OPINION: Brand Australia gets burned

By Tim Riches | 3 February 2020

The impact of the devastating bushfire crisis and the country’s response to climate change will be felt on Brand Australia for years to come, says Tim Riches. And that extends well beyond the image we represent to potential holidaymakers.

Australia’s bushfire disaster, its impact on our environment and our government’s stance on climate has put us in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. And while the effect on tourism has been well documented, it’s not just our tourism value proposition that’s been damaged.

The connected bushfire and climate crises demonstrate there’s only one Brand Australia. It’s not ring-fenced. There’s no distinct business-to-consumer brand for the sectors of tourism, export and migration. Nor is there a business-to-business or business-to-government brand that applies to trade, foreign direct investment or diplomatic endeavours.

We’ve only got one brand and it’s in crisis.

Australia is famous for its unique, clean, beautiful and natural environment. Our “place” provides reasons to visit as a tourist, to emigrate or to buy exported food products. People pay a premium for our clean, green food and we are universally recognised for unique natural wonders and fauna. Our cities are famous for their liveability. And some of our mining companies are even seen as leaders in responsible development of natural resources.

This creates an expectation, at least an implication, that Australians should be capable and innovative when it comes to the management of the environment particularly given it is one of the defining dimensions of Brand Australia.

Right now, our approach to climate change looks ignorant, incompetent or uncaring and this is damaging our nation brand and its family of value propositions; all while eroding our collective reputation. Being seen as a laggard diminishes our ability to compete for visitors, consumers, talent, capital and influence.

The international coverage of our bushfire crisis, and the associated focus on our response to climate change, has been jarring for the world as they discover Australia lacks a plan and isn’t leading in this crucial area.

The situation has highlighted a mismatch between the promise of Brand Australia and its delivery, and the fallout is being felt in every market our brand competes in.

A potential tourist may fear whether their Great Barrier Reef trip of a lifetime will be a depressing disappointment. Migrants will question whether cities that experience the worst air quality in the world are really all that liveable. Consumers of imported Australian produce will question its integrity. Multinational companies may associate Australia with climate risk and governance failure risk, out of touch with fast-evolving Environmental, Social and corporate Governance (ESG) standards.

The damage to Brand Australia from this tragic period will be felt for years to come. And what’s disappointing is that we have the potential for it to be otherwise. We are home to both the oldest continuous human culture in the world and one of the world’s great science agencies in the CSIRO. Our university sector is world-class. We have innate advantages in terms of resources and thrive on a challenging continent. We are attractive to talent from all over the world.

Australia should be famous for leading the way in the research and industries that will underpin prosperity and quality of life in an era of changing climate. And by doing so, this would only serve to strengthen the many facets of Brand Australia.

As a brand strategist, I can see the challenge and the opportunity. We have the proof points but there needs to be a coherent policy framework and tangible, impactful initiatives to assert and sustain our nation brand advantage.

It’s no small cultural and policy thinking shift for Canberra and Australia’s business leaders, and like any change, it needs a sense of urgency – a reason to change. As Port Arthur was on gun policy, let’s hope this can be a wake-up call to political courage and longer-term thinking. The ultimate burning platform.

Tim Riches is a director of leading brand consultancy Principals. Tim has worked on nation branding projects in Australia and Malaysia and has presented at many nation branding conferences and to governments including South Korea, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Philippines and Indonesia.


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