pause the campaign.” Within weeks of pausing Matesong, TA produced Holiday Here This Year - not just a campaign, but a toolkit that could be used by industry and partners. The campaign has reached over 10.6 million people on social. #HolidayHereThisYear has been used over 95,000 times. “Our campaign tracking research showed that 37 per cent of those who had seen the campaign said they were planning on taking a holiday that they would not have otherwise and 14 per cent had already booked a holiday,” Coghill said. 

    Cross-functional collaboration

    “One of the key reasons I was hired by TA, three and a half years ago, was my ability to build relationships and foster collaboration across teams. When I was promoted to CMO last year I made it a priority to create one cohesive global marketing team, rather than a head office team and separate local market teams,” Coghill explained.

    “I’ve fostered a culture of inclusion and respect, and a shared passion for big ideas that will help build our brand and drive business results for our industry.” The CMO said it’s that culture that makes it possible for TA to produce world-class marketing and allows it to punch above its weight as a destination. Campaigns like ‘Matesong’ don’t happen without a strong collaboration between the Sydney and in-market teams or without the backing of the entire organisation.

    “Now, in the COVID-19 era, while we’re all working from home, those strong relationships and working ties are more important than ever. We have teams around the world working on regional and global projects, and some even pitching in on domestic projects.”

    “Last week I led a global briefing session for FY21, with 67 participants across 15 offices. Truly one global team, working together, with one dream of sharing the Australian way of life with the world.”

    “Most gratifying though are our employee survey results, which were up significantly on last year. Employee engagement was measured at 96 per cent, up 6 per cent, and our employee NPS score was 44, up 23 points.”

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