Prime Minister Howard says Australia’s national identity debate is over. He couldn’t be more wrong. It’s just getting started.
Signs are that whoever becomes our next Prime Minister will take up the challenge to reignite the republic issue. But we will reap more dividends from an inclusive discussion rather than a divisive debate, with a focus on those aspects of our identity that can unite us as a nation. A new consensus, which real bipartisan leadership could achieve, will both strengthen us as a community and improve our position in the world.
Australians may be supremely disinterested in talking about models for selecting an Australian head of state, but they sure are interested in talking about our national values and our identity. From daily talkback radio to school classrooms and weekend barbeques, there is passionate discussion about what it means to be Australian and our national interest. It is not too difficult to discern some rallying points, around which we find consensus, that help us to understand ourselves and can also have real value in promoting Australian interests in the world.
Tourism Minister Joe Hockey in unveiling his Brand Australia campaign recently, identified four “brand values” that go to the core of Australian identity: inclusiveness, irreverence, optimism and mateship. They are hard to argue with. And that is the great strength of identifying common values, because if you can eliminate the argument you can move forward in a constructive way.
As Mr Hockey knows, if we have ownership as a community of a set of unique “brand values”, this has enormous economic value to us as a nation in positioning ourselves in a competitive global economy. It goes even further than branding ourselves as a unique tourism experience for international travellers. Having a strong sense of national identity and a set of unique values that are capable of being projected as a “brand” adds value to many other goods and services that we offer to the world.
In a cluttered global marketplace, every differentiating factor can make a real difference.
We all know how valuable national brand identity is to Germany (who would question the quality of a German product?) or to America (doesn’t Coke make us live the American dream?). Countries without such well established brand identities can also reap real rewards by building a brand identity through relentless promotion, as achieved spectacularly by Korea following the Seoul Olympics. Australia, too, has begun to build a much more visible identity in the world since the Sydney Olympics.
There has been surprisingly little research on what difference a coherent brand identity can make to a country and its products in the marketplace. I undertook research that found both implicit and explicit brand strategies had helped reposition countries such as Ireland and Malaysia to give them a marketing edge where they previously had none.
When a country projects a coherent brand identity to the world, customers of that country’s products will make decisions based on the “halo effect” of the brand, as one of many factors that influence people in their decision making. A coherent brand image that demonstrates a benefit to the customer is therefore a real competitive advantage.
Customers of German and American, even Irish or Malaysian, products know what they are getting. The brand effect is a mixture of national symbols, national personality and national and company structures as well as the more objective product features. All wrapped up together, those elements of the national “brand” provide some guidance to the customer of what to expect and how to choose between the products of one country over another.
What do customers of Australian products know of our national “brand”? The package of personality and attitude summed up in the Brand Australia values of inclusiveness, irreverence, optimism and mateship can help to sell more than tourism because it is a package of features that appeals to markets for a broad range of Australian goods and services, from wine and food to education and entertainment products.
Even in so-called commodity trade, Australia’s national brand identity appears to play somewhat of an intangible but influencing role. Not to mention the obvious edge national brand identity provides for promoting inward investment into the Australian economy.
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