Australianness and Identity

May 2, 2013

Understanding Australianness is a complex task, yet one that is well worth pursuing, as our national identity plays a substantial role in how we perceive ourselves and the world around us – not to mention brands.

So, what is Australianness?

There are many lenses that will influence how this question can be answered. And what is not surprising, from observations of 8 years of our own research coupled with an interdisciplinary study, that there are a great variety of constructs, values and beliefs that form part our Australianness. Mateship, hard work, multiculturalism, larrikinism and humility, to name but a few.

Whilst many of the central themes of Australianness appear to take on more traditional hues, it’s interesting that even today these qualities and values still maintain prominence in the minds of a cross section of Australians of different backgrounds, lifestages and genders.

Egalitarianism, our dominant ideal

Despite the complexity of our national identity, it was evident through our study that there appears to be a dominant ideal, egalitarianism - the notion that we’re all equal. As Australians we support the ideal that everyone deserves equitable treatment, the right to live a good life, a ‘fair go’. We cut down the ‘tall poppy’ and aggrandise the ‘Aussie battler' as we believe no one should be superior or inferior.

Our egalitarian ideal is something that differentiates us from many other nations. Sure, you’re probably thinking, what about the US – “the land of the free”? Well Australia’s emphasis on equality extends beyond the equality of opportunity that is evident in the American “rags to riches” expression. Rather Australia’s emphasis is on creating a common level.

Francis Adams summed it up nicely when he said,

“In England, the average man feels that he is an inferior, in America he feels that he is a superior, in Australia he feels that he is an equal.”

Egalitarianism, constructed and reinforced overtime

Our egalitarianism ideal has been constructed and reinforced into our national psyche overtime:

From our free settlers, battling oppression and the harsh Australian environment conditions. Working together as ‘mates’ to survive. To the Eureka Stockade, and gold diggers rebelling against unfair taxes.

As well as our ANZACs, bushmen turn soldiers who courageously fought against the odds to protect our freedom. As history tells us, they fought with little regard for British army ranks and their regimented hierarchies, but with unlimited dedication to their fellow men.

Egalitarianism in our everyday life

The idea of egalitarianism is not a huge revelation in itself. I know, on a personal note, it’s something that I’ve always associated with Australianness.

However, what I have found to be most remarkable is how integral egalitarianism is in the construction of our identity and how deeply interwoven it is in our everyday life.

Think of the way Aussies speak. No Sirs and Madams. Abbreviations over pretentious long words. Our language is casual, absent of formality and social hierarchy, which creates a sense of closeness. 

Or our leveling sense of humour. It’s part of our ideal of not taking things – or oneself for that matter - too seriously.

Our culture is littered with subconscious markers of unity and togetherness. The ‘round’ at a pub, where we all drink as one. Our national flower, the Wattle, which can be grown from far North Queensland down to the tip of Tassie.

And when there is incongruence between our egalitarian ideals and our social behaviour, such as our treatment of the indigenous and ‘boat people’, we see major debate and friction.

Underdogs & Tall Poppies

Egalitarianism underpins so many of our other hallmarks of Australianness. In particular, our love for an underdog and despise for the tall poppy.

We love an underdog

The Anzacs

The championing of the underdog supports our egalitarianism ideals as it reinforces the belief we are all equal. That no one should be superior, and nor someone inferior.

The love for the underdog in not solely Australian, but it does take on a far more egalitarian frame in our culture. For us, underdogs don’t have to win to be admired. Think of stories of the Anzacs, Ned Kelly, Eureka Stockade and more recently the 2006 Socceroos. It’s not all about victory for Australians, we draw inspiration by their approach. How they’ve battled against the odds. It’s their stories of courage, hard work, perseverance and ingenuity that we all relate to as they help us feel we can battle against the odds too. It’s not surprising that it’s these stories which are at the heart of some of our most powerful brands. VB and Hilux are great exemplars.

The “Tall Poppy Syndrome”

Despite our love for the underdog and their symbolic representation, it doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate success. But there is a fine line, as one of the Australian crickets recently discovered. Those who become successful and lose a sense of humility quickly fall out of favour as they no longer feel like one of us. It’s all about them, not the collective. And here lies the Australian’ “Tall Poppy Syndrome” – cutting down those who have gotten too big for their boots.

Australians are mindful of giving off the impression that we think we’re better than anyone else. And we regulate our own sense of superiority through modesty, humbleness, authenticity and a self-deprecating sense of humour.

I always enjoy listening to AFL post game interviews, where more often than not we hear the player of the match downplay their success - “it was a good team effort”, “my team mates won the ball and kept passing it to me, I was just lucky to kick a few goals”. These so called ‘footy clichés’ are linguistic codes of our egalitarian culture.  

The Australian Leveling Construct

The Underdog and Tall Poppy Complex are no doubt interwoven. As achieving the ‘common level’ is a fine balance between rewarding effort and getting ahead of oneself. We have developed the “Australian Levelling Construct” to capture this relationship.

We believe this model can be utilised as a tool for brands seeking to broaden their mass-market appeal and create a stronger connection/sense of belonging with Australian consumers.

More on that later.

But first, something you’ve probably been considering - do we truly live in an egalitarian society?

Egalitarianism challenged

Our egalitarian ideal is being challenged. We’re seeing it the news everyday. The two speed economy, growing divide between the rich and poor, decreasing housing affordability, increasingly global culture, and a shifting job market requiring higher skills.

So, does this mean what makes us Australian is losing relevance?

It is our belief that as the gap between our egalitarian ideals and realities widens our desire for our ideal is heightened.

We experience cultural tension when something that is so deeply engrained into who we are and the way we live feels like it’s slipping away. In these times, our egalitarian ideals become more important as they provide us with a sense of belonging and security. Markers of egalitarianism become more significant too, as they help to reaffirm our belief system. Did anyone else notice that we had record crowds at our ANZAC day dawn services this year?

The role for brands

Brands can help consumers connect with the Australian identity that they are seeking to preserve by being a symbolic representation of their ideals. And this is why we believe the “Australian Leveling Construct” can become a powerful a tool for brands that want to achieve mass-market appeal and create a stronger connection/sense of belonging with Australian consumers.

Marketers can utilise the model to either elevate the perception of challenger brands and/or reconnect premium brands that feel distant. To make these adjustments, a brand can leverage a bank of values and qualities that are at the core of our national psyche and relevant to the brand in question.

There are many different ways this can be executed. Here a few quick examples. A brand could;

·  Tell a story of courage

·  Adopt a self-depreciating style of humour in its communication.

·  Design accessible premium products and experiences

·  Use typography that feels casual and authentic.

·  Pull down its corporate veneer and get consumers more involved with their brand, whether it be through communities or co-creation.

We’re fortunate to work with a few brands that tap into our egalitarian ideals, including Bega cheese, which I feel does a great job it.

Bega Cheese is one of Australian’s most successful brands. It’s the 4th biggest selling brand in the supermarket, and it’s priced at a premium relative to its competitors. Despite this, Bega has never felt distant. Rather Bega has balanced its superior stature by telling us endearing stories of humble hardworking diary farmers. And although I have never visited Bega Valley, the brand very much feels very much like it’s ‘one of us’.