THE term “quality” is becoming infinitely elastic.
Once a description of fit and function, it is being extended to less tangible things like ethics, environmental issues and safety.
That’s one of the reasons that a “Brand Australia” strategy could be valuable to Australian agriculture. Instead of separately elaborating on all these manifestations of quality, a successful brand imparts an understanding of quality in shorthand.
However in doing so, the brand needs to address a fundamental question: does it exist merely as a slogan or a symbol, like the ‘Nike tick’, or a promise, like the ISO standards?
A brand that exists as a brand alone is a far cheaper and easier option. New Zealand agriculture’s adoption of the slogan devised for a phenomenally successful tourism campaign, ‘100% Pure New Zealand’, appears to have been a powerful off-the-shelf device for sharpening consumer perceptions already primed by the Lord of the Rings films.
But that campaign wasn’t underpinned by the rigour necessary to make it a promise. That fact began to draw some unwanted media attention, listed by Geoff Cumming in the New Zealand Herald in 2010:
“In the past year,” Cumming wrote, “we’ve been taken to task for our performance on greenhouse gases (by a columnist in The Guardian) and for the impact on hoki stocks from bottom-trawling (by The New York Times). A report by one of our own, the Cawthron Institute, found we had one of the dirtiest rivers – the Manawatu – in the western world. And our dairy industry was criticised for high use of palm kernel imported from plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia cleared of forest where orang-utan once lived.”
Sub-editors had a lively time with these contradictions, devising headlines like ‘100 per cent pure manure’ (The Daily Mail); ‘100 per cent pure hype’, (New Zealand Herald), and ‘100 percent purely evasive’, (Idealog).
After a 2013 milk contamination scare, the combative China Daily wrote that “100 per cent pure New Zealand is nothing but a festering sore”.
The damage is unlikely to have greatly diminished the value New Zealand has extracted from the 10-year-old slogan, but the headlines wouldn’t have appeared at all had not New Zealand appeared to have been making a promise unfounded in fact.
The more robust option for a brand, and the vastly more expensive one, is to build a system that underpins its promise.
Each Australian agricultural sector already operates within a web of quality control regulations. It is conceivable that this network of regulation could be partly standardised and refined into a system that underpins any claims Australian agriculture wishes to make for its output.
The more effective and robust method would be to apply a standard across all the food and fibre being branded.
It’s possible, as the United Kingdom agriculture sector has shown with its Red Tractor brand.
But given that the discussion about Brand Australia has dragged on fitfully for the decade the Kiwis have been making hay with “100% Pure New Zealand”, that might be a luxury we can’t afford.
In a country where, next to Kiwi nimbleness, we seem to be operating in dog years, we might need to first establish Australian agriculture’s relationship with the world in the form of a brand, and put rigour behind it later.
Adapted from Matthew Cawood’s 2014 John Ralph essay, printed in the Summer 2014 issue of AFI’s Farm Policy Journal - download the editorial summary here and read the full article here.