Managing Perception: what’s real and what’s not

How much should we, as a nation, stress about how others perceive us – and what can we do about it?

During the early ’70s, many Canadian backpackers travelling in Europe would attach their flag, with its distinctive maple leaf logo, to themselves or their baggage so they wouldn’t be mistaken for Americans, who were copping a lot of hostility from their involvement in the Vietnam War.

Unlike the Canadians, Australians only had to open their mouths to demonstrate that they weren’t American, but if forced to rely on a visual distinction, Australians have probably the most unique national symbol available to any nation – the kangaroo. The stylised roo on the tail of Qantas aircraft is one of the most striking and effective uses of this national brand.

So why has the Federal Government spent millions trying to reinvent this most adequate wheel?

The Federal Government is reported to have spent $10 million, taken two years and received advice from a who’s who of over-paid CEOs, tax dodgers and other highly qualified advisers to come up with not a replacement for the roo, but something that will, in the words of Australia’s Nation Brand Advisory Council chairman, Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest:

“improve perceptions around our business capability, and (create) significant opportunity to increase foreign investment if we can strengthen awareness of our products and services overseas.”

The accompanying report says:

“Global research confirms that while Australia is well regarded for its ‘softer’ attributes including friendly people and beautiful scenery, it is less known for ‘harder’ attributes such as business, technology and science capabilities.”

To achieve these objectives, the project came up with a stylised wattle blossom, cleverly worked to include a dual reference to our golden shrubbery and resources potential with the “AU” symbol, plus the obligatory nod to First Australians with pixilations suggesting dot painting.

Hilariously, most people saw it as a version of the Corona virus and the Trade Minister is now at pains to refer to this as a Turnbull initiative.

If readers wish to torture themselves, the full report is available here.

A view of the logo and media reporting can be found here.

However, the corona-wattle is only the latest chapter in this saga. In 2010, Kevin Rudd, after a similar investment of time and money, launched the “Australia Unlimited” (or better known as the “Two Sticks”) symbol at the Shanghai International Trade Fair.

Perhaps no one thought to make the point to either project that what are perceived as successful brands are usually associated with successful products.

In the meantime, the good old roo seems to be doing a reasonable job of saying “Australian”.

No better illustration of this fact is the brouhaha that has occurred over the past two and a half years when unintended consequences of changes to the definition of “Australian Made” made it look like the complementary medicines industry (think Blackmores, Sanofi, Swisse) would be unable to use the green kangaroo on their products. The industry has undergone a boom over the past five years, with revenues close to doubling and exports surging. A key driver has been the “Australian Made” (green kangaroo) logo, which has provided a guarantee of quality to customers, especially in Asia.

But in February 2017, Australian Consumer Law was tightened around the definition of Australian made. When the ACCC produced guidelines in March 2018 to support these changes, the complementary medicine industry was horrified to discover that the guidelines meant that even though their products were 100 per cent made in Australia, many did not pass the new test. A sticking point was that if the raw material in the product was not Australian grown, it had to be “substantially transformed” (please don’t ask!)

For two years, industry representatives beat a fruitless path to the Department of Industry, to government ministers (even prime ministers) and anyone else who would listen, trying to find a way that something actually made in Australia could carry the logo that proved it.

The point they were trying to make was that their situation was an unintended consequence of the change. But if an exception could not be found for them, so dependent were they on the kudos conferred by the green roo, the viability of their industry was threatened. (And this was a considerable industry, with 29,000 employees around Australia, and 82 separate manufacturers paying $170 million annually in salaries. The value provided by the “Australian Made” brand had led many to expand, or even move operations to Australia, to benefit from it.) Possibly part of their problem was that the responsible ministry (Industry) had a revolving door of ministers at this time.

Interestingly, despite representations, the ACCC did not see itself as being part of the solution, even though it had produced the offending guidelines. ACCC chairman Rod Sims told Senate Estimates that the changes to the law had been made because “people see “Made in Australia” and say, “Hang on, that’s not made in Australia; how does that make the test?” (Totally missing the point that these products were made in Australia. Sims insisted that if there were unintended consequences, sorting them out was not a job for the ACCC.) Eventually, the ACCC even wrote to the Australian Made Company (AMC), the organisation responsible for administering the brand, and threatened AMC and the complementary medicine producers with ACCC compliance action if they continued to use the brand.

Finally, in December 2018, Industry Minister Karen Andrews announced the formation of a taskforce to “review the impact” of the changes. The Taskforce reported back in February 2019 (concurrent with the ACCC threats of compliance action) and in April 2019, the minister announced that changes would be introduced. The process may have been prolonged by the 2019 election and by legal action taken (unsuccessfully) by one of the producers to have their products deemed “Australian made”.

What are the possible take homes from all of this?

Perhaps: “if you are on a good thing, stick to it?” Or, maybe, don’t let marketing people get hold of the agenda? And certainly, it would help if at times, government agencies could work a bit more cooperatively.

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Most recently consultant to the St Baker Energy Innovation Fund (Sep 2019 – March 2020). Previously Chief of Staff to Senator Kim Carr (Shadow Minister/Minister for Innovation, Industry Science and Research 2017-2019; 2009 - 2013). Other experience includes senior executive roles at Professionals Australia (2016-2017), in the Commonwealth Department of Human Services (2013-2015), CEO of Sports Medicine Australia (1999-2009), adviser to other federal Labor politicians (Brian Howe, Jenny Macklin, Lindsay Tanner 1995-1999), various roles in the contemporary music industry and as a TAFE and secondary school teacher.

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