The resurgence of ANZAC Day: a lesson in authenticity

A decade after World War II finished, as families all over Australia were still dealing with the smarting grief of lost fathers, brothers and sons, Alan Seymour released his play The One Day of the Year.

It was a satirical send up of ANZAC Day, pointing a finger at what he saw as a national booze-up of staggering, vomiting veterans and a glorification of war. He received death threats and the play was banned at the 1960 Adelaide Festival of Arts.

For the first time since the carnage of Gallipoli someone had questioned the unquestionable.

The Vietnam War (1955-1975) provided a more tangible focus for this anti-war sentiment, spawning thousands of violent protest marches, jailed draft dodgers and university campus shootings – as well as an opus of folk songs that have outlasted two generations of musical fashion.

ANZAC Day – a sombre tribute to the first Australian and New Zealand landing at Gallipoli in 1915 – had become an unfortunate casualty of politics, condemned by the protestors as a celebration of war rather than a day of reflection and remembrance. Sadly, in condemning the institution they also condemned the soldiers who had much less say in their wars than the politicians who sent them off to serve. RSL veterans retreated to their clubrooms and butchers of beer and attendances at dawn services declined.

Fast-forward a half-century and organisers of this year’s ANZAC Day commemoration are confident of breaking another new attendance record. Despite terrorist threats, young and old Aussies will shiver on the bleak Turkish peninsula to watch the sunrise and back home, city shrines and country town digger memorials across the wide brown land will attract hundreds of thousands of solemn, contemplative young families and teenagers alongside dwindling numbers of veterans.

From a marketing point of view, the re-birth of ANZAC Day is one of the most significant behavioural change campaigns of the last century.

All the signs in the 1960s were it would go the way of Latin Masses and ballroom dancing, Austin A70s and pastel twin sets. Now, it is generally regarded as a far more important national day of remembrance and reflection than Australia Day.

How this happened is a master class in brand communication.

Through the mediums of the press, TV, radio and magazines as well as turning point feature films such as Gallipoli, The Odd Angry Shot and Kokoda and seminal songs such as The Band Played Waltzing Matilda and Only 19, the country’s writers, filmmakers, musicians, historians – many of them Diggers or mates of Diggers – started telling the authentic ANZAC story.

A new generation of Gen Xers and Millennials who hadn’t grown up with one-armed grandfathers and shell-shocked uncles started discovering the courage and sacrifice of 19 year olds just like themselves. They learnt about the indomitability of the human spirit and the extraordinary acts of ordinary people. This new storytelling didn’t glorify war and nationalism, it glorified old-fashioned values such as loyalty and integrity and selflessness.

Young Aussies started sacrificing their precious sleep-in on a national public holiday, shuffling their way to cold, rainy dawn memorials, where they mumbled shared prayers and attempted hymn singing and stood in silence until the lone bugle call.

Many of them had never been inside a church or studied history at school, but these moments of reflection on what had been going through the minds of these long-dead warriors before they went into battle, awakened a new and important sense of spiritual perspective.

And so, ANZAC became a brand. Last year 1.1 million visitors toured the National War Memorial, 140,000 attended the daily Last Post tribute to a singular fallen soldier and 5.6 million visited the website. Under the extraordinarily committed leadership of Director Brendan Nelson this monument, envisioned by WWI historian Charles Bean, has become not just a mecca for Australians but also overseas visitors. In his last annual report Nelson attributes some of this resurgent national pride in the memorial to its brand campaign – “For we are young and free” – acknowledging our youth as a nation and that our freedom is due to the sacrifice of the men and women honoured there.

So what lessons can we learn, as marketers, from the 50 year re-branding journey of ANZAC Day?

Brands are stories

Contrary to popular opinion a brand is not a logo or a clever tagline. Powerful brands have real, authentic stories that are not made up or manufactured – they come from real people and they connect with our emotions and values. Nothing resonates more than the ANZAC stories of self-sacrifice.

Too often we see businesses develop a new logo or product label or a catchy name then expect good marketing to give it resonance and help it engage consumers. Start with the story not the glitter.

Brand messages should be consistent

There was never a risk that the stories from the ANZACs wouldn’t be consistent – they were slavishly recorded from letters and journals and gathered in national archives over more than a century. However, no-one predicted that the annual memorial day would be misunderstood as a celebration of war and that this would intersect with popular opinion during the Vietnam conflict. It’s taken 50 years but the ANZAC brand messaging has never been tighter or more consistent, as the “for we are young and free” campaign shows.

Control the message

In the 50s and 60s it was impossible for the organisers of ANZAC Day to stop veterans falling out of pubs – frankly, most Australians believed they deserved a good time and celebrated with them. Now the ANZAC message is much more tightly controlled not by the RSL gatekeepers but the whole community.

When Woolworths launched its “Fresh in our Memories” social media campaign in 2015 it was widely condemned as cheapening the event as “Brandzac Day”. Your loyal followers are your best advocates.

Choose your partners carefully

It is sometimes tempting to join forces with another company or brand to improve your cut through and awareness. It could be a merger, acquisition or simply a marriage of convenience. But make sure to do your due diligence to determine how your clients and customers will see this.

Carlton United dropped its “Raise a Glass” campaign last year after garnering more than $7 million in donations for Legacy and the RSL since 2009. It was a well-executed and sensitive campaign featuring VC Keith Payne and Defence Chief Peter Cosgrove but it was ANZAC supporters once again, who felt uneasy about the $1 per carton CUB donated and there were accusations of breaching Federal legislation protecting the name ANZAC from commercial exploitation.

CUB eventually changed the strategy to donations that were not linked to alcohol consumption.

Assumptions are the mother of all failures

Finally, assuming everyone is on your side is easy, especially when you represent something as iconic as ANZAC Day. But you can’t take the understanding and behaviour of both your internal staff and external consumers for granted.

As a business, it is worthwhile telling the brand story in detail to every new employee and holding your own ANZAC Day – an annual “refresher” of your brand values such as a team workshop or planning day. And for clients and customers, no matter the medium of communication, keep reminding them what you stand for.

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