The Marketing Problem with Brexit

the marketing problem with brexitThis government has a problem, and I’m watching it with interest. The problem is a classic marketing one – often known as ‘taking people with you’, or ‘hearts and minds campaigning,’ and it appears they’ve only just noticed it. It’s emerged as various cabinet ministers have said ‘it’s time to get behind Brexit’ and made rallying cries to unite the country; an entertaining notion from a group of people who appear incapable of reaching consensus over ordering a take-away, let alone on negotiating a trade agreement.

Anyway, I’ll happily give them the benefit of the doubt and say it’s good to see they’ve finally decided that uniting the people might be worth it. Their previous tactics have varied between putting their fingers in their ears or else saying ‘pish, pash, stop whinging’.

But in this latest round of nation-building, I’m not sure they’ve taken much marketing advice. We’ve heard platitudinous speeches consisting of little more than, “you must get behind Brexit. We must unite. Jolly good. Get on with it then. Thank you and goodbye.” As hearts and minds campaigning goes, it’s a pretty bad day in the office.

I am sure that Theresa May did not see this as an issue in the beginning. Her repeated comments that “the people have spoken” only served to wind up the 48% of those voters previously known as people. Crikey, I thought. What AM I then? Some sort of non-person? After nearly two years of being called a non-human, there is some climbing to do before I could believe my government has any care for me at all.

But, it’s not too late. If I think about this entirely as a marketing problem, an issue of hearts and minds, what should the government do?

The first step in hearts and minds is to listen. I think the government has some way to go on this, but it’s never too late to start.

They need to listen to concerns and then – this is critical – counteract with answers which are relevant. First rule of marketing; be relevant. It’s hard. We’re all guilty of getting this wrong sometimes. But all the 48% have heard so far are the same arguments they rejected in the referendum. If the government thinks that will be convincing, they are in severe danger of delivering that old definition of stupid; doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

When they say how wonderful it is that we’ll get our sovereignty back, that’s about as relevant as telling a vegan that it’s OK to shoot a baby calf because we’ve got our health and safety certificate. British sovereignty is not an attractive prospect to this audience, ringing some pretty murky jingoistic bells. When it comes to big issues, remainers may well have more trust in Brussels than in Westminster to make fair, balanced, long term decisions rather than to chase Daily Mail voters. The Scottish are not the only ones with concerns on that front. Giving more power to the short-term vote-chasers of Parliament is not something that is floating the boat of the remainer crowd, so in marketing terms, I’d say it’s probably time to stop crowing about that one.

The second argument beloved of the current government is all about the glorious day we will “control our borders”. When politicians repeat this, in a nation-building speech, as if that will suddenly convince remainers, they forget a really important point. Lean in now, because this one’s filthy. Remainers like freedom of movement. How has that become a phrase that the government thinks is dirty? They believe immigration is good for us. Don’t drop your cuppa. I think the government sees a day when people will have to go to a support group to whisper this into a circle of shame. Every major study – up to 23rd June 2016 – said quite confidently that immigration helps our country. Somehow now, it’s become taboo to say it out loud. On a personal level, may I whisper that I believe the experts when they say it’s good overall for our economy, but I also love that my kids can be friends with people from all over Europe. Frankly, they enrich their lives in ways I cannot.

A further concern which has not yet been tackled is freedom of movement. For people who value their own freedom of movement, or that of their European friends and colleagues, constant celebration that it’s coming to an end is not the best marketing tactic in the world. The fact that our children will have fewer freedoms than we did growing up has not even made it onto the agenda. There has been no “we recognise you’ll miss this, but we’ll try to replace it with this upside which we think is worth it…”

So just to spell this out to the government, each time you crow that freedom of movement will be curtailed and that we will be in control of our borders, what a remainer might hear is “we’re taking your kids’ freedom of movement; we’re sending your friends home.” Argument fail, guys. Come on, do better than that.

If they were to ask, (and let’s be honest, is market research really beyond the wit of woman?) they’d hear some different concerns and might think up some different counter-points. I think remainers are really desperate for the different counter-points. To someone who sees themselves as European, Brexit is like facing an unknown illness – a ripping away – a genuine loss – with no support. Personally, I’m sure there must be something they can say to make me feel better, but no-one’s bothering to work out what it is.

Here’s what they’d hear from me in market research; they’d hear much else from others.

I’m worried that my children will grow up in a less rich and interesting society. I’m worried that they will be surrounded by a ‘little Britain’ mentality instead of by interesting and diverse people. I want them to get the chance to go to uni in France, to fall in love in Germany, to work in Spain. I am concerned about how our human rights will be protected, and where someone will go who feels they have failed to get justice here. I am concerned about how major long term issues like the environment will be addressed when governments of any colour need to pander to the next election instead of being prepared to make tough decisions. I do not trust our government to keep out cheap, dangerous food which will impact our farmers and ruin the health of those who need to choose the cheapest option. I feel nervous that the government will let our research go to the dogs because it’s a pretty long way from a vote-winning strategy.

These are just my issues; there will be many others. None of these issues have been addressed yet; and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling ignored and unacknowledged. Brexiteers frequently call this whinging, but I think unless the government addresses some concerns, this country will never heal.

I recall in leadership training having this phrase drummed into me: ‘everyone wants to be seen, heard and recognised.’ I can’t really think of anyone in this government who has seen, heard or recognised the 48% since the 23rd June 2016. And stating that we must come together, without making some effort to see, hear and recognise their concerns first, is never going to work.

It’s not rocket science. It’s basic hearts and minds marketing. I appreciate it’s on a grand scale, but that makes it ever more urgent. Half of this country hates the other half.

Please, please, use a little marketing nous and get on with fixing it.

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Katy Willis

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