Many Australians still believe fairness is very important to them and brands that enhance the perception of fairness by being transparent about their policies and procedures, as well as addressing customer concerns, will stand out, says TRA’s Collen Ryan. This is part of an ongoing ‘The art of knowing people’ series with TRA that aims to challenge conventional thinking and better understand consumers, markets and cultural trends in Australia and beyond.

Fair play mate. Fair dinkum. Fair suck of the sauce bottle. Fair crack of the whip.

The phrases are all common idioms heard in conversations in Australia, used just as often by politicians and the media as between mates at the pub.

If the language we use exemplifies the cultural values we hold dear as a nation, then it’s clear that fairness is a big deal in the Land of the Fair Go.

Fairness is embedded in Australia’s belief system. Historically, we have seen ourselves as a classless society and valued the idea of a level playing field in life, just as much as we do in sports. The idea of a level playing field is important because of its pragmatism:

  • In sport, we maintain a level playing field because we change sides at half time.
  • In life, we create an environment that levels any unfair advantages.

Is that narrative still true in Australia today?

Recent research found that 73% of Australians still believe fairness is very important to them, so it’s clear that fairness is still something we hold close to our hearts. This is heartening and so is the finding that 33% of people say they care more about fairness than they did five years ago (data in this article is based on a quantitative study over N=1000 nationally representative and the work was carried out in Australia in August 2023 by TRA and sponsored by Dynata consumer panel provider).

Less heartening is how people see fairness borne out in Australia’s reality:

  • 46% of people believe that Australia is less fair than it was five years ago
  • 36% expect fairness to continue declining into the future

Differences in demographics

While there are universal trends in the data, there are some key differences to consider between groups, most notably within age groups. People under 35 are more optimistic, with 27% of this demographic thinking Australia will be less fair in five years’ time. This is compared to 39% of those over 35 – a sizeable difference.

There are also some interesting differences in views between people living in Australia’s two major cities. Whereas there are no differences in how important fairness is between those who reside in Sydney compared to Melburnians, there is a significant difference in their overarching view of how fair life is in general.

In Sydney, 80% of people think life in general is fair compared to only 64% of those who live in Melbourne. Similarly, two-thirds of Sydneysiders think that the world views Australia as fairer than most countries, compared to 50% of Melbourne residents. If you’re a regional brand, you may wish to alter the way you show up accordingly, perhaps dial up the fair dinkum in Sydney and emphasise the level playing field pragmatism in Melbourne?

Brands contributing to a decline in fairness perception

Fairness has applications in all parts of our lives: personal relationships, employment experiences and on a societal level.

Organisations and brands are part of this story too and there’s some work to be done.

Australians have many customer interaction experiences with brands and they see one in every eight of these experiences as unfair. In a country that values fairness so highly, this is a poor result.

We know that when people experience unfairness, it triggers a strong emotional response – angry (47%), cheated (47%) and frustrated (54%) were the dominant feelings described.

These negative emotions are made all the more critical when we consider that emotions are a major driver of embedded memories, meaning that a person’s negative past memories can resurface the next time they encounter the brand. Customers with negative associations will likely approach the brand from a negative perspective and are less likely to be forgiving, patient or understanding if things do not go perfectly.

Not all market categories fare as badly as others. Looking to the negative fairness ratings from the positive fairness ratings, we can see the categories in the positive sector compared to those that were in deficit. 

Fairness gap

Retailers maintaining a level playing field

There are some clear winners and losers in the fairness gap. Retail, in general, is seen to be playing fair. Supermarkets, for example, despite the challenges created by rising cost of living, are managing to maintain a sense of fairness. When we asked people which brands, in general, came to mind for playing fair, it was supermarket brands that came out on top. Coles and Woolworths were the ones that people mentioned, along with another retailer, Bunnings.

This may be surprising for some, but one hypothesis might be that supermarkets have an in-built advantage because they play a critical role in people’s lives and are always there for them. However, compared to the same study in New Zealand – where supermarkets sit at the extreme end of the negative fairness scale – only real estate was worse, showing that it isn’t a given that they will be well-judged. Australian supermarkets are getting it right.

Another surprise perhaps is telco and internet providers which sit close to the net neutral line on fairness. This is in contrast to surveys that measure trust, reputation and sentiment, where they often rate poorly or at the lower end of the scale. An example people quoted was when their telco provider advised them whether they were on the right plan, which people interpreted as playing fair.

Unsurprisingly, financial services sit at the negative end of the scale. What we hear from customers suggests the aspect of fairness that this category triggers is related to power. Think about the teenager who rails against the parent who bans them from going to a concert with their mates. “Why can’t I go? Because I said so!”

The imbalance of power is why you get the cry of “that’s not fair”. People feel powerless against the banks and insurance companies, so when decisions or experiences go bad, the brands are considered unfair. The pragmatic approach to the idea of a level playing field can be leveraged to advantage. Addressing this sense of powerlessness with clarity about how decisions have been made involves people in the conversation and makes reasons transparent, and is a first step.

Your chance to change the narrative

Ultimately, Australians are a fair-minded bunch but are increasingly seeing a decline in fairness in the world around them. If you want to win their trust and loyalty, you need to make sure that your customers feel they are being treated fairly.

People told us they understand that everything cannot always be equal for everyone but they do want to understand why. At a top level, this means being transparent about pricing, policies, T&Cs and procedures, and being willing to listen to and address customer concerns.

There’s a real opportunity here to set your brand apart. How can you embody the Fair Go culture Australia prides itself on?