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Who we are

Erryn Balzan






Once A Jolly Swagman

Australia has an identity crisis; or at least multiple and disparate identities. We’ve come a long way from our colonial beginnings (in addition of course to 50,000+ years of continuous habitation and cultural history among indigenous Australians). We are today an island nation in which more than a quarter of our population are born overseas; where net immigration outstrips ‘natural’ population growth, and where the once idealised rural ‘Aussie battler’, scratching out a living from sun baked land, has given way to a tech-native, middle class and very globally minded ‘average Australian’ (if there is indeed such a thing). We are also a primarily urbanised population, with Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane now serving as home to about half of all Australians.

We are a fundamentally successful example of multiculturalism, defined by our history of immigration, each wave of which has profoundly impacted the evolution of the Australian character. Today we find ourselves amidst the burgeoning of an ‘Asian century’, in which Australia is seeking to understand itself as an Asian-Pacific nation and increasingly, to engage within the region politically, socially and economically (by winning the Asian Cup of Soccer, the imminent TPP, free trade agreements with China and Japan, etc.). Our traditionally prevalent national mentality - the battlers down under, the independent spirits, is now giving way to a connectedness and even reliance on regional neighbours. This creates a dynamic tension between who we were, who we are, and who we want to be.

The progression of our Aussie character from a sort of ‘national adolescence’ to fully fledged ‘big-boy status’ is ongoing and far from consistent. We’re somewhat of an anomaly amongst our far-flung cohorts in the Anglosphere. Whereas New Zealand, Canada, the UK and (most screamingly) the United States all have a fairly clearly defined and well established national identity, Australians are still hesitant in projecting national pride, often preferring self-deprecation and a deference to tall-poppy syndrome. Oftentimes our identity can be more powerfully linked to a state or territory. You only need to look as far as our tastes in beer, football codes or our most heated sporting rivalries – all are largely based upon which state you hail from.

This may in part stem from the scale of our geography, which causes us to perceive ourselves as outsiders, occupiers of a global periphery, an afterthought. In turn we exhibit profound ‘FOMO’, (‘fear of missing out’ for the acronym naïve amongst us) evident in the frenzied excitement generated by the arrival of international fashion retailers. Or the fact that so many of us hold current passports and frequently travel abroad… we just can’t wait to get out of here and see what’s going on in the ‘real world’!

But in our mind’s eye we’re not simply global bogans (Glo-Bo’s? I’m claiming it), missing out on all the good stuff by languishing at the edge of the map. When we look in the mirror we see an isolated underdog yes, but one who is also clever, savvy, nimble and adaptable. We make our own rules out here, and break them as we see fit – an enduring quality from colonial days and a pioneering spirit still present in our national DNA. In archetypal terms we’re the Outlaw – Rebels raging against the powers that be, writing our own script whenever the existing one feels unfair. For an example I’d point to our national pastime of illegal downloading, for which lack of equitable access is often blamed, rather than any unwillingness to pay for content. We’re Ned Kelly, fighting a good fight and ‘keeping the bastards honest’.

This is a mentality fraught with paradox… We strive for togetherness under an archetypal mindset that is traditionally quite self-serving. We demand a fair playing field but reserve the right to step outside the boundaries if we disagree with where they’re set. We hand the balance of power to minor parties and then complain when governments make compromises. We are dazzled by the grandiose patriotism of Americans, but remain quietly supportive of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks’s pot-stirring.

So what binds us together amongst all this noise, all these fractured belief systems and seemingly opposing agendas? What is the thread that endures at the beating heart of our national identity?

At our core, Australians believe in a fair go for the little guy. A fair crack of the whip. We always have. We love a dark horse - to see a longshot succeed and perhaps poke a finger in the eye of established authority along the way.

Brands like James squire beer project this distinctly Australian ‘outlaw’ archetype with product names like ‘nine tails’ and ‘one fifty lashes’ sitting alongside images of fairly shady looking, denim work shirted, tattooed and heavily bearded men, tapping into our (perhaps not so distant) convict-colonial roots.

Another brand having great success by delivering to our national desire to mess with the big guys is Aldi. Aldi plays the role of disruptor to a tea. They forego the bells and whistles (or what we secretly suspect are the smoke and mirrors) of colourful marketing and lavish shopping experience to give it to us straight, and talk to us as equals. Aldi shoppers become comrades in arms - accomplices breaking a duopoly by rustling market share from Coles and Woolworths.

This outlaw mentality is also evident in the current war being waged in the entertainment media industry. The arrival of US powerhouse Netflix has triggered a massive step change from the incumbent Foxtel (who recently slashed their prices) and sparked the launch of local competitors ‘Stan’ and ‘Presto’. Whilst take-up of Netflix remains to be seen, the public enthusiasm (bordering on obsession) with their arrival talks to our excitement at ‘Australians no longer being an afterthought’ (as one journalist succinctly put it), but also - perhaps more powerfully - to our joy at the shaking up of the pot, the smashing of the status-quo. Foxtel had for many years been in a sense the ‘gatekeeper’ of popular international content, those cultural narratives and topics of online conversation which we so desperately want to watch, participate in and feel a part of. Pay television’s comparatively low penetration in Australia is indicative of a public who rejected the ransoming of international content, as evidenced by our world record breaking illegal downloads of ‘Game of Thrones’, which has to some extent become somewhat of a badge of honour. The hype surrounding this unfolding battle around content exists largely because Australian consumers sense that a jailbreak is on.

So will this opening of access to the global community brought on by the arrival of international disruptors relieve our identity tension? Probably not. We recently saw news stories of a court decision which will require an Australian ISP to divulge the details of individual users claimed to have illicitly downloaded the film ‘Dallas Buyers club’. Barely hours later we heard that this would not deter internet pirates and wasn’t the right way to address the problem. Once again it is being argued that affordable and timely (i.e. fair for the Australian consumer) access is the right way to decrease online media piracy.

This is an example of how we fundamentally disagree with punishing the individual in favour of the corporation and here again the outlaw is setting the rules, this time demanding everybody else play by them. For the marketing world of course, the underlying story here is that there is an exciting opportunity for brands to be a unifying force for Australians, by talking to the outlaw we see when we look in the mirror.

Erryn Balzan, Account Manager at GALKAL (Galileo Kaleidoscope Pty Ltd)