In this post I will give you 7 marketing lessons from the Brexit campaigns.
The UK’s EU referendum result surprised many people outside the UK. But a review of the strategies used by the campaigns gives some clear reasons for the outcome. It provides some important lessons for marketers. The Remain campaign was expected to win partly because of the uncertainty that leaving the UK would create. The fact that they lost suggests that something major must have gone wrong with their campaign planning and implementation.
In another post I outlined some of the main psychological reasons for Brexit. Here I outline specific lessons for marketing.
1. Start by listening to people.
When a new brand begins to eat into an existing brand’s customer base this should be a wake-up call for the marketing team. To survive in the long term all brands needs to be constantly listening to their customers to ensure they remain relevant and in touch with their target audience.
Marketers should explore what customers find appealing about the new brand and what is turning them off the leading brand. By listening to and observing customers we can pick up clues to why they are disillusioned with the established brand. By exploring what attracted existing customers to your brand you can identify what is most appealing about your value proposition. This can help you position your brand in the most effective way.
What went wrong?
The Remain campaign failed to understand that many people felt they had not benefited from globalisation. For this reason only saw the downside of the free movement of people within the EU. The Remain campaign’s tone towards controlling immigration was also cosmopolitan and elitist. This alienated voters worried about free movement of people within the EU as it appeared to dismiss their views as irrelevant. The Remain campaign also failed to offer hope that by staying within the EU the UK was more likely to be able change the principle of free movement of labour.
Engage in regular research and collaboration initiatives with customers and prospects to understand how they perceive the brand and your competitors. Brands have to evolve as customer behaviour and values change so as to remain relevant and responsive to customer needs. If your strategy is not engaging customers it may be time to change your approach based upon evidence from customer research and feedback.
2. A clear and strong value proposition:
A clear and compelling proposition is important for any brand. From day one the Leave message focused on “Take back control” which appeals to our desire for autonomy. According to the psychologist Daniel Pink autonomy is one of our three most important motivations in life. The others being mastery and purpose. Autonomy is something we naturally seek. It improves our lives because we feel happier when we are in control of our destiny.
Products are purchased for explicit goals, but brands need to appeal towards our implicit (psychological) goals to engage people at an emotional level. This is especially important where brands have very similar product features as it is the main way that they can differentiate themselves from each other. Understanding which of these core psychological goals motivates your customers is essential for effective brand positioning and campaign implementation.
Psychological Goals of Brands
Source: Decode Marketing
What went wrong?
The “Britain stronger in Europe” message had potential to engage voters. There was a lack of consistency of how it was explained and much of the time it was communicated in a negative and bullying fashion (e.g. if you vote leave economic growth will be lower). It was far too reliant on the rational economic argument and the psychological goals of security and discipline. Insufficient effort was made to communicate the many successes of the EU (around autonomy), or the positive benefits of security and discipline.
Ensure your proposition incorporates a number of relevant psychological goals to widen the appeal of your brand position. Avoid over reliance on the security of the status quo as people want to feel that they are making a positive choice and not being pressurised to avoid change. Purely negative campaigns can make people uncomfortable and motivate people to change for the sake of it.
3. Relevance of message:
The Leave campaign’s “Taking back control” message was also a more inclusive message. It appealed to a wider demographic audience. Everyone could relate to wanting some autonomy in our relationships with other countries. In practical terms this may be somewhat of an illusion, but it captured the imagination of voters as it triggered a deep psychological desire for more control in our lives.
What went wrong?
The Remain campaign focused mainly on warnings about economic and political consequences of Brexit. For example the Treasury said that house prices might fall and mortgage rates would rise. But this had no relevance to people on the minimum wage with no chance of ever affording a house. People often don’t appreciate the links between macro-economic factors and their day-to-day existence. So these messages didn’t resonate with voters.
The Brexit message also appealed to the desire to destabilise the status quo. This movement has resulted in the emergence of radical politicians like Donald Trump and Bernie Saunders in the US, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and Marine Le Pen in France.
Analyse the behaviour and needs of customers by relevant demographic and behavioural metrics to identify important customer segments. Create user personas to visualise and consider how relevant and motivating your messages are to different customer segments. Such analysis can help improve the targeting and relevance of your messages. Also talk to people about things they can directly relate to and avoid language that is not in every day use.
4. Tell a story:
Brexit told many stories (though many were probably half-truths), but these encouraged people to talk to each other about the EU referendum debate. Stories are powerful tools of persuasion as psychologists have found that when people listen to a narrative tale their brain is stimulated as if they are experiencing the same emotions as communicated in the story. Our social nature encourages us to pass on these narratives through word of mouth or online via social media.
What went wrong?
The Remain story was too rational, with too much emphasis on negative consequences of Brexit and few stories to inspire. This meant the status quo was not presented as a positive choice.
Encourage consumers to interact with each other my telling an interesting and emotionally engaging story.
5. Copy, Copy, Copy:
When we find ourselves in a situation of uncertainty, such as having to make a decision about something we little knowledge about, people naturally copy other people in the vicinity. Behaviour is often more powerful than word of mouth because it is more visible and people will copy the actions of people they respect or want to be associated with to reduce conflict and help establish stronger bonds in their social networks. Both campaigns tried to capitalise on this by getting the backing of celebrities and well known politicians.
Brexit undoubtedly benefited from strong leadership (i.e.Boris Johnson) and a consistent message delivered by almost everyone involved in the campaign.
What went wrong?
Remain suffered from being less cohesive as although it was backed by both of the main party leaders they held very different beliefs and values. For instance Jeremy Corbyn refused to share a platform with David Cameron and his support appeared half-hearted. David Cameron was also strongly associated with austerity which had significantly reduced funding in deprived areas since 2010.
Lead by example. If for instance your brand is positioned to be environmentally friendly make sure your internal policies and behaviour is consistent with this stance. If using celebrity endorsements ensure the person has wide appeal across your target audience.
6. Confirmation bias:
People have a tendency to search and consume new information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs and ideas about a subject. We often filter out or dismiss information that contradicts existing opinions. Many people had negative opinions about the EU due to years of critical articles in the British media and so it was difficult for the Remain campaign to counter this perception.
One way that brands can counter confirmation bias is to communicate that you agree with one aspect of what your audience believes, but then introduce information that conflicts with this information. This creates cognitive dissonance which is where people feel uncomfortable about holding opinions that contradict each other. If you can then introduce an answer or solution to remove the cognitive dissonance people are more likely to agree with your suggestion than if you tried to raise it without going through this process.
For example the Leave campaign claimed that the UK could negotiate access to the EU single market and get agreement to control immigration. The Remain campaign could have agreed access to the single market would be achievable from outside the EU. However, they should have pointed out that to date the EU has not allowed any country access to the single market without also agreeing to free movement of EU nationals. Further, such a deal would not be sustainable for the EU as it would encourage other countries to leave the EU.
However, the Remain campaign could have offered a solution that by retaining membership of the EU the UK would aim to reform the EU from within. If David Cameron had listened to disenfranchised voters he might have put more effort into negotiating a review of freedom of movement within the EU on the basis of economic sustainability and security concerns.
What went wrong?
David Cameron’s re-negotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU failed to deliver any restrictions on free movement of people within the EU. Rather than reject what was on the table and revert to plan B (i.e. campaign to leave the EU) which would have put the EU under pressure to compromise he accepted their offer. This may have been a fatal error as it reduced trust in Cameron to be able to negotiate with the EU and gave no room for the Remain campaign to argue that they could influence immigration better from within the EU.
Further, journalist and author Tim Hartford argues that confirmation bias was so strong among the Remain team and its supporters that they ignored obvious warnings (e.g, opinion polls) that the Leave campaign were moving into a winning position. This was compounded by betting markets that also favoured a Remain win. However, betting markets are driven by the amount of money wagered on a particular outcome which normally benefits from the wisdom of crowds. But as most of the establishment and the City were in favour of remaining in the EU did their financial clout overly influence the betting markets? This might explain why the betting markets got the result so wrong.
When people have an existing belief about your brand that is preventing you from persuading them to buy tell them something they already agree with. Then use cognitive dissonance to make them feel uncomfortable. Once you have established a feeling of cognitive dissonance introduce a solution or answer to their problem which eliminates the discomfort.
Be careful not to compromise too easily on issues that your customers perceive as important (e.g. reliability or quality) as this can destroy trust in your ability to deliver on your promises.
We are all prone to confirmation bias and so it is important to be open-minded about data that contradicts our own views about a brand or market. Ensure where possible decisions are based upon reliable data and not just your own gut instincts. Challenge data for potential bias or misinterpretation. This is especially important where different data sources produce conflicting results. Voice of Customer surveys for instance suffer from numerous flaws that can make them highly misleading if the data is taken at face value.
7. Post Brexit Regret:
A survey of voters after the Brexit result found that up to 7% now regretted voting to leave the EU and would vote Remain if they were given another opportunity. Customer can feel regret when they don’t think they have made the best decision. In the case of Brexit some voters believe they were lied to because the Leave campaign reneged on a number of the promises they had made during the campaign.
What went wrong:
Both sides confused voters with misleading claims, and counter-claims. This may have reduced trust in politicians and could have put-off some undecided voters from going to the polling stations. If people find advice complex or difficult to understand this can often lead to procrastination or they will head for a competitor brand. The Leave campaign in particular made a number of very high profile promises that turned out to be inaccurate and undeliverable.
Ensure you are confident that you can deliver on any promises you make during a marketing campaign. Post-purchase dissatisfaction due to broken promises is likely to result in cancellations or returns and will destroy customer confidence and trust in your brand. As Dave Trott points out:
“The product creates the experience.
The experience creates the reputation.
The reputation creates the brand.”
Dave Trott, One Plus One Equals Three
Thank you for reading my post. I believe there are some important, but simple lessons to learn from the Brexit referendum result. The main lesson is to main sure you have a clear and compelling value proposition and that you understand the different needs of individual customer segments.
For more of our blogs visit conversion-uplift.co.uk/post/.
Is the EU referendum the will of the people?
The EU referendum result has huge implications for the UK and yet referendum have a very chequered history as a democratic device. Despite a slim majority (52%) being in favour of leaving the EU most politicians claim it was a “clear result” and frequently state that it was the “will of the people” to trigger Article 50 and exit the EU.
This appears inconsistent with the Government’s own position stated in 2010 that referendum “cannot be legally binding” due to the sovereignty of Parliament. The Government had the opportunity to make the EU referendum binding by requiring a super majority (2:1 in favour and a 70% turnout). But instead asked Parliament for an advisory referendum.
The Government also rejected more than one attempt to introduce clauses that would have made the EU referendum result binding. An advisory referendum is designed not to be binding. This begs the question of whether it is appropriate to base a major constitutional change on a simple majority. As the turnout of the referendum was 70%. This means the UK is making a decision based upon only 37% of the total electorate being in favour of leaving the EU.
But are referendum “a device of dictators and demagogues” and inappropriate for making such an important decision that will have long-lasting consequences for the UK’s economy and our dealings with Europe and the rest of the world? According to a study by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research the Brexit deal agreed with the EU will make the UK £100bn worse off a year compared to if we had remained in the EU. The analysis estimates the UK’s GDP will be 3.9% lower by 2030 because of Brexit.
The history of referendum!
In March 1975 Margaret Thatcher described referendum as “a device of dictators and demagogues”. Thatcher was quoting Clement Attlee who noticed that Hitler, Mussolini and Napoleon III used referendum to legitimise decisions they had made. If we just look at referendum before World War II we can see how Mussolini and Hitler used them to their advantage.
- March 1929 – Italy approves single-party list for Mussolini’s National Fascist Party in referendum.
- July 1933 – Hitler grants himself the power to hold referendums.
- November 1933 – Germans vote to leave the League of Nations in referendum.
- March 1934 – Italians confirm approval of single-party list for Mussolini’s National Fascist Party in referendum.
- August 1934 – Germans approve combining posts of Chancellor & President in referendum.
- March 1936 – Germany approve single-party rule & occupation of Rhineland in referendum.
- April 1938 – Germans approve single list of Nazi candidates for Reichstag & Anschluss with Austria in referendum.
In 2014 Russia used a referendum to legitimise the annexation of Crimea. The question the referendum asked the people of Crimea was if they wanted to join Russia as a federal subject. Or to restore the 1992 Crimean constitution and Crimea’s status as a part of Ukraine. As the 1992 constitution provided for increased control to the Crimean parliament, including full sovereign powers to agree relations with other states. Both choices available in the referendum would probably have resulted in separation from Ukraine. The status quo was not an option on the ballot paper.
Referendum, plebiscites or polls are positioned as allowing the people to directly express their democratic will on a specific issue. Are they not a sign of a weak leader or for the elite to legitimise a policy they support? In the case of David Cameron there was no need to have the EU referendum, he only decided to hold one to resolve an internal party dispute. It wasn’t for the national interest. It’s quite remarkable that Cameron wasn’t taken to task over this blunder in the House of Commons. This might partly be due to the implosion of the Labour opposition.
So why are referendum flawed?
The most obvious one is that they require a complex, and emotionally charged issue, to be reduced to a yes/no question. When considering a relationship the UK has been in for over 40 years a simple yes/no or “remain/leave” question raises many complex and inter-connected questions that even professional politicians could not fully answer during or after the campaign. The EU referendum required a largely uninformed electorate to make a choice between the status quo and an extremely unpredictable outcome.
Statistics and damn lies!
There is a danger that the electorate can be mislaid by untruths and promises that are not deliverable. Certainly many newspaper stories have been written criticising the EU over the years. Boris Johnson confessed to a fellow journalist that when he was the EU correspondent at The Telegraph he made up many of his articles. Probably the most well known myth Boris Johnson created was that the EU tried to ban straight and bendy bananas. These fictional stories had an explosive affect on the Tory party, but also on the type of stories other newspapers wanted to publish about the EU.
The leave campaign leaders quickly distanced themselves from the main promises they made during the lead up to the vote because they were either inaccurate or down right lies. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that Boris Johnson decided not to stand for election as party leader or that the Leave campaign didn’t have a plan for how the UK would leave the EU.
Knowledge of issues!
Ignoring the half-truths circulated about the EU the choice for the electorate in the EU referendum was still daunting. The complexity of the decision meant that most people were ill-equipped to understand the issues or the potential implications of the choice they had to make. Jason Brennan, an expert and author of the ethics of voting at Georgetown University pointed out:
“To have even a rudimentary sense of the pros and cons of Brexit, one would need to know about the economics and sociology of trade and immigration, the politics of centralized regulation, and the history of nationalist movements. But there is no reason to think even a tenth of the UK’s population has even a basic grasp of the social science needed to evaluate Brexit.”
Source: The American founding fathers had it right:
Instead most people probably used their gut instinct and responded to more emotional and social motivations than rational deliberation. People are also heavily influenced by how they think other people in their social network will vote.
Referenda are also a concern because:
- They allow our elected representatives to avoid any responsibility for the consequences of a decision. Just look at how quickly David Cameron resigned and left politics.
- The wording of the referendum ballot paper can potentially influence how people vote. In this instance “Leave” was naturally associated with change and risk taking. Prospect theory tells us that when people are faced only with options that result in a loss (e.g. loss of sovereignty/control or loss of EU membership) they have a tendency to choose the risky option (i.e. Leave). “Leave” also communicated action, whilst “Remain” suggests inaction.
- They can undermine the constitutional protection of minorities. In the case of the UK people in Scotland and Northern Ireland overwhelmingly voted in favour of remaining in the EU. As a result the Scots now have good cause to feel they are being forced to leave the EU due to an undemocratic process. Not surprisingly the SNP initially pushed for a second independence referendum. However, more worryingly the Republic of Ireland has forced the UK government to agree that any final deal with the EU must avoid any hard border with Northern Ireland. This could undermine support for the UK union because many remain supporters in Northern Ireland may think that the Republic is more likely to support their interests and views toward the EU.
More Reasons Why:
- People may use the referendum as a protest vote against the policies of the party in power. Voters also mix up domestic politics with those of the EU. There is certainly anecdotal evidence to suggest that some people did use the EU referendum as a protest vote against the elite. They feel they have not benefited from globalisation or don’t feel they are listened to by politicians. Indeed, since 2010 the Government has systematically reduced funding for deprived areas of the UK. The very same areas that were most likely to have voted Leave.
- Due to the very nature of referendum, such as how the question is framed. The complexity of the decision and the coverage of the issue in the mass media, the result of referendum is very difficult to predict. This means that David Cameron essentially played Russian roulette with the electorate which by any standing was a massive blunder. It is widely accepted that Cameron did not expect to lose the EU referendum and neither did the Leave campaign expect to win.
As the late ex-MP Tam Dalyell said on the BBC’s Newsnight programme, if the majority of MPs want to remain in the EU they should have “the balls to say Parliament is sovereign” and to overrule the referendum result. If they don’t it is no more than “cowardice” and using the referendum to “save politicians backsides”. Isn’t it time for politicians to stand up for what they believe in and not let a flawed form of democracy determine our destiny?
Unfortunately the political elite appear intent on following each other out of the EU like lemmings over a cliff. What we need now is politicians to do what is best for the country. Follow their principles rather than their desire for power.
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Related to this post is:
Myths about the leaving the EU – 10 myths about leaving the EU
Reasons to stop Brexit – Over 30 reasons why MPs should stop Brexit
Why people voted for Brexit – The psychology of Brexit – why emotions won over logic!
How appropriate are opinion polls before elections – Do opinion polls influence voters?
What marketing can learn from Brexit – 7 Marketing lessons from the Brexit campaigns.
How do people make most decisions – Why do people prefer to follow gut instinct to research?
Brexit – WTF happened?
The Brexit UK European Referendum captured world-wide attention and generated intense and passionate debate in the UK. Despite the economic arguments being clearly in favour of Remain, as no one could accurately predict the impact of Brexit, the UK is now heading out of the EU.
The Remain camp and their “Project fear” strategy completely failed to win the hearts and minds of older voters in particular. The fatal error the remain camp fell into was to rely almost solely on rational considerations. Emotions, social influence and mental short-cuts are often more powerful drivers of behaviour than logical analysis of a problem.
But why was the Leave campaign more successful at engaging people at an emotional level? The Leave strategy focused on messages about Brexit that triggered strong emotional responses (e.g. autonomy – getting back control) and encouraged voters to discuss issues that they were concerned about (e.g. immigration).
We are super social creatures who seek out and interact with other people as part of natural bonding processes. As a result our herd instinct means that our opinions and behaviour is more heavily influenced by our social networks and what we think other people are doing than we are aware of. For this reason controversial statements that spark a conversation between people are more persuasive than simply communicating a rational argument to inform voters. The Leave campaign extensively used emotive promises and a narrative about the EU to encourage word of mouth conversations that spread across social networks.
Our herd mentality appears to have helped the Brexit campaign gain momentum as they were initially well behind in the opinion polls. David Cameron hugely underestimated the depth of feeling in the provinces about factors such as immigration and economic inequality, and a general disillusionment with the EU among older voters.
People copy opinions and behaviour if they want to fit in with their social networks. The Leave campaign galvanised support using strong psychological narrative (e.g. taking back control) to grab attention and generate discussion. This was helped by a very negative, almost bullying strategy by the Remain campaign which may have alienated many undecided voters who then supported Brexit .
Emotions Override Rational Thinking:
Emotions are one of the most powerful influences in our decision making tool kit. Many of our judgements and behaviour are directly influenced by feelings of liking or disliking rather than rational consideration. And yet Remain constantly focused on rational arguments and the negative consequences of leaving the EU. Perhaps as a consequence of this leavers appeared more motivated than remain supporters because those parts of the country that voted remain had the lowest turn out.
People also have a tendency to like (or dislike) everything related to a person and so having a popular politician spearheading (i.e. Boris Johnson) Brexit may have been sufficient for some people to align themselves with the leave campaign. In this sense the Remain campaign may have lost support from Labour voters because David Cameron was of course the leader of the Conservative Party. Continued austerity and a Government focused on London and the South East may have further alienated many voters from supporting a campaign strongly associated with the leader of the Conservative Government. This was probably further compounded by the low key profile of Jeremy Corbyn during the campaign as he did not appear totally committed to the cause and some people accused him of supporting Brexit.
The Brexit campaign were especially good at using basic psychological triggers to cut through the noise. They consistently used loss aversion, our tendency to be more concerned about potential losses rather than gains, to grab attention. Leave played on gut feelings around jobs being taken due to immigration, the subsequent drain on the NHS, and wage stagnation. An emotion often linked to loss aversion is regret which people try to avoid at all cost. The Brexit campaign used this to their advantage by emphasising that the referendum would be a once in a life time opportunity to break away from Europe.
People are also strongly motivated by the desire to be in charge of their own destiny. Leave tapped into the issue of a lack of power and control by talking about the EU being un-democratic, and limiting our ability to set laws and manage immigration. Immigration is again a deeply emotional subject for many people and although the Leave campaign may have been regularly criticised for focusing on this issue it undoubtedly resonated with older voters. But most importantly all these issues supporting Brexit were framed around “taking back control” even though they could not offer any guarantees that immigration for instance would actually fall.
What You See Is All There Is:
People are heavily influenced by what information they can easily access about a topic. Few people have the time or inclination to seek out alternative sources of information to validate stories they read in the media. Indeed, Boris Johnson confessed to a fellow journalist to making up stories about the EU when he was the EU correspondent for The Telegraph newspaper.
Given the amount of misinformation about the EU circulated over the years it was always going to be difficult for the EU to get a fair hearing. There were at least ten myths about leaving the EU that Brexit supporters used to persuade people to vote for Leave.
As humans we hate uncertainty and suppress ambiguity because it makes us feel uncomfortable. Project fear certainly communicated uncertainty about an exit from the EU. This is one reason why status quo bias often leads us to avoid change because outcomes are more predictable if we stick with existing option.
However, project fear was a tactical mistake because it was almost entirely a negative message and it mainly related to macro-economic matters. This was too rational a strategy as such issues often appear remote from daily life and less relevant ordinary people. Further, project fear was reinforced by various threats from both the Remain camp (e.g. emergency budget & more austerity cuts), and external parties (e.g. Obama & OECD). This may have came across as bullying rather than a considered argument and probably resulted in anger which would have alienated voters from the Remain point of view.
Telling a positive story:
People are naturally much more motivated when they have a clear purpose in life and can see how their actions relate to personally meaningful goals. The EU was originally set up with the intention of bring once warring countries together in a peaceful and collaborative community.
And yet the Remain campaign failed to tell a positive story about the overall goals and achievements of the EU. For instance the EU has been successful at encouraging the advance of democracy and western economic thinking in Eastern Europe, improving workers rights and protecting press freedom. Very little attention was paid to this aspect of the debate and yet having a purpose is one of our strongest psychological motivations.
Some of the most passionate speakers for Remain (e.g. Shelia Hancock) focused on these higher goals, but the official campaign completely ignored these more emotionally engaging and meaningful messages. The Remain campaign failed because those in charge did not understand basic human psychology and motivations.
Related to this post is:
10 myths about leaving the EU
Are referendum a device of dictators and demagogues?
Do opinion polls influence voters?
Why do people prefer to follow gut instinct to research?
Are we taking the benefits of European membership for granted?
Are we taking the benefits of European membership for granted? Until a few weeks ago I was busy optimising the websites and apps for 4 brands at a large online gaming company. I had 10 A/B tests running simultaneously and was seeing some excellent results that should have given a good return on investment. However, the company was recently taken over. The organisational structure was to replace teams with roles dedicated to an individual brand. As a result my role disappeared and the company decided to recruit junior people for each brand to do my job. This was not ideal for me, but these things happen.
Luckily I was approached immediately to work on a short-term project as a freelance consultant in Paris. Although this was only for a month I gained experience of a new sector.
I have now completed the project. As result of the work I was doing in Paris a local company asked me if I could improve their websites for them. This has led me to investigate setting up my own business. This is obviously a risk, but it got me thinking about the up and coming European Union referendum.
Would I have been able to work in Paris if the UK were not part of the single market?
We have lots of people moving to the UK for work, but it works both ways. Is this something we now take for granted? My experience reminded me of the amazing opportunities there are for working in other countries because of our membership of the European Union. It would certainly be a great loss if we don’t retain the freedom to work because of the referendum result.
Thanks for reading this short post. If you need some help optimising your website or apps, whether you are in Germany, France, Italy, Poland, or any other European country, please bear me in mind.