Discovering Down Under

A couple of years ago, I started the process of trying to sell my car, a 2008 Audi S3. I soon leaned, to my dismay, that my car was worth less than a 2007 version in a similar condition and with similar mileage. The reason? The 2007 version was made in Germany whilst mine was made in South Africa.

I was flummoxed: surely in our globalised age, technologies, talent and standards should be consistently valued everywhere? But as recent events have shown, provenance appears to become even more important as we get more connected. Why is this? The simple answer, perhaps, goes back to the fundamentals of a brand as a collection of beliefs and expectations — in this example, the expectation of quality. Where a brand comes from says a lot about the kind of quality we expect from it.

So what about brands from Australia, which seem to wear their distinctive ‘Australian-ness’ more boldly than brands from other countries? In my past travels in ‘Straya, I have often wondered what defines brands from that particular corner of the world. What can we say about that elusive definition of ‘quality’ when we place it in an Australian setting?

Australia is a land that carries a strong set of associations and assumptions. A simple supermarket test in Singapore revealed that dairy and meat products from Australia tend to display a graphic representation of the map of Australia in some form or another. It’s easy to see why. Most non-Australians think of Australia as a land of open spaces, unpolluted air and happy, well-fed livestock. Thus Australian produce is expected to be fresh, wholesome, free from chemicals and pollutants. And consumers will readily pay a premium for it.

Interviews with Australians and non-Australians about ‘the lucky country’ reveal a whole set of perceptions and beliefs about the region: sandy beaches, crashing surf, bronzed Aussies, sunshine, sports. The most venomous snakes, the harshest outback, the vicious crocodiles, the bloodthirsty sharks, the endless desert. Qualities of friendliness, fairness, toughness.

These qualities are amplified, exaggerated and united in one combination or another in iconic Australian brands: those shining stars that have borrowed from and enhanced the story of Australia.

Take, for example, RM Williams, a brand best known for its leather riding boots and its unpretentious honesty. Proud of its Australian heritage, the brand is made for Australia and Australians. It emphasises the ‘handcrafted’ nature of its products, suggesting that it places substance over style and values hard work. It promises to deliver what it says on the box.

Let’s turn to a product for a moment: the height-adjustable rotary clothes line known as a Hills Hoist. In 1974, a Darwin family reported that the only thing left standing after Cyclone Tracy was their Hills Hoist. That the product is manufactured by an Australian and is listed as a National Treasure by the National Library of Australia is a matter of pride.

RM Williams and the Hills Hoist share a very similar philosophy when it comes to provenance: ‘it should work in and for Australia’. Their understanding of good quality isn’t an external definition; it’s a quality that reflects a strong personal identification. As Bob Williams, a strategy and training consultant, says of Australian quality, “for me to produce a high quality beer, or a high quality glass for that beer or serve it in a high quality way, there has to be a little bit of me in that beer, glass or service.”

The Australian idea of quality is taken much more personally than in many other cultures, where it can be rationalised and book-defined. It is this personal identification that makes Australian provenance and ownership such an important part of creating associations for Australian brands. The quality expectation of Aussie products and services is that they have a ‘personal touch’ — something I’ve seen first-hand, from the immigration officer at Brisbane airport to restaurants around Darling Harbour.

But ‘Australian-ness’ has many facets beyond the personal touch. ‘Tough’, ‘hard’, ‘uncompromising’: all are regularly applied to Australia and Australians. In many ways, brands such as RM Williams, VB, Foster’s, Toohey’s and James Boag feed off the ‘tough Australian’ stereotype as well as contribute to it. It’s a circular process that self-fulfils: these brands reflect a universal expectation about Australia whilst simultaneously fuelling the belief that all Australian brands live up to this expectation.

Perhaps linked to this expectation of being uncompromising, Australian-ness is often linked to sports and a sporty lifestyle. Brands such as Speedo, Quiksilver, Billabong and Roxy have both contributed to and helped build the expectation. Australia’s sporting prowess and icons define the standards.

Last but not least: the Australian challenge. Borrowing from an outcast mentality; not just surviving but flourishing in the vast, challenging continent. These things all help create a narrative of ‘create your own rules.’ Examples can be found in the food and beverage industry: the culinary expectations and the South Australian red wines. They create expectations of brands that challenge, question and project boldness and directness.

In a more globally connected world, people don’t just hope and expect the same standards everywhere. Instead, they fear that the such standards will not be upheld. The idea of provenance thus gains importance. And the richer the news and stories of the country brand, the greater the influence it will have.