What Australia Day advertising says about brand purpose and cultural leadership

We look at the significance and importance of Australian brands tapping into Australia Day as a brand play and what it says about the way brands need to lead or disupt societal norms

Is Australia Day too tainted a concept for brands to be associating with? How important is taking a stance on the nation’s increasingly controversial day of national celebration in light of the wider need and desire for brands to take a purpose-led approach? And should more of our iconic local brands be taking a position on Australian identity?

These were the questions CMO set out to find answers to in the lead-up to the Australia Day long weekend.

The prompt was the launch this week of Meat & Livestock Australia’s (MLA) latest summer campaign. This builds on the new brand platform ‘share the lamb’ and calls on Australians to come together with their trans-Tasman counterparts over a hearty dose of lamb via a party in the middle of the Tasman sea.

While the campaign is clearly driven by the idea of unity, it’s the second year MLA has chosen not to launch a campaign on Australia Day. And it’s move that follows increased criticism of celebrating Australia Day for its link to early British settlement and the mistreatment of the original indigenous peoples of this country.

It’s also another example in the growing debate on what role brands should and do play in societal debate and change.

Polarising positions

There’s no doubt for The Royals, managing partner, Dan Beaumont, that Australia Day has become a highly charged, politicised and therefore polarising debate. He noted Aldi and Big W’s ‘inflammatory’ shirts, AussieBum’s ill-conceived ad and Woolworths’ geographically challenged hats, as examples in recent years of brands getting into hot water from activities connecting to the cultural concept.

It’s these growing fears of backlash Beaumont believes led several brands to step back, and he noted department stores, telcos and banks as noticeably absent.

“There are many brands that used to mark or celebrate Australia Day in their advertising, that no longer do. It makes sense at a time when, as a nation, we are re-examining the historical significance of the date and look for ways to foster unity instead of division,” Beaumont told CMO. “Companies, particularly those listed on the ASX, would be risking a lot of equity and goodwill in their brand’s value to activate or promote their products on 26 January.”  

Of course, not all brands are taking a step back from Australia Day. Woolworths, for instance, will be celebrating Australia Day through ongoing sponsorship of the Young Australian of the Year, as well as its catalogue and wider ABL summer campaign.  

According to Beaumont, brands historically striving to tap into national pride associated with Australia Day have used one of three main themes. The first is playing with Australian clichés. An example is Qantas’ team-up with Arnott’s Tim Tams, Vegemite and Cadbury Dairy Milk to create ‘emergency packs’ of famous Australian products.  

The second is supporting Australian people and values, while the third is celebrating the country’s multiculturalism. It was arguably the latter two approaches MLA has harnessed for strong impact through tactics such as ‘You Never Lamb Alone’ and ‘Lamb Side Story’. In 2017, online fashion brand, Moga, also celebrated Australia’s diversity with an Australia Day-timed campaign.  

According to DPR&CO agency principal, Phil Huzzard, Australia Day has become almost as polarising as the #metoo movement.  

“As with other contentious issues, Australians’ views are strongly held and deeply personal. It is therefore incredible to suggest everyone who is part of a brand would be behind a specific view held by, for example, the c-suite executive,” he said. “So, to suggest a brand -and by definition the people that comprise it - are behind a singular view invites immediate cynicism.  

“Moreover, progressive views on issues such as this are generally held by a vocal minority. Joining their chorus carries inherent risks for any brand targeting a broad consumer audience. Conversely, brands could be mistaken for thinking there’s value in overtly supporting the majority view. But again, why? They simply invite the same minority to engage around issues irrelevant to their real business.”

In contrast, Review Partners managing director, Paul Costantoura, believed advertisers should have the courage to be proud about Australia Day. What he saw muddying the water is longstanding confusion on how to present Australian identity in advertising.

“Go back a few decades and most Australians felt we were defined either by our British origins or by the concept of ‘a multi-cultural nation’. Telstra advertising suggested ‘True Australians’ had relatives who lived in a farmhouse with big verandas and corrugated iron roofs. Everyone else made a long distance call to the folks in the village on the hill in the old country, or perhaps to central London,” he said.

“Indigenous people tended not to have the recognition and respect they have today. They were largely absent from our screens, in entertainment or advertising apart from token stereotyped roles.

“On all these fronts, things are different today. We are still confused about our identity, but there is a greater sense of pride in being Australian, including in the diversity of our origins and our reputation throughout the world.”

Yet there is little doubt the extreme negative symbolism attached to Australia Day is preventing many Australians and brands from feeling like they should openly proud of all the things that make Australia great on the day, Costantoura said. 

“The more important question is whether it is also setting back progress on reconciliation and equality of outcomes by creating greater divisions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians,” he said. “My question is whether the strong voices would be better directed at recognising the pride that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can share in our shared cultures in Australia today.

“That also might take some courage from brands to stand apart from the crowd, and express their own version of shared pride in Australia, without being scared of an apparent social media backlash.”

BrandHook founder and CEO, Pip Stocks, identified two reasons for why brands may be avoiding active Australia Day messaging. The first was their ability to be authentic.

“Brand purpose and brand positioning is well and truly back on discussion table and if it doesn’t fit, messages just feel fake,” she said. “Secondly, brands don’t have the same level of trust as they once did. The Royal Commissions have exposed so many wrongs, brands are now being more considered about what they say and how they say it. 

“Ironically, I think Aldi does Australia Day well and in fact have captured the Aussie sense of humour and communicate that well in all its advertising.”

Wider brand context

Choosing to comment or not comment on Australia Day is particularly topical in the wider context of purpose-led campaigning and the debate for brands to increasingly support and even lead the quest for behavioural change in the societies they participate in.

Outside of controversy about Australia Day and our national shores, for instance, Gillette's latest advertising campaign, which endeavours to call out toxic masculinity and challenge the traditional stereotypes of the best a man represents, has drawn both criticism and applause for espousing an opinion on an important societal issue.

Another recent example was Nike’s decision to use Colin Kaepernick as the face of its latest campaign, after the polarising quarterback protested against the US national anthem. Arguably, in Australia, we can also look to local brands who took an active role in Australia’s gay marriage debate in 2018 as another example of taking a position on dominant societal issues.

Beaumont noted that when brands like Nike and Gillette step into controversial and divisive topics, they do so with their intended audience in mind. “They do it knowing full well they will upset some of their customers and a lot of non-customers,” he continued.  

“Nike chose to use Colin Kaepernick as the face of its latest campaign because its primary customers are young urban people who support brands that stand up for causes and tend to sympathise with Kaepernick’s protest.”

But while the most successful brands shouldn’t back down from adopting a position on big issues that are important to society as a whole, they have to do it respectfully and in a way that makes sense for their brand, Beaumont said.  

“It will be very interesting to see what Gillette does next now that it has weighed-in on the #metoo movement, and more broadly taken a stance on what it means to be a better man,” he said.  

“To avoid being accused of opportunism, brands will need to create purpose-led campaigns that are connected to their product or service, and brand values. They have to be sincere and authentic. So whatever they’re saying in their advertising has to be reflected internally too. No one will tolerate fakers anymore.”  

Up next: Should Australian brands automatically have a say on Australian identity? Plus concerns about brand purpose and lessons to be learnt

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Having something to say about Australia Day

Which raises another question: Should Australia Day – with all its meaning, cultural symbolism and relevance – even be something Australian brands must or should have a view on?

Founder and managing director of independent creative agency International Creative Services, Anne Miles, is inclined to think Australia Day is a topic many people don’t yet know how to respond to.

“The conflicting thoughts on this day are not yet widely published, and I think there are many people and brands who are ignorant to the issues and some who don't give it a second thought,” she said. “I’d be delighted if a brand created a new Australia Day of their own and it started a movement. I think brands do have the power to change legislation and national issues like this and would love to see a brand step up.” 

Miles saw MLA’s continued participation in the Australian cultural debate and support for the nation’s multicultural diversity as a step forward that should be applauded.

“This is the real Australia and we should be celebrating it every day. Many brands are so out of touch with the real customer in Australia and unconscious bias in the marketing department and agency is to blame,” she said. 

“In my books, Australian owned brands have the right to be loud and proud on Australia Day. Brands like Vegemite and locally grown Meat and Livestock are a perfect fit. Brands like Havianas [from Brazil] and McDonalds [USA-based] have done Australia Day campaigns in the past and feel a bit like they’re exploiting something that’s not naturally their domain; that doesn’t sit so well with me.” 

Purpose and business strategy

Which leads to the wider debate: Whether brands should and are in a position to lead societal change and challenge stereotypes, or if they simply follow the undercurrent? Are they trendsetters and makers, or fast followers?

Deloitte Creative, Brand and Media lead partner, Adrian Mills, is generally supportive of brand marketers who can leverage a cultural or societal issue to manifest their brand purpose – provided it’s clearly linked to the business strategy.

“Brand purpose work done well, that is absolutely genuine and authentic and not a convenient play, is normally good for business. A great example would be last year’s Blood Normal campaign from Bodyform and Libresse. It is work that comes from the heart of the brand and it was the first mover in the space,” he said. 

Mills is less supportive of Gillette’s #metoo campaign effort, however. “If Gillette was the first brand to challenge current issues of masculinity then it may have received more reward,” he said. “Doing it just because someone else did it doesn’t make you a leader in the argument.

“So, when it comes to Australian brands and our national holiday, I’d suggest there would be very few brands built on a purpose that would naturally align to challenging their target market’s view on Australia Day.”

This doesn’t mean Mills believes brands must have established credibility in a certain cultural topic before they can try and break a mould. Nor does he see brands picking up on cultural sentiment as a new phenomenon.

In the case of Australian identity therefore, “It’s not really a question of if we have the right to comment or not, it’s whether firstly that our message is in the interests of the business; and secondly, if it’s in the interests of the debate,” Mills said.

“Anyone can have a say, but like Woolworths ‘Fresh in our memories’ Anzac Day campaign, it’s not always our place as brands to make commentary.”  

And it’s rise in brands taking up cultural positions that sounds a warning bell for Mills.

“As a brand, you need to avoid just being someone who is saying exactly the same thing,” he argued. “If someone with more relevance has said it better, you have to question whether you need to do the same.”

This doesn’t mean Mills isn’t highly supportive of brand purpose. “At its best, it’s highly motivating, and helps people understand and post-rationalise their behaviour,” he says.

“But purpose has been a very misunderstood opportunity for business over an extended period of time. Brand purpose in most cases and in Australian advertising is done very poorly, to point where work seems irrelevant and transparent and there might be a greater opportunity cost than just taking a more traditional approach.

“At Deloitte, we believe purpose is one of the great motivators for staff and team members when it comes to employment, and companies can be good at communicating that to their team members. But connecting the dots of that purpose to motivating in the consumer base, it’s often let down by marketing and their agencies.”

What’s more, Mills claimed brands can be part of the conversation and “be loud participants, but I wouldn’t overstate the ability of brands to change the world”. He pointed to Dove’s ‘real beauty’ campaign.

“We might as an industry see that as a pioneering campaign, but the idea of women being better represented doesn’t happen in a vacuum that exists around Dove. It’s a much broader conversation,” he said. “The brand might crack it open for purpose-led business gain, but to call them a leader of the debate is an overstatement. At some point there needs to be an undercurrent that is changing direction.”

To lead or not to lead

In contrast, Ogilvy chief strategy officer, Toby Harrison, firmly believes it’s the marketing and advertising industry’s obligation to do what is right, no matter how unpopular it might be in the boardroom – or a portion of the public.   

“Marketing has an obsession with data, but statistics should never supersede the guidance of our own moral compass,” he commented. “When you put all the data and polls aside for a moment, it is hard to dispute that Australia Day just ‘feels’ different now. Anyone with an ounce of empathy for the feelings of others knows there’s a growing acknowledgement that something is wrong, and it isn’t really surprising brands are recognising this and reacting accordingly.”      

The groundswell behind changing the date for Australia Day should be put in context. According to 2018 survey of 1000 Australian consumers undertaken by Review Partners, 71 per cent saw Australia Day as a culturally important event, and 73 per cent were against changing the date. This figure decreased to 67 per cent once survey respondents were informed of the reasons why changing the date is being proposed.

The figures on importance were virtually unchanged from 2017 (71 per cent), even as 93 per cent of respondents recalled the debate about the importance of changing the date of Australia Day. This was up from 85 per cent in 2017. 

In other words, the majority of the population – at least according to this research - still aren’t backing an Australia Day date change.

“That’s a relatively imbalanced topic to attach yourself to for any mass brand,” Initiative Australia chief strategy officer, Sam Geer, pointed out.

“However, for a challenger brand with a well-defined target market and brand positioning, there is significant upside to taking a stance,” he said. “For these brands with small market share looking to steal customers from more dominant brands in their category, the risk of being vanilla is greater than the risk of offending people.

“That said, no brand should ever be criticising Australian values.”   

For Geer, it’s worth noting MLA’s message and purpose is less about Australia Day and more focused on unity, a core brand pillar of the brand’s ongoing marketing approach.

“The current cultural discourse around Australia Day specifically divides people, so MLA has changed the conversation and focused on uniting people over their product, rather than choose to make an overt statement about the day itself,” Geer said. “This allows MLA to elongate the period of relevance for the campaign and therefore the opportunity for increased sales. It’s an intelligent business choice, rather than simply supporting one side of the argument.”   

While there are definitely brands who can capitalise on the opportunity Australia Day presents, Harrison believed you should only do so if you have something of value to add to the discussion.

“For these reasons, examples of brands who are doing it, are thin on the ground. But this shouldn’t be the case,” he said. “Taking a moment to look outside the marketing ‘bubble’, Triple J’s Hottest 100 had been broadcast on Australia day since 1989. Two years ago, the broadcaster changed the date.  Two years later, the public has moved on and accepted the decision. 

“From a personal perspective, I would prefer to be the custodian of a brand who has moved to be on the right side of history early, rather than jumping on the bandwagon too late.”

And this is because most brands react to culture, but great brands lead it, Harrison said. “So, if you are prepared to enter into the fray of a societal debate, you will need a point of view that takes things in a new and positive direction,” he said.  

Given well-known brands make the biggest impact, Miles also suggested they have the greatest responsibility to tell the right story and reflect the customer as they truly are. In this vein, she highlighted The Iconic’s 2018 Swim Show, which featured the most diverse range of models on an Australian catwalk in our nation’s history, as a good example of how to progress a debate. 

“The Iconic is one such brand which already had the kudos and audience to give the brand the confidence to take the stand they did. This is so powerful for all nations and all people,” she said. “We need more brands like this - being brave at showcasing the real customer out there, and not just the entrepreneurs who go unnoticed. What was great about The Iconic is it did this without great, fake, fanfare too. It was very natural and showed respect. That’s how it should be.”

Lessons learnt

So what other lessons does the industry think can be taken on how brands should deal other forms of societal debate? If it makes sense for that brand to have a point a view on culturally significant milestones such as Australia Day then yes, brands should, Hook said.

“Whether you make a controversial statement about Australia or not is also linked to your brand. Are you a maverick? Are you irreverent? Can your brand get away with making bold statements? Does it make sense that you have a message around Australia Day,” she asked.  

“These are the questions marketers need to answer before executing anything.”

Beaumont outlined three ways brands engage in societal debate: Adopt a ‘go big or go home’ philosophy; know your customers; and be true to the brand.

“A bold approach and a relentless commitment to embrace the Australia Day controversy in its entirety – unlike other brands – positioned MLA at the centre of a national conversation and it led to great business results. By 2017, average weekly lamb sales were up 21 per cent versus the previous five years,” he said.  

Huzzard also advises clients to be careful about straying from their true, customer relevant brand purpose. “Enduring brands don’t take fashionable views. They respond to deeply held principles and behave accordingly – they don’t simply join the chorus,” he said.  

“I have a healthy respect for the average Australian’s BS detector. There may be small groups of people that are influenced by brands taking up social issues but, by and large, I think Australians know that companies are here to make money.  

“When companies seek to get behind a social cause, there needs to be a clear rationale for their involvement – not simply from a brand positioning standpoint, but something more connected to the reason the company exists.”

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