OK, that’s not true, but hear me out.
I go to this shop in Newtown and I always leave annoyed because of the woman who runs it drives me nuts. No matter what I say to her – you know, the normal polite customer/shop-keeper chit-chat – she says something so contrary it’s sort of comedic. “Nice day outside ” will turn somehow to something about how shit Sydney Council is. An enquiry if she’s still stocking some little snacks Fin loved turned into a few corkers – such as…
- Australia is in recession and Europe and the US are in Depression (I had nothing to say back about that one…)
- The problem with Macro (a chain of organic stores that was sold to Woolworths) was they got too big…(my response was “Yes, so big that he was bought out by Woolworths and made a killing”)
- etc etc
Anyway, the last thing she said that got me really thinking – annoyed, but thinking – was “Australia just doesn’t have the population.” We got to this point some how after a long fraught “chat” about the size of the organic market in Australia and why an importer has stopped bringing a range of baby snacks in from the UK. I had mentioned how great it was travelling and having organic baby food available pretty much at every supermarket you went to. Well, that set her off. “We just don’t have the population in Australia for that.” She went beyond organic baby food and pretty much slung the “not enough people” argument net over the reason for not launching anything interesting or cool.
A lot of people trot that line out. We just aren’t big enough. Australia just doesn’t have enough people. There isn’t enough people to make that idea work.
That got me thinking about a few things – and mainly about things I’d seen in New Zealand. I used to quite like going there for work as people seemed to be up to a lot of interesting stuff. Not just the small and quirky brands that seem to pop up all over the place there, but the big mainstream ones as well. None of this interesting stuff seemed to be stopped short by “Well, I dunno, we’re a flipping small country – we better stop here.” Maybe because not having many people is a given. They are small. They move on. They launch cool stuff. I think I drink a Phoenix beverage a few times a week and thank a kiwi for launching here. Phoenix is popping up all over the place – and not just your “artsy inner-city” cafes. Why hasn’t anyone done anything that good here yet? Oh that’s right…we don’t have enough people. Not sure who is drinking Phoenix then.
Here there seems to be some sort of hope that one day there will be a whole lot of extra people to buy these things that people won’t make now because there isn’t enough of them. Working with a few companies over there I don’t think I heard the population argument pop up to shut a new idea down once. Why do I hear it so many times here then? Is it that our friends across the Tasman are a little braver or bolder than us?
I’m not saying that all Australian brands are victims of the “we are too small” curse. The first that pops into mind is Aesop. Another is Dumbo Feather. And there’s a raft of other folks who have no doubt reflected on our neat and small population and launched anyway.
I feel for some big companies that have such huge sales expectations placed on them for any new launch, that they need a “mass appeal” product. But these launches seem few and far between. I can’t think of anything that has come out recently that has set us all on fire – but I can think of a few small ones that have set some of us alight, and we’ve got behind them and become very loyal customers. Holding out for the big launch looks a little like sitting on your hands holding out for a day when we double in size and then we can breathe out and launch all the cool ideas sitting around on desks, archived away in boxes, generated in work shops, filed away for “later”. Holding out for the “big launch” feels a little like waiting for Godot – absurdist and circular.
So why do we have this attitude and why does it feel New Zealand doesn’t? Or am I delusional and NZ has the size issue as much as we do? It just seems sometimes like “size” is an easy excuse to be a bit ordinary. And that my friends, is very sad.