(This article first appeared in the Australian Spectator on 11 June 2013).
Let’s start by taking note of the ancient wisdom, “Where there is no vision, people perish.” – Bible, Proverbs 29:18 Despite its lack of maturity compared to other nations, Australia has a rich history. It is a safe, friendly culture, with strong economic stability. But is Australia an entrepreneurial country and how do we stand up to the rest of the world? Jonathan Jackson speaks with brand expert and founder of Image Group International Jon-Michail about Australia’s image and what this means from a global perspective.
We have the Anzacs, Bondi beaches, kangaroos, koalas and the outback. VB and Fosters are iconic Australian beers and Vegemite, despite its foreign ownership, is still considered a native (if taste divisive) food. The problem, other than the Anzacs, is that many of our emblematic images are riddled with clichés. And this is what much of the world still sees.
“Yes, Australia has strong branding, but these images draw tourists not investment,” Jon-Michail says.
What we need are strong business brands that have real global impact. “Currently there are only eight Australian brands in the Top 500 in the world and Australia ranks just 22nd on the Economist Innovation Index. It’s not good enough.”
Of those eight brands, all are institutions. The only ones to take any inspiration from are Coles and Woolworths. Coles for example started as a one store operation in 1914 and nearly 100 years later is a global powerhouse. It proves that small business can make an impact and become globally aware.
The problem, however, is that too few Australian brands or companies are making an impact. So why countries should invest here, or treat us as a global superpower is a problem that needs to be addressed. This is especially the case when government is not helping. According to David Purchase, the executive director of the Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce, small businesses are being squeezed out ofexistence, by government and big business.
At a recent black-tie dinner, Purchase said, ‘’Many small businesses, be they suppliers to supermarkets, newsagents, independent service stations, new car dealers or motor vehicle crash repairers, are claiming that those big businesses with whom they deal are increasingly treating them unfairly and in some instances, unconscionably.’’
There are two million small businesses that employ five million people. They are key to domestic and international investment and confidence. It is these businesses who push Australia’s credentials as a country to do business with – these companies are our main brands.
Yet, we live in times where the squeeze on small business including higher rents and higher taxes are being dealt with through cost cutting measures including staff. It’s not a good look for those who are seeking to invest.
“The problem this causes,” says Jon-Michail, “is that businesses are driven out of particular markets, decreasing choice and driving up prices.”
There is another, more pressing problem when it comes to nations looking at investing into Australia: the instability of government and regulatory bodies may cause dilemma and confusion among potential investors.
“In recent times we have seen scandal after scandal, placing Australia in a negative light. The Reserve Bank Securency Scandal saw RBA companies Securency and Note Printing Australia charged with bribing foreign officials to win banknote contracts. Internal documents then contradicted parliamentary testimony by Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens that the bank knew nothing about the Securency banknote scandal before it became public in 2009.
“The Australian Wheat Board Scandal includes bribes and extortions that date back to Monday, June 21, 1999, when officials were told they would have to pay an extra $US12 a tonne on an order of 600,000 tonnes, a total of $US7.2million. The bribe was to be paid as a ‘trucking fee’ through Alia, a Jordanian company that had no trucks.
“Then there’s the failed World Cup bid in which the ‘Come Play’ was a sporting disaster. And speaking of sport, the football codes drugs scandal is on par with Lance Armstrong’s.”
Finally, but there are many more examples, is the state of the Australian government. The Labor Party is a laughing stock. The Labor Party has little faith in Ms Gillard and the recent attempt at a leadership spill, was a non-event. This debacle handed the Opposition leader even more cannon fodder with which to attack this minority government, whose policies have been an unmitigated disaster.
So Australia’s branding has taken a battering, but there are things that can be done to reverse the situation and it begins with highlighting the good work conducted by business and educational institutions.
The University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney have been rated in the Top 50 universities in the world. This is significant as it is evidence that Australia is creating future global leaders and entrepreneurs; those who can drive this country forward with a proper world view.
“To leverage the reputation of these institutions it is necessary to further nurture these students and make other countries aware that we have significant business and entrepreneurial flair moving through the ranks,” Jon says.
“The other positive to come out of the country in recent years, is the mining boom. This boom has highlighted the entrepreneurial spirit and success that can be found amongst those who are willing to explore.” The government however is playing class warfare with miners and entrepreneurs and this is sending mixed messages to countries who wish to do business here.
“Instead of playing rich against poor, we must support and promote small business, entrepreneurs and the concept of entrepreneurship.”
Jon-Michail says more government support is also required. Yet class warfare is getting in the way.
“It would be nice for small business to have the support of government and to have government invest in their brand, but there is no support and in the past many entrepreneurs in this country have been associated with crooks.
“Yet, Australia has enough young entrepreneurs and innovators to warrant a level of support.”
However, without government support, the world will continue to visit Australia, but as tourists or retirees and ‘faux’ investors.
“Australia is generally not viewed as an entrepreneurial country,” Jon-Michail says. “Historically the USA was viewed as the entrepreneur’s dream and Australia had a difficult time keeping up with their entrepreneurial ethos, but in recent times others have also come onto the scene with government- supported campaigns to assist entrepreneurs to achieve success. Countries including England, Chile, Malaysia and Singapore are showing the way. Even Communist China has become entrepreneurial and they seem to be the only country willing to invest heavily into Australia.”
The British entrepreneurial resurgence is something Australia should be taking note of. The luxury, something which Britain was always noted for, is back and it has support.
“Britain is reclaiming its badge of quality,” Jon-Michail says. “Prestige is back and the message coming out of the British government is that entrepreneurs are great. This is the difference between the way Australia and Britain treats its entrepreneurs. The British put them in your face, while Australians concentrate on passé notions of celebrity to sell tourism.”
The class warfare being waged by governments is a branding nightmare and government fails to realise that small businesses are moving operations offshore, taking their profits with them and robbing Australia of some great brands.
“There needs to be change from the top and it needs to come from government and it needs to be in support of new concepts. Just look at how support for the national disability scheme grew after government backed it fully. This is what is needed for small business and entrepreneurs, because this creates confidence.
“Our governments now support more and more the ‘entitlement mentality’ and less the ‘have a go’ ethos of the past. We need to make it so that the winners in the system are those who provide value, benefits and services and real wealth for the smallest environmental footprint. We need to be the truly clever country. Wise rather than smart and reward people and business who produce real sustainable value through innovation, creativity and hard work.”
By doing this we are sure to move Australia’s business brand beyond the clichés of the past and into a more global, sustainable future.