10 steps Tourism Australia’s CMO has taken to remain adaptable in the face of uncertainty

Chief marketing officer, Susan Coghill, goes in-depth on the lessons of 2020, her marketing strategy in 2021 and the keys to retaining brand momentum


Scenario planning, in-depth consumer and brand research, improving structures and processes and strategic collaboration are some of the ways Tourism Australia’s CMO is working to ensure her team remains adaptable in the face of ongoing challenges in domestic and international tourism.

There aren’t many of us who would not agree travel and tourism have been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic in 2020. As Tourism Australia marketing chief, Susan Coghill, puts it, “2020 was about crisis management and pivoting without panic”.  

Now, with international travel into Australia remaining an impossibility for some time to come, Coghill has taken stock of what has worked and hasn’t worked over the past year and is investing in significant insight and data programs in order to cope with the realities of the ever-changing environment.  

Here, Coghill reflects on the year in review, her wins and learnings and how they’re informing short and long-term thinking. She also shares how she’s tackling domestic and international tourism in-market activity in 2021.  

Step 1: Re-evaluating the domestic tourist

Even before COVID-19 struck, Tourism Australia and various state bodies were dealing with the fallout of the devastating Australian bushfires on domestic and international tourism. As realisation sank in that the coronavirus was going to become much bigger than any of us realised or hoped, Tourism Australia took a few conscious steps. The first was to double down on the domestic tourist and split the team into domestic and international teams.

“We knew we were going to be in domestic tourism, would need to continue to drive demand and shift audience perceptions around domestic travel,” Coghill tells CMO. “In the domestic market, people travel very different than when they’re overseas. It’s true of any country – when you’re overseas you tend to do the extra experience, stay the extra day or two, have the nice dinners, and spend the 30 euros on the photo with the gladiator at the Colosseum. When you’re in your own country, you tend to flop and drop.

“Over the last six months and in 2021, we are striving to take that a step further, looking at how we get Australian consumers to spend more, go further, do more and experience more.”

The focus locally has been on convincing Australians they need to travel like they do when they’re overseas. Over the second half of 2020 and into 2021, the domestic team has been tasked with driving the ‘Holiday here this year’ campaign, aimed at rallying Australians to get out there and spend.

Credit: Tourism Australia


Step 2: Understand current consumer perceptions  

As it’s worked to build domestic tourism, Tourism Australia shifted thinking from knowing it needed people to spend more money to better understanding consumer sentiment, how Australians travel, and their current mindsets.

“We did see people’s concerns shift around travel to being worried about the virus, to worry about getting stuck behind a state border. That insight showed it’s not about travelling like you always did, it’s getting consumers to travel differently,” Coghill says.  

“We have looked at what key barriers continue to exist around travel. We understood at the value end, there were a set of Australians who need to better understand how they can have an affordable holiday in Australia. There is a perception – not entirely unfounded – that holidays here are quite expensive. It was therefore about showing them cost-effective ways of going out and having a great time and see the best backyard in the world.”

In the middle of the pool are travellers who, as a result of the crisis, have been renovating their homes or buying the car they always wanted. The emphasis here is on showing them that having that Australian holidays is more worthwhile, worthy and contributes to the country’s prosperity.

“At the upper end you have Australians who just go no, I’d never invest $20,000 in a holiday in Australia. So how do we show them you can have a world-class holiday here in Australia? People around the world fly to Australia to do just that, so it was about removing that snobbery around what you can do here,” Coghill says.

Step 3: Tell the right story

At the same time, Tourism Australia has been working to keep Australia top of mind and heart for travellers around the world who can’t visit. The name of the game is not just ensuring the international consumer still thinks about Australia, but the global tourism trade does as well.

“It was down to us to be the lone voice out there still promoting Australia,” Coghill comments.  

To do this, the emphasis has been on telling the right story, particularly around Australia’s nature and wildlife following the bushfires. “We made sure we were promoting the stories of our natural beauty, wildlife and how they are bouncing back,” Coghill says. “We also have things around sustainability and the conscious traveller, as well as taking advantage of shared cultural moments.”

Susan CoghillCredit: Tourism Australia
Susan Coghill


A recent case was investing in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy cricket series with India given the sport is a shared passion between both countries. Media interviews with Brett Lee as part of the program of activity resulted in 17 news articles including a cover issue and generated EAV of more than $4 million.

Another key storytelling mechanism was the ambitious livestreaming program, ‘Live from Aus’, which ran during lockdown and showcased 32 diverse ‘virtual holidays’ over a weekend. The livestream engaged 35 million people across 40 countries, generated 226 million social impressions and 1765 pieces of media coverage.

“Our brand metrics have bounced back and up in some ways, and we are seeing strength in consideration for Australia – our scores around nature and wildlife are going up, as well as around being a safe place to visit, which is more important than ever,” Coghill notes. “We are seeing value for money as a ranking and key driver dropping off a bit, which we think is down to the fact people know they need a really great holiday and they’re willing to pay for a place that’s safe, wonderful and enjoyable.”

Step 4: Hold your brand ground

Making sure Australia doesn’t lose ground is key for Coghill in 2021. “We are coming off a relatively high base but we don’t want to lose ground to markets reopening before us,” she continues.

“We also don’t want to lose traction with the trade overseas – we need them to continue to support Australia and be big advocates for us once the borders do open.”

To help, TA runs the online Aussie Specialist training program for agents globally to ensure they know the ins and outs of Australian experiences. Typically, between 30,000 to 35,000 agents train each year. Over the past year, this rose to over 80,000.

“Yes, it does reflect the fact agents have more time on their hands than ever, but that’s still more than double the number of agents wanting to learn about Australia and sell us as a destination at the end of this crisis,” Coghill says.  

Step 5: Make it relatable

Given the uncertainties of 2020, Tourism Australia looked to find relatable talent that could help tell the story and who exuded likeability, positivity and relatability. It settled on celebrities, Hamish and Zoe, and planned to send the pair on a roadtrip to showcase different parts of Australia and how consumers can travel differently.

Then state borders closed. “We had to work with our agency to quickly adapt the script to go how do we tell the story of great holidays around Australian when we can only film them in their home,” Coghill says.

“We pivoted to the idea of them having banter back and forth on their screens. That was a last-minute creative solution that solved the challenge of showing destinations and experiences. But it also reflected what so many Australians were feeling in the moment.

“I do think we’ll look back on that TVC and feel it’s so 2020.”  

It’s this example of creative sympathetic to the current context that’s a key learning out of last year for Coghill. “We are so known for beautifully polished campaigns we develop over a couple of years. In actual fact, when called upon to develop something that was powerful, resonated with consumers, drove behaviour change, we were able to do it pretty quickly,” she says.

From working to initial build confidence in planning and booking a holiday, the focus at Christmas shifted to encouraging Australians to gift experiences. This resulted in the ‘Holiday Gifting’ campaign.

“The smart media strategy behind that saw us intercepting people when they were going into Myer for example through digital screens outside the stores,” Coghill says. “On Boxing Day we switched messaging to quickly to holiday in Australia, have the holiday of a lifetime in Australia.”  

Up next: Susan Coghill's next 5 steps on marketing strategy in the face of uncertainity in 2021

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