Fair Play is the Australian way but not all the players are onside

Colleen Ryan
By Colleen Ryan | 17 October 2023
Colleen Ryan, Partner, TRA

Colleen Ryan, Partner, TRA

There are those who say AFL is one of the toughest games in the world and, whether it is or not, no one would deny that matches aren’t hard fought, physical, and fiercely competitive. Yet what is the sport’s most prestigious medal? The Brownlow medal, which is awarded for fairness.

Perhaps a game that could easily spill into violence needs something to address the balance, but that is not the only place where fairness turns up in Australian culture. The term is woven into many idioms – a fair go, fair dinkum or the wonderfully ambiguous “fair suck of the sav.” Even the anthem, Advance Australia Fair, uses the fair word.

English is the only language to have just one word for fair (other cultures typically have more specific words adjacent to fairness: justice or equality, for example) and Australians have embraced it and made it their own. Recent survey data from TRA and Dynata supports this view with 73% of Australians saying that fairness is very important to them and a third saying it has become more important in the last five years.

And this has direct relevance to brands and marketers.

However, what we want and what we get are not always in balance. And fairness is no exception. Australians think their country has become, and will continue to become, less fair. Nearly half of Australians think that Australia has become less fair in the last five years and over a third think it will become less fair in the next five.

Brands are part of this trend. When asked about their experiences with brands and companies, one in eight experiences were judged to be unfair. Think about how many interactions we have with brands every day and how many unhappy customers that creates. The three emotions that topped the list in the survey were anger, frustration, and resentment at being cheated. Strongly negative feelings like these don’t go away until they are resolved. Humans, after all, are hard wired to get even.

Bad word of mouth, posting critical reviews, churning, and approaching the next interaction with a negative mind set are all by-products of being treated unfairly. And brands need to take note.

So, it is perhaps surprising that there are no laws in Australia requiring businesses to treat customers fairly, whereas many other countries do have rules covering this (the EU and the USA for example.) The Treasury is on the case, and is looking at options to right the wrongs or to prevent them happening in the first place. Specifically the focus is on practices like making it hard to cancel subscriptions, deliberating creating a sense of FOMO or using social proof triggers by showing what other people are buying or doing.

Whereas people might deem all of these activities unfair, the single biggest source of unfairness is making it difficult if not impossible to speak to someone when all other attempts to solve a problem or gain information have been exhausted. As more companies execute digital transformation strategies, speaking to a human being is only going to become difficult. Currently Bots run out of answers pretty quickly as they are nothing more than animated FAQs, so there is a potential role for AI to solve a real problem albeit not with a real human.

Some categories do better than others in the overall fairness stakes. Retail for example is net positive (taking the negative ratings of fairness form the positive ratings of fairness to give a net score). Retail brands Coles, Woolworths and Bunnings were specifically mentioned as brands that play fair.

At the other end of the scale are banks, insurance, and utility providers. However, the worst score goes to real estate. Why would these sectors be judged as unfair? A large component is an imbalance of power. There may only be one word for fair in English but it has nuanced meaning. Fairness includes equality – treating people the same for example. Or it can be power when the brand or organisation has more power than the customer.

A potential borrower has no power if the bank turns them down for a loan or a credit card, for example. The real estate agent sector has been criticised for practices such as underquoting to draw people in who then either overstretch themselves or have to withdraw feeling frustrated and disappointed. The power lies with the agent and the buyer is the powerless victim.

Our data shows that these are common threads across the nation. However there are a few differences worth noting because these people may be an important audience to some categories or specific brands.

For example, 49% of women think Australia has become less fair compared to 42% of men, making women more attuned to examples of unfairness. We mentioned above that in general people think that Australia will become less fair in the future, however 30% of the under 30s think Australia will become more fair. We will know in the fullness of time.
whether that is the blind optimism of youth or a real belief that they can see the signs of improvement.

What’s clear is that an underlying sense of fairness is not going away anytime soon. That can give competitive advantage to businesses who understand how important it is. People are pragmatic. They know that their neighbour getting two months free on a new subscription is balanced by the fact that they got the same deal when they signed up two years ago. But you might need to remind them, and a surprise loyalty reward might sweeten the message.

A fair go is all people want and although perceptions count, first you have to play fair then you have to make sure people know that you are.

TRA sponsored by Dynata survey of 1000 Australians in July 2023


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