Todd Babiak, a passionate storyteller and currently the CEO of Brand Tasmania, takes us on his journey of developing Tasmania’s place brand. He explains how Tasmania has worked against the odds of its geographical isolation and somewhat unfavourable image to develop a strong brand narrative that is receptive, appealing, and competitive.
Todd, you have gained a wealth of experience throughout your professional career as a journalist, author and advisor. What motivated you to work for Brand Tasmania as the CEO?
Story Engine had been doing narrative-based research and building place brands and economic development strategies for nearly a decade. I had learned and travelled a lot, and met a lot of brilliant people devoted to this “impossible mission” of unifying the efforts of hundreds of thousands or millions of people.
The Government of Tasmania was one of our clients. With partners here in Tasmania we did one-on-one interviews with hundreds of people, a representative cross-section of Tasmanian society, to figure out what makes this place so special.
What is the story they tell? What is the pattern of success in this place and what is getting in the way of it? What are Tasmanians most proud of? Least proud of? What would break their hearts if they had to leave? We’re always looking for a unifying cultural expression, and it was clearer and more consistent here than anywhere I had ever worked.
As a consultant, you fall into a rhythm of embedding yourself deeply into your clients’ hearts, understanding their problems, and putting together elegant solutions. Then, to be honest, you’re a bit disappointed when it doesn’t work out the way you had hoped. I wanted to challenge myself, to better understand why this is so hard. Rather than a complaint from afar, was I willing to try to implement a strategy I had helped build?
The Government of Tasmania was up for hiring a foreigner to head up a new statutory organisation devoted to an untested model of place branding and economic development. It says a lot about this place in itself, that they were up for a person with a funny accent telling their story. Most importantly, I could work with incredibly smart and committed people. I was, of course, terrified. But my family was up for it and I had to know… could I actually make this work?
When did you first hear about Tasmania – what were your initial thoughts?
I am ashamed to say I knew nothing about Tasmania, apart from the spinning devil of Bugs Bunny cartoons. Even then, I vaguely aligned it with Africa – not Australia. Before my first work trip here, in 2017, I had never even been to Australia.
I know a lot of expatriate Australians, and they bought into what I now know are pretty old-fashioned views of Tasmania: it is a sadder, poorer part of the country with miserable weather and unambitious people.
It turns out all of this is wrong. Gosh, the climate here is like Southern Oregon or Burgundy, if Burgundy was on the ocean. I’m Canadian, so when Australians complain about the weather I try not to laugh.
A lot has changed in the world since we last interviewed you in 2018. Reflecting on the last few years, what has been the most significant change, or development, in your view – linked to how locations (can) develop and manage their brand?
Maybe I’m biased, but I think people are finally figuring out that a brand is not a logo, a design treatment, or a media campaign. It isn’t with a university or a bank or a bar of soap, and it certainly isn’t with a city, a region, or a country. If economic development was difficult before COVID, it’s going to be ferocious in this recovery time… especially as credit markets tighten up and geopolitical uncertainty makes every decision fraught with risk.
No one can just stand behind a podium with “open for business” written in big letters and compete on economic incentives anymore. We need a differentiated position in the marketplace, we need discipline and focus, and we desperately need to work together.
Tasmania in its brand communications focuses on the region’s “outsider” role, which makes it appear somewhat quirky and adventurous, but also down to earth and hands-on. How has the response been from businesses or talent considering relocation, so far?
We see our talent attraction audience as “ambitious introverts who love nature.” Tasmania isn’t for everyone. If you see your future in a globalised megalopolis, this isn’t your place. But for some people, Tasmania is exactly what they are looking for.
A prompt for our storytelling is the phrase, “The quiet pursuit of the extraordinary.”
The quietness is a positive for our people. The inventiveness that comes from years of isolation, from overcoming obstacles, from hard work, grit, and determination, all of this is a big part of Tasmanian culture. Everything is more expensive here because of shipping costs, so mediocre doesn’t work.
We’re selling meaning more than money, which is harder. But some people see themselves as artisans, creating niche products and services, whether they’re building software (see Savage Interactive), wave-piercing catamarans (see Incat), mining equipment (see Elphinstone), boots (see Blundstone), or making pinot noir, whisky, or cheese.
Tasmanian businesses have been wonderfully receptive. We’ve focused on helping them tell powerful brand stories in a Tasmanian way, and since we listened carefully they do feel it’s their story – that they helped craft it. They recognize themselves in it. This isn’t something a big city agency dropped on them, from the fancy cupboard of jargon words and campaigns.
Sustainability is an important success indicator now for any destination. How do you master this balancing act between wanting more attention and visitors, and at the same time having to protect the natural environment and ensure the wellbeing of local communities?
Tasmanians launched the international green political movement. It’s one of our inventions. This balance and tension, between growth and environmental protection, is deeply personal to people here. It’s a gloriously messy democracy, so it’s not like we can govern with an on/off filter, but all Tasmanians agree that nature is important. It’s our core strength when we tie it to that inventiveness I mentioned earlier.
We are 100% self-sufficient in renewable electricity. We have been net zero for six of the last seven years. We have opportunities to further lower our emissions, to decarbonise our economy quicker than just about anywhere else in the world. But as everyone knows, this is difficult. There aren’t models to follow. We can be a workshop here, as we have problems to solve in Tasmania that can scale globally – thanks to our baseload of renewable electricity.
An example of striking that balance is offering carbon neutral or climate positive travel by 2025. We can lower our emissions as far as we can, and then invest in high-quality Tasmanian offset projects that help lower our emissions further. By choosing to travel to Tasmania, you can be a part of it – the gift of making a positive impact.
We have to chase yield – not volume. Tasmania is not a cheap destination. We can go after meaning.
What suggestions do you have for other regions or countries that are renewing their brand and marketing efforts as we all try to put the days of the pandemic behind us?
Be patient. Think like anthropologists more than marketers, in the research phase. Don’t write your requests for proposals the way a consumer product company would write them. You want a deep understanding of your culture, and your first audience should be locals. Listen to them, tell their story back to them, and build some honest pride and momentum. Launch projects to unify efforts.
Before you start telling your story externally, figure out your audience. Understand how your region or country can solve a problem for them. Be culturally specific. Push that as far as you can, asking yourself, “What can only happen here?”
Don’t be afraid to be honest, emotionally and practically, about who you are and who might like to join you – as customers, visitors, investors, students, coders, or open-heart surgeons.
Which aspects of promoting Brand Tasmania – internally and externally – do you find the most challenging?
I grew up in a place with a commodity economy, so I feel this challenge in my bones, but commodities are hard. You don’t get a premium for provenance. It doesn’t really matter where it comes from when it’s all about price. Tasmania is part of Australia, which is largely a commodity economy. We sell lots of raw materials, and it’s deeply important to families and communities across Tasmania.
How do you get brand value for a commodity?
We’re thinking about carbon here, about using processes that reduce the carbon impact of everything that comes from Tasmania. We’d like to make it safer and fairer. But even if we do that, we’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do – not because this thing will draw a higher price.
As a celebrated novelist – can you quickly sketch a plot which would resemble life in Tasmania, as you see it?
There are only about seven kinds of stories in human history. The Tasmanian story follows a Cinderella plot. This is a place of hardship and obstacles. We made terrible mistakes here, through colonialization and our convict past, through the way we treated the environment. Tasmanians are historically underestimated and misunderstood.
The Tasmanian response to all of this is what makes this place so special, so emotionally resonant. We are now a community of artisans and entrepreneurs, protecting each other and the environment, and operating on renewable electricity thanks to a century of hard work and sacrifice that led to our hydro operations.
It’s a rags-to-riches story if you swap out riches for meaning. And these charismatic Tasmanians are Cinderellas.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
For my former clients in operational economic development roles, I am sorry for ever thinking poorly of you for not implementing my beautiful strategies. I didn’t appreciate how hard this is. I was naïve.
My team and I use shared projects across government, industries, and communities to unify efforts – lots of small things instead of a few big bets. We don’t do anything alone. I hope the impact of my work here outlives my short time in this role by generations. It’s ultimately about confidence, which is difficult to measure, but it might be the most productive asset in economic, social, and cultural development.
Thank you, Todd.
Enjoyed our interview with Todd Babiak on how Brand Tasmania has turned the narrative on this island state from an isolated region in the world to an attractive place for people to live, work, and visit? Thanks for sharing!