Should brands celebrate Australia Day? If so, how?

DPR&Co co-founder and agency principal, Phil Huzzard, discusses the challenges marketers face on January 26.

As a former Australia Day Ambassador for the Victorian Government’s Australia Day Council, I’ve spoken at many Australia Day celebrations, both in Victoria and Tasmania. Most of my presentations were, at my request, in regional Victoria. These were (and remain) joyous and inspiring events – many featuring citizenship ceremonies where the community would welcome new Australians into their midst. My memories of them are, without exception, very fond.

Australia Day events were coordinated by the Australia Day Council and were staged in partnership with local councils and their auxiliaries, with the help of sponsorship from Woolies – itself a proud Australian company. Most also had small local sponsors helping cover the barbecue breakfast and orange juice, small expressions of support that were as uniformly positive as the celebrations themselves. Sadly, the program seemed to lose steam and I no longer choose to officiate.

In the meantime, Australia Day itself has become a touchstone for division. The current discourse around the timing and meaning of Australia Day is largely driven by activists and a small number of progressive councils – a vocal minority of energised people. As I suggested in CMO Magazine way back in 2019, however, as Australia Day becomes increasingly divisive, so does its use as a marketing tool by brands become more problematic. It is impossible to ignore that fact that many Australians find the notion of our national day being the date of the anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet. In fact, recent polling showing that around 65% of urban Australians (Roy Morgan 2022) are now open to a change.

In this environment, I believe brands need to be cautious about not only how they align to the day, but whether they should touch it at all.

The simple solution for this, of course, would be to change the date of the celebration, making it easier for all Australians to participate in an alternative National Day if they wanted to. This would leave January 26th to be mourned as Invasion Day or commemorated as the date of the First Landing – depending on your perspective.

With nothing set to change for the foreseeable future, and with emotions running high, I offer the following advice to marketers in the hope that it saves you from skinning your brand’s knees.

Firstly, remember that being ‘real’ will always serve you well. If you’re engaging in unambiguously honest commercialism to help people better enjoy Australia Day – getting together with family, food, events, destinations etc., go for it.

You can even take on some of the issues of the day, provided you remember two things; don’t stray into contemporary politics, and make it very obvious that your tongue is firmly planted in your cheek.

Meat and Livestock Australia has mostly shown itself to be adept at this approach throughout its long series of Australia Day Lamb ads. We all know it’s about selling more meat and even non-marketers understand the deftness of linking Australia Day to Australian lamb to earn a massive exposure dividend. The latest campaign is nothing short of an advertising masterclass – a charming observation about the joys of being ‘un-Australian’ in the face of wokeness and the cancel culture.

But some of MLA’s previous campaigns may well have won a self-congratulatory smirk in the cafes of Surrey Hills or Cremorne but disappointed a great many Australians as a poor expression of a campaign they’d come to look forward to.

2019’s campaign was a case in point, artlessly suggesting that Australia and New Zealand should become New Australia and that we should end our long run of deposed PMs by simply having Jacinda assume the big chair. Some funny gags, but the premise did nothing for Australia Day and very little for lamb.

MLA’s 2017 campaign also attracted adverse commentary along with the ire of some indigenous groups by ‘trivialising’ the impact of Australia’s colonisation on First Nations people. And they have a point. The experiences of our First Nations people remain so desperate that any kind of levity comes with the big risk of getting it wrong. So, while censorship can never be justified (and it’s true that you can never entertain anyone without offending someone), gold-standard care, empathy and wit are non-negotiables for those treading this path. This campaign fell short of that standard.

Hats off to MLA for having the creative courage to bring humour and irreverence to Australia Day. But even with the best of will, it has missed the mark on occasions.

The lesson is, if you’re going down this path, take heed of the fact that it’s now easier than ever to stray into the kind of controversy that is not great for your brand. Or your career.

That’s a risk I’d be advising my clients to think carefully about and be very certain before you press the ‘go’ button.

Phil Huzzard is co-founder and agency principal of DPR&Co.

This article was updated after publishing.


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