Unlocking the hidden nuance in the 2021 Census data

Last week saw headlines suggesting the 2021 Census data might see disruption from COVID-19 break the diversity trendline and Australia become ‘older, whiter and smaller’. SBS’s Adam Sadler explains why that didn’t happen and why marketers need to draw out key insights that will be integral to their future business plans.  

Last Monday, saw The Guardian make the rather bold prediction that the 2021 Census data would reveal Australia at “a unique moment,” in the wake of COVID-19’s disruption with ex patriates returning home and with migration flows temporarily turned off, and that Australia might be reverting to a nation many of us thought we’d long since left behind.

Their headline screamed it all: ‘older, whiter and smaller’ was the prediction.

We now know that forecast didn’t really play out and despite the hyperbole the overall trendline for Australia as an increasingly diverse and multicultural society continues clear and unabated.

Our nation’s population has doubled in size in the past 50 years and added more than one million new residents since 2017.

This Census saw Australia reach a new tipping point where, almost 50 per cent (48.2 percent) of Australian residents were born overseas or have at least one parent who was.

More than that 5.5 million Australians – that’s more than one in five – now speak a language other than English at home. That’s up by 800,000 since 2016.

Mandarin remains the most common language other than English in Australian homes, spoken by more than 680,000 people in 2021. Arabic is the second most common, and Punjabi, while smaller at 239,000 people, has increased by more than 80 per cent since 2016 to become Australia’s fastest growing language.

My question for marketers is does your business strategy / marketing plan consider some of these major shifts in Australia’s cultural and linguistic diversity?

In 1996, our top five countries of birth in were: Australia, United Kingdom, New Zealand followed by Italy and Vietnam. In 2021, its Australia and the UK then India, then China with New Zealand now in fifth.

That’s a major shift and one that’s not likely to change anytime soon. And I’d argue that brands and agencies who fail to adapt their plans to this are not just missing a major opportunity but are failing to engage with Australia as it exists in 2022.

Our diversity, and the Census clearly reveals this, is a central part of the Australian identity. For marketers we must not just understand this reality but embrace and capitalise on the opportunity implicit within it, particularly when it comes to media planning and new growth opportunities which can come from it.

Let me give you a couple more examples of major demographic shifts that brands and marketers need to understand, adapt to and build into their future plans.

For all the headlines around the 5.5 million Australians who speak a language other than English at home a figure less reported was that 850,000 of these people reported that they do not speak English well or at all.

That’s almost one million potential customers, whose preferred language might not be English.

I’m not sure many brands would want to ignore such a sizable audience, but I’m also aware that many marketers aren’t necessarily thinking enough about how to connect and authentically engage with this audience. An understanding of this growing demographic was a key driver in the decision to launch the multilingual news channel in SBS WorldWatch, with dedicated local Mandarin and Arabic news programming with established connections to these communities, at its heart.

Last week’s data shows there are now 812,000 Australians who identify as First Nations. That’s 3.2 per cent of the total census count and an increase of more than 25 per cent in five years. The data also reflects significant linguistic diversity among Indigenous Australians, with some 167 First Nations languages spoken across Australia – an increase from the 150 reported in the previous Census.

It’s important to note that there are a number of factors which influence this data, but it highlights the diversity of cultures and experiences among Australia’s Indigenous population – another nuance not widely understood by media planners and agencies. That is among the reasons why the Beyond 3% initiative was last year, to raise awareness of the role and value of First Nations media, and the audiences they reach and serve. As well as supporting the strength of the First Nations media sector, we want to mature the conversation between communities and marketers to everyone’s benefit.

Contemporary Australia is a vibrant cultural and linguistic tapestry – a nation home to the oldest living culture on Earth, alongside people who have come here from all over the world. Our complexity as a nation will only increase, and our sector needs to not only acknowledge this, but understand it.

Doing this will help us better engage with the broad diversity of an Australia that is anything but ‘older, whiter and smaller’.

Adam Sadler is director media sales for SBS

Today SBS launched its Census Explorer website. The interactive tool is designed to give community groups, business and government the ability to explore the 2021 Census results in eight different languages with powerful visual tools, including data from 2016 and 2011 for comparison purposes.


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