January 2006

Keep it simple, mate

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Keep it simple, mate

The Australian, Friday 27 January 2006

Despite John Howard's relationship with George W. Bush and a landmark free trade agreement, kangaroos and boofheads are the images that sell Australia in the US, writes Geoff Elliot
News source: The Australian, Friday 27 January 2006

STEVE Irwin was struggling. He'd ripped the cruciate ligament in his left knee while training with his bodyguard and a few days later he was on stage at the University of California Los Angeles campus in front of more than a thousand people, wrestling a whopping anaconda. Then there was an alligator to romp with, and then a Bengal tiger, a cobra, a rattlesnake, and so it went on.

He was obviously in pain. "I'm only running at about 50 per cent," he told the crowd. But Irwin had a job to do: promote Australia . So he winced and groaned his way through the show, sweating profusely.

"Mate, it's easy," he told the crowd, of the flight to Australia . "You get on to Qantas, watch a few movies, sip a few Australian wines, have a slash, a sleep and you're there.

"When you arrive, the kangaroos will be jumping around as soon as you get out of the airport and you got to watch those drop bears, they fall straight out of the trees on to your head." There was uneasy laughter from the audience, which didn't get the language or the humour, and possibly took Irwin at his word.

Despite years of promotion there is comparatively little known about Australia among the general population in US. It's not uncommon to be asked what language Australians speak (and hearing Irwin at full throttle that's hardly surprising).

But Irwin, with his mangled strine, is front and centre of a new Australian-made logo campaign, designed to lift Australian exports to the US and internationally. Irwin will also feature in a new "visit Australia " marketing push, to be launched in the next two months by the federal Government's Australian tourism agency.

This is deja vu. Call it Crocodile Dundee mark II.

Tim Fischer, chairman of Tourism Australia , says Irwin fits the "need for a 21st version of the shrimp on the barbecue", referring to the successful 1980s tourism promotion using Paul Hogan - the brainchild of former federal Labor tourism minister John Brown. "We should never walk away from the unique dimensions of the Australian character," Fischer adds.

There's been plenty of navel gazing among image makers and trade representatives about how to brand Australia and they have questioned whether someone like Irwin is the right man for the job. The khaki-wearing, blond, white showman represents a stereotype that hardly reflects a multiracial society with a highly urbanised population. Some ask whether Australia shouldn't be pitching a more sophisticated image: of fine wines and food and clever financial engineering, Macquarie Bank style.

Ian Harrison, the chief executive of the Australian Made Campaign Ltd, the not-for-profit group that owns the Australian Made logo, which started under the Hawke government in 1986, admits he thought long and hard about the marketing implications of using Irwin. "The challenge for us is that we have a symbol that we are seeking to promote as a product symbol of Australia and what that means in different market segments," Harrison says.

But Harrison came to the realisation, like a lot of the 8000 successful Australian exporters to the US market, that so little is known about our products that branding it "Australian made" with someone as instantly recognisable as Irwin is paramount.

Irwin's television shows screen on the Discovery wildlife cable channel and he has been such a huge hit as the Crocodile Hunter he's more famous in the US than in Australia .

US advertising agencies who poll celebrities to decide whether to use them for product campaigns have consistently ranked Irwin in the top tier in America for "likeability" and "credibility", says Rachel Crowley, US spokesman for Tourism Australia . "He is extremely popular in America and he is such a recognisable Australian face."

But what about the finer things in Australia and our value-added products? "Look," says Harrison , "Steve probably doesn't get us down the path of being recognised as an advanced manufacturing economy but that will follow. We have to establish a presence in the marketplace first.

"The challenge is, we have to attract attention first and to get the assistance of someone like Steve is fantastic and it has worked brilliantly." The "next step" is to lock in another celebrity with a more sophisticated image, rumoured to be Olivia Newton John.

"There are people - not me - who get quite upset with campaigns that identify Australia with kangaroos, beaches and beer," says Robert Hunt, a San Francisco native who is married to an Australian and is a senior investment commissioner at the federal government's Invest Australia, an agency promoting trade and investment. "I used to be one of those people, but I'm not as upset by that any more. Anything that raises awareness of Australia is probably good."

Former Labor senator Stephen Loosley, chairman of the Committee for Sydney, a business lobby that promotes Sydney as an international commercial centre, says the US is a fragmented and diverse market but that "Steve occupies a particular niche" with an ability to get a message out.

There's no doubt that Irwin is an instantly recognisable Australian face in a crowded media and advertising scene in the US . Banner posters of Irwin, featuring the Australian Made logo, were displayed in specialist supermarkets in LA last week, where Australian food products were on show.

The Irwin ads also ran in the mass-circulation Los Angeles Times as part of a week-long Australian promotion known as G'day LA, now in its third year. It was started by John Olsen, the former South Australian premier and present Los Angeles consul-general. He plans to expand the concept to the east coast in his new role as consul-general in New York , starting in March.

G'Day LA attracts a host of Australian trade representatives and exporters, including Harrison who was talking to exporters last week, trying to rebuild the Australian Made logo franchise and increase the market for Australia 's products and potential.

The Australian Made Campaign company has about 1000 exporters who pay a fee for the right to use the kangaroo in the triangle. The venture has a fraught history, including a period of receivership when funding dried up after the Howard Government came to power in 1996. The program was relaunched in 1999.

Harrison 's enthusiasm for the Crocodile Hunter is no doubt helped by the fact that Irwin is giving his time and image to the Australian Made campaign for free. Irwin's only request was that the campaign contribute a donation, of any amount Harrison wishes, to Irwin's wildlife fund. Irwin has also been offering services gratis to Tourism Australia . "Steve's incredibly generous, he's great like that," adds Crowley .

Irwin was swamped by the media after his show. Hollywood fixture Tom Arnold (whose movie credits include Austin Powers and True Lies) ran up to Irwin with a camera crew and bear-hugged him like a long lost brother. "Oh, mate! How you doing?" said Irwin as Arnold collared him for a segment on the US TV series, The Best Damn Sports Show Period.

Despite the Howard Government's support for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan , Australia hasn't moved beyond novelty value in the US . Australian products are finding a niche but have a long way to go, says Kylie Hargreaves, Australia 's senior trade commissioner for Austrade in Los Angeles . "I was at an in-store promotion of Australian cheeses, and the Americans with me said: 'Oh my goodness, I didn't know Australia made cheese'."

Hargreaves, whose father Graeme was a trade commissioner in Singapore in the 1980s and who helped promote Australian apples and pears there, says Irwin is a perfect vehicle. She calls it guerilla marketing: using whatever message you can to be heard. "Outside the obvious areas of film and tourism, the US business and consumer markets have a very low level of awareness of Australian capabilities," she says. For Australian exporters, Australia 's landmark free trade agreement with the US was just the start, and certainly no guarantee of success.

"Competitor nations, industries and companies hold regular awareness-raising and marketing campaigns, often several times a year, so there is considerable competitive noise in the marketplace," Hargreaves says.

"So it's important to run a campaign that is instantly recognisable."

Hargreaves says a simple Australian-made branding campaign is also key - like the one Harrison has created - and warned parochial state-by-state branding campaigns are a waste of money in international markets.

"It would take far more advertising dollars to promote an image of West Australian seafood that would actually stick in consumers' minds, than it would to use something like the Steve Irwin Australian Made campaign to draw shoppers' attention to West Australian seafood on display.

"With this sort of approach, the Australian association is already very present in the minds of the consumer and we can then move on to trying to embed the second-level messaging that Australia is much more than travel and film stars."

That Irwin can guarantee media airtime should not be underestimated in a market the size of the US , says Hargreaves, where greater LA has a population the size of Australia 's. At last count, the US had 41,932 supermarkets against Australia 's 3775. There are 17,866 toy shops in the US ; Australia has 763. And there are 14,801 domestic airports to Australia 's 444.

Geoff Elliott is The Australian's Washington correspondent.