‘Middle Australia’ is fictitious, and failing marketers

Many businesses believe their brand’s fortune lies in 'middle Australia'. However, DDB Sydney’s Carl Ratcliff argues that the idea of the ‘middle’ is fictitious and failing, costing marketers an opportunity to win an emotional advantage in the mainstream.

It doesn’t always think so, but Australia is a country with a very specific dichotomy given its unique inheritance and context.

For marketers, dichotomies are a nuisance. They have no mean, no average. They are, or they aren’t. And marketing has a preference for averages – the middle. Indeed, many businesses believe that that’s where their brand’s fortune lies: in middle Australia – a fictitious microcosm. 

‘Middle Australia’ is a myth 

Middle Australia legitimises creative pragmatism over commercial creativity. Lobbing a generic narrative into the middle of the masses, in the hope it will ‘work’, is how I often perceive mainstream marketing. The idea that awareness and consideration will grow from the middle, out, may sound logical, but really isn’t.

In fact, ideas rarely transfer or grow from the middle at all. They more often enter stage left or right, growing from the edge and working in. Science is littered with this manner of transference. Japanese media guru, Joi Ito, tells us that that most important ideas on the planet ignite on the edges first, before they stand a chance of spreading.

Which is interesting, because Australia is literally and figuratively a country of edges. From its continental coastline to its neoliberal laws. It’s x or y, not x and y; a place of perpetual dichotomy. Such may seem out of sorts with a popular (middle class) view that we are blending, more diverse than ever, and more able to live with difference. 

Sorts aside, Australia has one of the largest per capita urban (and, by definition, modern) populaces in the world, and the difference between urban and suburban mindsets is marked. It’s a gap made more ‘edgy’ with an increasingly migrant and diverse population.

The temptation for marketers, however, is to continue to throw to tradition – an assumed middle Australia – rather than any tension or truth. To propagate a whitewashed version of family life and middle-class aspiration. Not necessarily because they sanction it, but because it’s easier to do than engaging the edges or addressing any tension.

Look at Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign as an obvious, but inspirational, example or closer to home, Aldi’s Good Different brand platform or the downright odd, but hilarious, Halo Top’s Eat The Ice Cream. These possess an original voice first, winning mainstream audiences second. 

It’s a shame that clients will sometimes refer to their agencies as victims of a posh, urban bubble. Such can be true. And yet, without naming names, I have heard clients also suggest that their consumers – a word I’ve always found a little assumptive – won’t get it. That they aren’t smart. Or clever. That we, the agency, are being too sophisticated for so called ‘middle Australia’. 

Is it better to be posh or to patronise?  

Ideally neither, although I’d suggest, given the attention deficit so many of us experience, that brands need to be – at the very least – interesting. Not patronising. 

So, I’m suggesting that the middle – however it’s defined – offers no logic or assurance. It doesn’t reflect where or how people live. Yet its hangover remains in marketing departments and creative agencies both, a perceived safety net ripe with reach, but weak on depth, or relevance (and yes, I know that flies in the face of Professor Byron Sharp).

So, what to do? 

Let’s stop assuming that mainstream reach requires ‘mainstream’ creativity or thinking, for one.

For two, let’s build our own database of learning, away from the middle. One derived from authenticity, truth and edges.

The good news is that this is happening. Building exponentially from this year on, Australia will have its own Effies database. We will be able to codify Australian effectiveness (ie made for Australians, not just British or Americans). 

But that’s just the start. 

From here, all of us need to avoid the pull of middle-thought and push on a mainstream door that we might find is more subversive than conservative if we look to popular taste; an attention-winning diet that ranges from Candy Crush to The Chemical Brothers, and every weird and wonderful distraction in between.  

Carl Ratcliff is DDB Sydney’s chief strategy officer


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