Australianess Meaning Map

December 19, 2013

Earlier this year, The Lab ran the first of its Big Idea sessions, which focused on Australianess and Identity. The session consisted of a conversation with Archibald Prize winning painter, Vincent Fantauzzo, about his collection of 30 Australian portraits. The conversation was followed by The Lab’s analysis of Australian identity.

Central to The Lab’s presentation was the discussion of Australia’s egalitarian ideals, and the presentation of the Australian Leveling Construct – a model that illustrates how Australian culture tries to keep people on a common level through supporting the underdog and cutting down tall poppies.

Image source: The Lab

Further to this, by the end of what was both an entertaining and thought provoking evening, what perhaps became most obvious is that, despite living in a global world, local culture and national identity still exerts a significant influence upon the way in which Australians perceive and experience the world.

Since that night in March, there have been many new developments. From the election of a conservative government, to Australia losing then regaining the Ashes, our cultural landscape has continued to shift dynamically, and there has been plenty to keep our eyes on. Since that night in March, we have also constructed a semiotic square on Australianess.

Image source: The Lab

So you’re probably wondering what all this square business is all about. How does one create a semiotic square, and what is the purpose of creating a square?

We constructed the semiotic square through undertaking independent desk research and semiotic analysis on the Australian stories, as well as symbols that exist within our language, history, pop culture, heroes and icons. In short, the square was designed as a tool to better understand the relationships between various qualities that are commonly associated with Australian identity (Australianess). From a practical point of view, it was developed as a tool to assist brands in attaining their own plot of Australianess in a way that is meaningful, relevant and powerful.

Now for a more detailed breakdown of our Australian Semiotic Square:

Strength & Hard Work 

Image source: The Lab

Starting at the top left of the square, you will notice the first quadrant has been titled ‘Strength and Hard Work’. From the tales of early settlers battling to tame the land, to contemporary narratives of miners keeping the nation afloat, there is a certain mental toughness, a strength and determination that is at the heart of what being Australian is all about. The ‘Strength and Hard Work’ dimension of Australianess is also held in high esteem, as it denies inferiority and helps keep people on a common level through privileging effort above achievement. Many of the heroic stories in Australian culture speak to this, such as the Eureka Stockade, the ANZACS in Gallipoli and more recently, the Socceroos in the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

Yet this notion of Australianess being about ‘Strength and Hard Work’ is quite serious, and contrary to the idea of Australianess being hinged on a ‘Casual’ approach to life. This brings us to our second quadrant – the ‘Casual’ quadrant. 


Image source: The Lab

The ‘Casual’ quadrant has a very informal and easygoing feel. It lives through the way Australians speak and behave – the colloquial shortening of words, nicknames and the lack of formal prefixes – all of which allow people feel at ease. The laid back disposition of the ‘Casual’ quadrant normalises a common level, and as such works to prevent hierarchy and superiority, reinforcing the Australian ideal of having an egalitarian society – a society that is inclusive and where nobody sits either above or below anybody else. This quadrant is warm, inclusive and open – all qualities held in high esteem, for they are qualities that of great importance when it comes to providing others with a ‘fair go’.

Rebel & Free Spirit

Image source: The Lab

Complimentary to the Casual quadrant, is the ‘Rebel & Free Spirit’ quadrant. Australians have always loved their rebels, from Ned Kelly, through to Shane Warne and Hamish Blake. The idea of simply not accepting the lay of the land and challenging (if not undermining) convention is at the heart of this quadrant, and has always been celebrated through Australian culture. Interestingly, this rebellious and free spirited space also has links to Australia’s egalitarian ideal. If the ‘Casual’ dimension of Australianess helps with the maintenance of an egalitarian society by being inclusive and fair to all (thus masking the visibility of hierarchy and superiority), the rebellious and free spirited aspects regulate our egalitarian virtues by undermining the tall poppy individuals, and institutions that convey a sense of superiority.

Interestingly, you may notice that it is our first contradiction in the semiotic square, as the ‘Rebel & Free Spirit’ quadrant is directly opposed to the idea of Australianess being linked about ‘Strength and Hard Work’.

Yet this is not the only contradiction of Australianess, as becomes obvious in the final quadrant of the square - ‘Ingenuity’.


Image source: The Lab

Opposed to the ‘Casual’ quadrant, Australians have long held dear the ability to think outside the box to achieve and elevate our status. As a relatively small yet successful country on the global scale, Australians take great pride in the inventiveness, the cunningness, and the resourcefulness that their fellow countrymen display to achieve great things. From winning the America’s cup to a more contemporary example, Dr Fiona Woods being awarded Australian of the Year for her spray on skin, Australians cherish the ability to be brilliant. Our pride in our ingenuity also speaks to our egalitarian ideal, in that helps quash a sense of inferiority that comes with being a small and young nation.

The Square As A Whole

Image source: The Lab

Looking at the square holistically, you can now perhaps see how all the quadrants relate to the overarching theme of having an egalitarian society. The quadrants on the right hand side speak to regulating and preventing individuals, and institutions, from developing a sense of superiority and moving above the common level, whilst the quadrants of the left allow people to elevate themselves to the common level and ultimately deny any sense of inferiority.

It is also worth noting that that top two quadrants share a sense of conventionality – both are qualities that can be achieved by all to feel stable and risk free. In contrast, both the Ingenuity and Rebel & Free Spirit quadrants seem non-conventional and slightly risky – not everybody can genuinely achieve the qualities in the bottom two quadrants, and those that do often stand out prominently.

So what does this square allow brands to do?

Well, there are a plethora of brands that want to create the impression that they are Australian, and/ or connect with the values that Australians hold in high esteem.  There is a possibility that brands can relate their stories/ narrative to multiple quadrants within the square, but as a theoretical framework to guide thinking, brands can use the square as a tool to determine which space* they want to own most strongly in light of consumer perceptions and their category position.

A few brands that speak strongly to the different quadrants include:

Bonds: who sit as an iconically casual Australian brand with their simple designs and unpretentious celebrity endorsements.

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NAB: who have in recent years pushed into the rebel/ free spirit space with their ‘Break Up’ campaign, along with other rebellious/ playful communications.

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VB: who have returned to their hard working roots and refocused on ‘hard-earned thirst’ to great avail.

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Cadbury’s Marvelous Creations: who has spoken to an experimental sense of ingenuity with innovative product designs and out of the box television commercials.

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Alternatively, the square can be employed to provide different identity expressions of an idea. For instance, if a brand wants to talk about being ‘Australian made’ and have a local feel, they might consider whether their communications should focus on the stories of people that make the product Australian. Whether it be through the hard work they put in behind the scenes, or if they should focus on the friendly, casual, inclusive people that live in the community as a means of conveying authenticity. Both will garner different emotional reactions, and both have different symbolic meaning for the end consumers – the right choice will naturally depend on the brand and its objectives.

There’s a great line in one of my favourite songs that says ‘the world is round and square don’t fit at all’, but when it comes to understanding semiotics and Australia, the square can help. If not, get in touch.


*It should be noted that there may be multiple expressions within each quadrant. Take for instance the difference between Shane Warne and Hamish Blake. Both could arguably fit into the same Rebel & Free Spirit quadrant, however, both have different expressions and speak to the quadrant in different ways. The quadrants are inherently nuanced.