We should be aiming for a United States of Australia

Interbrand CEO Nathan Birch explodes the myth of Australia's most clichéd advertising premise.

It’s what we’ve all been waiting for. Australia Day (26 January) is getting closer and we’re awaiting the Meat and Livestock Association iconic ad spot.

In the latest cracker, we fast forward to 2030 and a nation divided into states – this time by looming concrete walls. There’s only one thing that can get us to burst open the borders. A symbol of solidarity. An undertaking of unity. And that’s, of course, by all Australians coming together to share a humble lamb chop on the barbie.

And within the triumphant closing scene, a grinning, pig-tailed 10-year-old girl smiles and utters, “We did it, the United States of Australia.”

“Nah, it’s just Australia,” replies the wise old protagonist.

All Australians coming together as a nation, united by our shared values, has always been the through-line of these ads. But as we move past a year like no other, it’s worth asking ourselves: just how united is Australia in reality?

Last year, Interbrand launched C-Space, our own insight and research capability in Australia. As our market research panel, it helps test and understand some of the more interesting problems. It consists of a statistically representative panel of all Australians. And over the past six months, we’ve quizzed them on a range of questions, from milk to sport, from tattoos to funerals.

In December – as we looked back at the year that changed everything – we asked a series of questions around one topic. Australians, are we a team divided or team united?

The key insight was stark.  And it leads us to believe that most overused Australian advertising trope – one we have seen over and over – that we can define a common vision of Australia that unites us all, is at the moment, a fallacy. Our research showed the nirvana of “just Australia” in the MLA spot doesn’t exist in our current environment.

It turns out, we’re happy to all be Australian but only for a good news story. Usually, if there’s a trophy, gold medal, or a miniature urn filled with ashes, it’s a win for us all.

But on the flip side, there are the other Australians; the losers, the cheats, the rule-breakers or followers. They are the un-Australians.

We only have to look at the diatribe around renaming a cheese brand or a packet of lollies. For some, they are the very essence of what Australia is, an iconic and shiny beacon of everything great about our country. For others, it’s the exact opposite. That’s the difficulty for a brand in trying to appeal to all Australians – it’s like chasing the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Our research also reinforces the suspicion that we all are becoming more parochial, more partisan, and more divided than ever.

And while we haven’t yet gotten around to erecting the steel and concrete imagined in the latest MLA ad, the cracks have already started to appear – politically, emotionally and metaphorically. To quote a Queenslander in our panel, “those <pick any state> w*@#ers, crossing the borders, it’s all because of them…”.

We, as a nation, are very quick to turn against each other. So, if we are not ‘all Australians’, what are we? And who’s to blame?

Naturally, some of the most venomous rhetoric points to the misalignment of individual state premiers and policies. The names Gladys [Berejiklian], Dan [Andrews] and Annastacia [Palaszczuk], didn’t come up in 2019. Now, we all know precisely who they are.

COVID-19 isn’t entirely to blame, but it has been an accelerator of our division. As the recent outbreak in Avalon showed us when push comes to shove, we are increasingly comfortable to define ourselves by our divisions.

It didn’t take long for the Northern Beaches of Sydney to descend into farce. Within a matter of hours, everyone was either an “anointed, southern-Northern-Beaches residents” that had their Christmas plans spoiled. Or you were tarred with being one of those “rule-breaking, northern-Northern-Beaches residents” that deserve everything they got in lockdown for ruining it for the rest of us. And to anyone from outside the Northern Beaches, they were all un-Australian.

Outside the more serious conversation about the origins of the country we live in, our research also highlighted Australia’s ambiguity. It’s difficult to define because it’s always meant different things.

Besides loving lamb, we don’t always see eye to eye whether it’s the disagreement about daylight savings. Firmly held opinions about whether it’s called a jaffle or a toastie. Swimmers, togs, cossie, or bathers anyone?

It reminds me of that last time we tried to define our very essence. When brands like the Austrade national brand failed, I wonder if it’s because we were trying to shoehorn ourselves into something that doesn’t yet exist. As a nation, we’re still too young to define an identity that resonates with all Australians. How we act, speak and look is – in reality – such a salmagundi of cultures, ideas, and languages. The only shared value of all Australians from our research seems to be the value of contradiction.

The news isn’t all bad, however. What the research did highlight is the optimism for ‘Team United’.

This positive sentiment comes from celebrating our breadth of diverse cultures, distinctive landscapes and different people. The real lesson is, we should appreciate and recognise all our differences for what they are.

The grinning, pig-tailed 10-year-old in the ad has an idea though. Maybe we should be aiming for a “United States” of Australia before we can call ourselves “just Australians”. That might be worth celebrating with a lamb chop or two.

Nathan Birch is the CEO of Interbrand (and a southern-Northern-Beaches resident) 


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.