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Blog // Thoughts
July 19, 2012

A State By Any Other Name

I’m currently spending some time in Adelaide, one of the Australian cities that isn’t Sydney or Melbourne. Adelaide is the capital of South Australia, one of Australia’s six states. The latest edition of Monocle mentioned a concern of local politicians. Apparently South Australia (SA for short) lacks “brand recognition.” There’s a suggestion the state should […]

Adelaide Sunset

I’m currently spending some time in Adelaide, one of the Australian cities that isn’t Sydney or Melbourne. Adelaide is the capital of South Australia, one of Australia’s six states.

The latest edition of Monocle mentioned a concern of local politicians. Apparently South Australia (SA for short) lacks “brand recognition.” There’s a suggestion the state should consider changing its name.

A State By Any Other Name

One local news report quotes, Peter Vaughan chief executive officer of Business SA as saying,

“I’ve been with two Premiers on three overseas trips and whenever we go somewhere that’s not familiar with Australia the words South Australia are impossible to understand.

(It) means to everybody from overseas the whole of the south of Australia. And the initials SA mean South Africa to most other people in the world.”

A local bookmaker has even opened a market of possible new names for the state.

Do States Matter?

My first reaction was wince at the thought of politicians and political lobbyists talking about “branding” a state. Of course, states have identities. But, to reduce a state, or any civic institution, to the level of a brand is asinine. States are, by sheer force of the historical and cultural experiences that form them, far more complex than any brand.

But, perhaps the bigger question is, do state identities even matter on the international stage? Think of Manchester, Milan and Mumbai. All famous cities. But, can you name the county, region and state, respectively, to which they each belong?*

Of course, within a country, state identities help define provincial differences. States and provinces will be compared, ranked and evaluated. In Australia people define themselves by the perceived values and traits of their home (and adopted states). But, that’s within the country. Outside of Australia – who cares?

What Does Matter?

It might not be what state politicians and provincial lobbyists want to hear, but once you get on the international stage what matters are cities and countries.

When we look across the globe and imagine the places we might like to live and work, it’s always cities and countries. People dream of moving to San Francisco to be part of Silicon Valley, or Los Angeles to be part of Hollywood. The cache of California, as a state, is a by product of the cultural and economic engine of its cities, not the other way round.

Drawing A Better Picture

I’m not convinced changing South Australia’s name is a worthwhile endeavour, largely because I’m not even sure it makes sense to market a state. If South Australia has poor “brand recognition, then it really comes down to Adelaide being a second-tier city.

In Monocle’s recent quality of life survey, Sydney and Melbourne both appear in top 25 cities of the world (eight and six respectively). This reflects the way most people outside Australia view this country. After all, if you work for a major multinational corporation, the odds are a posting to Australia will see you moving to either Melbourne or Sydney.

Our world is being divided, more and more, along global and local (provincial lines). The global economy is run out of a handful of key global cities (New York, London, Tokyo etc) and a larger number of world cities (Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Sydney, Frankfurt). Everyone else is vying for a place on a local, or provincial level.

Forget About South Australia, Think About Adelaide

Adelaide itself hasn’t done too badly in recent years. Some great public projects have made this city ever more attractive. Certainly, in my quality of life rankings, Adelaide wins over Sydney, the city of my childhood.

The real challenge for Adelaide is finding a way to participate more directly and prominently in the global economy. The city is already has great universities, is a natural hub for Australia’s wine industry, an integral port for the mining sector and hosts important sporting and cultural events

If the city can open more direct links to Asia and attract more global companies to open here (and more entrepreneurs), then Adelaide will earn a more prominent global name for itself in a way that logos, new state names and exercises in rebranding could never hope to achieve.

*In case you were wondering, Manchester is in the county of Greater Manchester, Milan is in the region of Lombardy and Mumbai is in the state of Maharashtra


I think I might have to disagree with you a bit here. At least from the point of view of living in America, many states have unique cultural identities that transcend the cities within. Someone in Bakersfield may want to move to San Francisco, but someone in New Jersey wants to go to California. Here in Connecticut, we don’t think of people as being from Springfield or even Boston; they are from Mass. If you’re from New York, you’re grouped in one basket, from Buffalo to Westchester. (If you live in NYC, you’re from “the city.”)

In many cases the city matters. People think of Phoenix, not Arizona; Chicago, not Illinois. But people think of Florida, not Miami, Tennessee, not Memphis. (unless you’re a musician. Then all you want to do is get to Nashville.)

In Ireland, people have a deep connection to county over city. (except for Dublin)

I don’t know how it rolls in Australia, to be honest. I think of the cities there, myself. But I imagine folks who live in SA but not in Adelaide might want a little identity, too.

Fernando Gros 12 years ago

Mike, within a nation, I totally agree that states (and even regions within states) have meaningful cultural distinctives. Sydney is in NSW and there is a big cultural difference between the rural and costal regions and even between the coastal areas north of Sydney and those to the south. Same is true for South Australia, where there are regional areas with their own distinctive features (and which support very different kinds of industry).

The story here is more about marketing a region outside of its home country. For example, when I took a road trip around New England in 2000, not everyone I spoke to (in the UK & Australia) instantly recognised the states and regions involved. I typically had to make mention of Boston, or say, “the bit between New York and Canada.” That’s the outsider’s view.

The issue I think the local politicians here are trying to address is building a bridge between what is good locally and the perception of those outside Australia, who often don’t know much about the country beyond Sydney and Melbourne.

Of course, the big difference is when a region is clearly defined with a product, as is the case with some French wines or cheeses. Interestingly, South Australia has five of the best known wine regions in Australia (Barossa Valley, McClaren Vale, Coonawarra, Adelaide Hills and Clare Valley).

Toni 12 years ago

Interesting stuff. Fern – I had no idea those were wine regions (Barossa Valley, McClaren Vale, Coonawarra, Adelaide Hills and Clare Valley) and had assumed they were just the names of individual manufacturers.

Mike – your points about states reflects a culture in a country where, because there are so many people and so many states, it is natural to break things down that way because any smaller makes things unmanageable. Apart from key cities, how many Americans could remember even a quarter of the cities in the US?

Toni 12 years ago

Things in the UK are somewhat similar, with *some* regions having distinct identities (like Yorkshire and Lancashire) but we are considering very much smaller areas and lower populations. However no-one is going to proudly proclaim they come from Middlesex (I expect most British people wouldn’t even know where it was) or Essex.

Toni 12 years ago

American states are possibly a little different too, in that not only are they similar in size to many individual countries, both in land mass and population, but they have been marketed (probably for political reasons as much as anything) in a way that gives them a sense of national identity. I’d guess Australia doesn’t have the population or the political will for that kind of partisan and commercial stance, nor does it need it outside of attracting more tourists (if they are even welcome).

Toni 12 years ago

At the end of the day one should really be asking “why does this matter?”. If it will encourage a healthy sense of identity then there may be a good case, but if it’s about shouting the name of one place a bit louder in the hope the ROW will take some notice then it’s probably a waste of money & time.

BTW Fern – the page doesn’t appear to be functioning properly, and posting more than about 10 lines pushes the ‘post comment’ button inaccessibly off the bottom.

Fernando Gros 12 years ago

Toni – yes, I do believe that having a local/provincial identity can be good for the people who live in those places and for preserving cultural traditions (and things like local varieties of food etc) and for tourism. When I was in Oaxaca, people had a very strong sense of being both Mexican and also having a distinct local culture.

Texas is a very interesting example, in terms of US states. To lots of people outside the Americas, Texas represents “the wild west.” But, as I understand the history, a lot of states that folks in Europe and Asia would struggle to locate on a map played a bigger part in the US’ frontier history.

Finally, could you let me know what browser you are using Toni and I’ll check into the behaviour of the comments, as I don’t see the problem you mention on my computer.

Toni 12 years ago

Firefox on OSX 10.5.8

Texas IS an interesting example. Having been to a few US states, one does have the feeling that Texas sees itself as being on the wild frontier, when the opposite would seem to be true, apart from having to cope with some highly inhospitable weather conditions.

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