In May last year, place-branding expert Todd Babiak was appointed head of Brand Tasmania, newly made a statutory authority and given $1.4 million a year by the state government. Part of its mission was to research and then articulate what it is, exactly, that makes Tasmania special. Turns out, it’s the chip on our shoulder.
Tasmania’s personality comes from its recent history of economic depression, according to the man responsible for figuring out the state’s brand.
Todd Babiak, a Canadian and leading authority in “place-branding”, is the chief executive of Brand Tasmania. He undertook interviews with 440 Tasmanians – 200 in Hobart, 200 distributed around the rest of the state, and 40 tourism industry insiders – to ascertain what it is exactly that makes Tasmania, Tasmania.
Speaking at an event at Saint John Craft Beer Bar this week, Mr Babiak said a feeling of having something to prove – somewhat counterintuitively – is what drove the modern Tasmanian success story.
“When Tasmanians told their story there was always obstacles, and hardship, and a sense of feeling underestimated – whether they were talking about the past or about their own lives,” he said.
“There was a sense of shame: ‘We didn’t do that well, and we never want to be like that again’.”
It’s not like the feeling came from nowhere. Here’s how Tasmania was described in a Sydney Morning Herald column only four years ago: “The island down the bottom that’s sometimes left off the map, the one we joke about giving to New Zealand but the Kiwis don’t want it because they play odd football, the one that you reach by time travel going back half a century, Australia’s perennial basket case, the place that shouldn’t really be a state at all with its 12 often-troublesome senators for a population smaller than the Gold Coast’s.”
But that was actually an uncomplimentary paragraph in an article describing an upturn. It was one of many that have popped up in recent years commenting on the rising business confidence, house prices, salaries, employment, tourism numbers, investment, and the more-difficult-to-quantify cultural cache in the “perennial basket case” state.
Some Tasmanians Mr Babiak interviewed told him that in the past they would avoid putting their address on a resume if they were applying for a mainland job.
But Tasmania is trendy now.
As export comedian Luke McGregor said in an interview with The Examiner last year, “[being Tasmanian] is not something that the MC uses to bag me out before I go on stage anymore.”
“Sometimes I’d get introduced as, like, ‘he’s from Tassie, so sorry about that’,” he said.
“Whereas now Tasmania’s a cool, exotic destination with the latest art and seafood and blah blah blah.”
The state is newly trendy to the degree that the act of young people moving from the mainland has become so stereotypical it can be parodied: Untalented Artist Moves to Tasmania read a satirical headline on comedy news website the Betoota Advocate last year.
The economic woes of the state in the recent past had many root causes but one of them was simply geography.
Tasmania was hit earlier and harder by the end of a manufacturing-based economic model in the Western world. This was due to difficulty and expense of factoring in goods crossing the Bass Strait, Mr Babiak said. As production of – well, everything – became dramatically cheaper overseas, Tasmania’s islandness made it especially vulnerable to changing economic headwinds.
But it has adapted earlier and harder, too.
“Everything is more expensive in Tasmania, so we have to earn our price premium through artisanal passion and exceptional quality, no matter what we are creating,” Mr Babiak said.
The state’s economy was once reliant on mining and, especially, forestry.
Now, it has pivoted from “commodity to quality,” he said. Rather than relying on the exporting of natural resources, in the second decade of the 21st century, “a boutique, artisinal business model is the way of the Tasmanian economy”.
Brand Tasmania’s strategic plan puts it differently, in the smoother language of a marketing document: “Many successful Tasmanians grew up with socio-economic challenges – even privileged Tasmanians felt they were invisible, irrelevant, ignored, misunderstood, and generally “not as good” as other Australians, in their youth and young adulthood,” it says. “When we feel “not good enough,” it can inspire hard work and effort, inventive ideas and new solutions.”
Mr Babiak was hired by the state government to figure out what it means to be Tasmanian.
So, what does it mean to be Tasmanian in 2020?
The tagline he and his team came up with was ‘the quiet pursuit of the extraordinary’.
According to their research, it is obsession, and a tendency to pursue obsession beyond the realms of social norms.
It is a distrust of boasting and narcissism – ironically, it probably includes a distrust of the idea of “place-branding” at all.
It is prioritising the pursuit of meaning and satisfaction over money, and sometimes, making money as a side effect of that pursuit (see: David Walsh).
It is being told you aren’t good enough, and then working twice as hard, and being three times as inventive and four times as self-reliant, in response to that feeling.
It is community and social ties; “people who like to solve problems all week and escape into the wilderness on the weekends”.
And, despite the brouhaha about the North-South divide, it is about identifying, first and foremost and almost to the exception of other possible geographical identifiers, as Tasmanian.
“There was local colour,” Mr Babiak said. “But ultimately, people feel Tasmanian first, and then where they live is second, and then third would be Australian.
“Everyone told me when we started doing the interviews that I would hear one thing in Hobart, and then when I went to Launceston I’d hear something different – really different – and Devonport would be different, and Burnie, and King Island, and what I found was that almost everyone said a variation on the exact same thing. Even in Hobart, no one ever seemed to answer our questions as Hobartians, they answered them as Tasmanians who happened to live in Hobart.”
That ultra-Tasmanian-ness was born of the same historical context as the rest of the island’s personality, Mr Babiak believes.
“I think it has something to do with people in Tasmania feeling like they were told that they weren’t as good as other Australians,” he said.
“Now, there is a real sense of pride in the quietness, and the hard work aspect, and the just different-ness. These are all things that just a generation ago people thought was negative, and now there’s such a sense of excitement over it all being positive as the world moves in a different direction.”
Mr Babiak was speaking in Launceston this week to share his expertise at an event for new project, the Regional City Challenge.
Started by Breath of Fresh Air film festival founder Owen Tilbury, the Regional City Challenge aims to uplift Launceston specifically through connecting creative, motivated, and community-minded individuals and helping to facilitate their projects.