Sun, sand and salesmanship

Sun, sand and salesmanship - 17th April 2004
(Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)

It will take more than Hoges and a friendly "G'day" to fire up our troubled tourism industry, write Anthony Dennis and Julian Lee.

When Paul Hogan, drenched in Sydney sunshine and standing in the otherwise off-limits grounds of Kirribilli House, called a prawn a shrimp, he not only put a crustacean on a barbecue, he put Australia on the tourism map. In the two decades since, Australia's international visitor numbers have increased from fewer than a million a year to about 5 million.

At the same time, the international tourism market has also grown and become much more competitive. Since the 1980s tourism has become increasingly important economically to more countries, especially in Asia where hundreds of millions of dollars are spent annually promoting national brands. And with each global or regional crisis there's even more spending.

So, in less than a month, the Australian Tourist Commission will launch the biggest and most expensive tourism marketing drive since those first Hogan ads of 1983. Twenty-one years on, the impact of that shrimp - though among the most powerful messages in Australian advertising history - has well and truly waned. And to some extent, so has the inbound tourism industry, battered by a series of shocks since its zenith at the time of the Sydney Olympics.

The appeal of the Hogan campaign was not a prawn and a barbecue but rather the sunny invitation to "come and say g'day". Today's message would have to be more insistent, what with the effects of September 11, SARS, the avian flu, the Ansett collapse, conflict in Iraq and the pervasive threat of terrorism.

"There was a systemic complacency from everywhere about tourism that was completely shaken by September 11," says Joe Hockey, the federal Minister for Small Business and Tourism. "That one day killed the volume factor and the thin margins that the industry had operated on no longer became viable."

Still, tourism remains a $70 billion industry, accounting for nearly 5 per cent of Australia's GDP in 2001-2002.

There are so many overseas destinations promoting themselves that they have all metamorphosed into what one senior industry player describes as "one big place called 'Holiday"' with one destination almost indistinguishable from another. And with static marketing budgets for some years, Australia's voice has been muted.

With some 500,000 Australians employed in tourism, governments are increasingly cognisant of the potential economic and political costs of an ailing industry. The industry has suffered three consecutive years of negative growth which has only recently turned around. But the prospect of another crash is never far from the minds of tourism chiefs.

Late last year the Howard Government threw the sector a lifeline of $235 million as part of a restructuring of the embattled industry. The money is spread over more than four years with $120 million earmarked for international marketing, topping up the ATC's existing $90 million annual budget.

The challenge is for Australia to distinguish itself in a crowded market. After more than a year, the ATC believes it's redefined what Australia stands for. The pitch of the new series of commercials remains confidential until a launch in Sydney next month. However, the minister reckons "proud Australians" will shed a tear. "But I don't just want glossy ads and froth and bubble. What we need is to promise and [then to] over-deliver."

The commercials, many featuring well-known Australians, will be first aired in Britain, Singapore and Italy. "It's the first major investment in brand Australia for a decade," says Stephen O'Neill, the ATC's marketing chief.

"I'd like to see something that really plays to our strengths ... what we as Australians are all about," says Nicholas Davie, chief executive of Publicis Mojo and one of the team which created the original Hogan ads. He argues that tourists will travel across the world only for something they can't get on their own doorstep. Davie says that the current "Have You Ever" campaign, which praises our beaches, shopping and food, does little to promote what he calls the "creative touchpoints" that distinguish Australia like our open and friendly people and their sense of humour. "All they [tourists] are getting at the moment is a Europe of the southern hemisphere," he says. "What's the point?"

The theme of the new campaign is understood to centre on elusive-sounding "brand values" of land, light and life, qualities that, based on research, the ATC and its advertising agency believe reflect Australia's point of difference.

The debate over whether to just bring out the kangaroos and koalas or to present a more modern and sophisticated image is perennial. There is a recognition that Australia needs to move on. But to what?

"The Hogan campaign introduced Australia to the world," says O'Neill. "We're not trying to compete with it but we do now need to build on a broader awareness and knowledge of Australia among prospective visitors."

The ATC's attempt four years ago to reprise Hogan - together with a cuddly koala - was criticised as projecting an outdated "ocker" image. The Herald labelled it an insult to "assume the only images of Australia that Americans can comprehend are bushbashers and cuddly animals".

"The ghost of Hogan is still stalking them," says Tom McFarlane, creative director at M&C Saatchi. "They can't avoid it. I think Americans would be slightly disappointed if they came [to Australia] and we weren't a little bit cheeky, cocky and a bit like Steve Irwin. I know I would."

The trick, says McFarlane, is to distil the essence of what Australia is and build a brand, much like he did when he created the 100% Pure New Zealand ads that make that land's rugged scenery the "hero" of the campaign. This hugely successful campaign - underpinned by The Lord of the Rings trilogy shot in New Zealand - has consolidated the country's "clean and green" image.

A measure of that uncertainty confronting tourism are the revised expectations for visitor numbers. In the heady days after the Olympics, the Tourism Forecasting Council predicted 10 million visitors by 2010: that has now been reduced to just 6.9 million in six years' time and 7.7 million in 2012.

Australia will need more on the barbie than just a few shrimps.


Media websites

The Sydney Morning Herald

Government websites

Australian Tourist Commission (

Australian Tourist Commision (ATC Online)


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