So it has been done. The UK last week voted ‘Leave’ by 52% to 48% to take Britain out of the EU once and for all.
The fallout has been immediate in terms of financial market turmoil. A political earthquake soon followed with Prime Minister David Cameron resigning and opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn facing a challenge to his position because of his muted support for the Remain campaign.
Within just hours of the result being confirmed, significant Leave campaigners were already rolling back many of the promises they had been driving home over the previous weeks.
It was a shock win that took the government, public and markets by surprise.
And in hindsight, it’s worth seeing what – from a purely marketing perspective – made the difference.
My Fear’s Bigger Than Your Fear
“Project Fear” was the phrase Boris Johnson and the Leave campaign gave to the Remain campaign’s outpouring of negative warnings about what would happening if the UK left the EU.
This included warnings from financial experts, the Bank of England, the IMF, in fact any and every major global financial institution you can name.
It also included warning after warning from every part of the public sector from trades unions, to the NHS to university and scientific research institutions.
If you were in any doubt that leaving the EU was a bad thing, there was a ton of expert opinion supporting that view.
However, in a rather contradictory move the Leave campaign also had a spectacular slice of scaremongering in its arsenal, although it was far more targeted.
The sharpest indicator that fear was being employed was the use of language from politicians. Emotive language that talked about “swarms”, “hordes” and “waves” (although paradoxically David Cameron was using the exact same language only a few months earlier in relation to Syrian refugees).
Specifically, there were two elements it stoked up fears amongst the voters on two very specific points:
- The possible accession of Turkey to the EU (if Turkey joined the EU its population would have automatically freedom of movement rights to reside and work in the UK)
- The creation of an EU Army
Now, regardless of whether either of these would come to fruition soon, they proved very effective.
In the end, it was a battle of the fears.
Which fear was greater? The fear of economic ruin or the fear of “hordes” of immigrants invading the UK.
Of the two, it’s easier to see which one can be rendered more powerfully, more visually and with greater effect.
Ultimately, fear on its own doesn’t work. What you need to make your campaign fly is a concept which overlays everything you communicate and taps directly into your audience’s desires – the Big Overarching Idea.
The Big Overarching Idea
In this case, “taking back control” was the overwhelming emotional driver behind the Leave campaign. Whether this was misdirected at the EU or not (and I would suggest it was misdirected), it clearly caught the public sentiment of a certain demographic. The demographic breakdown very clearly shows the older population was responsible for the Leave swing.
“Taking back control” can mean so many things on so many levels – you can almost let the individuals fill in the gaps with their own experiences.
There’s something very important to remember in this.
You cannot change people’s minds. You cannot persuade them to do something they don’t want to do.
As students of Eugene Schwartz know, you cannot create desire; you can only channel and direct an existing desire.
(This is more eloquently discussed in Schwartz’s Breakthrough Advertising).
When you’re trying to sell something – a product, a service, an idea – you begin with the audience. What does the audience want?
What is the fundamental desire driving that audience?
This is important when dealing with selling to a mass market (and nothing is more mass market than a national referendum).
What is the desire the Leave campaign hung its campaign communication from? Perhaps, the most fundamental desire of all – the desire to have control over our own lives.
Now, I’m not saying this was a wholly conscious, strategic move by the Leave side. However, its top level messaging hit exactly the right note.
Taking back control was the Leave campaign’s Big Overarching Idea.
And here’s why it worked so effectively. From a marketing perspective “taking control” is one of those fundamental drivers behind so much sales copy.
- Taking control of your life
- Taking control of your finances
- Taking control of your destiny
- Taking control of your body/health/fitness
A desire for “control” is one of what we’d call base drivers. Those underlying psychological drivers related to status which influence those psychographics of your intended audience.
As a copywriter, we always talk about specificity when it comes to verifying and making believable claims. However, when it comes to an overarching idea the opposite is true.
The vaguer and more open-ended a big idea can seem, the better chance it has to resonate with as many people as possible but if – and only if – it is combined with a clear, consistent message and can be easily defined in the mind of the audience.
Broad political ideas struggle to take hold precisely because of the need to be vague but also appealing and able to tap into that “mass desire”.
Fortunately, two more recent campaigns prove good examples.
We’ve seen both Obama and Trump use a big overarching idea to fuel the popularity of their campaigns on the march to the White House – albeit from different ends of the political spectrum.
Obama rode to the Presidency on a wave of hope from a simple three word phrase.
“Yes We Can” became a rallying cry and a chant for his cheerleaders
On the flip side, Trump seemingly plays to negative message. On the face of it, “Let’s Make America Great Again” appears to be a message of hope.
But the use of the word “again” implies that everything has gone wrong and it’s time to turn back the tide – and time.
Just consider how vague that sentiment is… “Make America Great Again”. It’s not telling you how America is going to be made great, nor what action that means.
It’s a vague, broad-brush statement that allows anyone from a farmer in Wisconsin to a restaurant owner in New Jersey or angel investor in San Francisco to fill in the gaps with their own definition of what they think makes America great.
As we’ve seen in the few days of fall-out since the referendum, a Big Idea’s lack of detail isn’t a problem… until it comes to putting into practice.
But by then, it doesn’t matter. The Big Idea won. The follow-up plan and the detail is something for another day.
As mentioned above, the Big Overarching Idea has the power to fuel a campaign but can’t work in isolation. One of the key elements to help it really capture the public imagination is a counterpoint, something or someone to push again.
In other words… a villain.
Who’s The Villain?
Following on from the above is the role that a “villain” plays in the whole EU referendum narrative.
It is easier to rally against something than for something.
A villain provides a rallying point for a diverse group. It’s a lightning rod for something negative, something you DON’T want.
That makes it hugely appealing. You don’t have to specify what you do want. And if you did, then there’s always the possibility it won’t fit with what you audience wants. It’s risky.
“Why don’t either camps set out a positive vision of what they want?”
Simple. You risk alienating huge swathes of your audience.
To win a referendum – a national vote – you need to include as many people as possible.
And that means focusing on what you DON’T want rather than what you DO want.
What is universally rejected?
Someone else dictating your future. Someone else exerting control over you. Add in the element of powerlessness in being able to stop that person, being or thing who does control you and you have a perfect villain.
(The irony is that you’re encouraging people to vote to remove someone or something which you’ve positioned as being unelectable and unaccountable… which a vote of course proves is anything but).
The EU is a perfect villain.
Nebulous, complex and geographically separated from the people voting.
For years, UK politicians and the British media have vilified the EU. From regulations about straightness of bananas through to working time directives and environmental legislation that was purported to hurt British business, the EU has been British politics’ pantomime villain upon whose door so much blame has been laid.
Which brings up two issues:
- How did the same politicians expect decades of vitriol and negative publicity against the EU to be suddenly undone in a matter of weeks of campaigning. The same individuals within government on the Remain side
- How must the electorate have felt having been told for decades that the EU was the source of all ills to suddenly becoming the greatest force for good, according to Remain campaigners. As a voter, you would be forgiven for thinking there were mixed messages here.
And again this goes back to a disconnect and break of trust.
There was, of course, another villain in the piece: the lowly immigrant.
Used a symbol of the UK losing control of its borders and with it the fear it could no longer defend itself against terrorists (off the back of the Paris attacks), elements of the unofficial Leave campaign (Leave.EU) used this.
Although the official Leave campaign was careful not to vilify immigrants per se, by implication its constant call for control of immigration allows people to draw their own conclusions.
It’s entirely possible for an idea to be a villain. “Too much immigration” is a villain in itself.
And it’s the best type of villain. Once which cannot be properly identified. One which morphs into whatever the person considering it thinks (e.g. the same phrase may me one more immigrant to one person, but thousands to another).
Immigration was one of the major strands the Leave campaign successfully campaigned on, bringing us to the next point…
Consistency, Consistency, Consistency… and Clarity
If you want a message to stick, there is an old-fashioned but proven way of improving the chances it will stick.
EVEN IF it’s a weak message.
It’s this: saying it regularly and consistently.
Done right – and combined with a clear message (see above) – this can be devastating to opposition voices.
Best of all if your message ends up in the mouths of those continuing the conversations in the homes, offices and pubs.
On a macro and micro level consistency works, plain and simple.
With any marketing activity, consistency at putting your message to your audience again and again works. It just does.
On a micro level, the most successful sales letters consistently hammer home the key messages through the copy.
Repetition is key.
That’s why it was doubly impressive the Leave campaign decided to focus on a few really clear messages and hammer them until literally everyone on every side of the debate could recite them.
There were two key strands:
- Take back control of immigration
- Stop paying £350 million a week to the EU (to fund the NHS, etc)
It didn’t matter what debate, what leaflet or what news source you saw or read regarding the referendum, there was always a Leave campaigner repeating one or both of those claims.
In fact, it’s difficult to think of any other claims, beyond some of the shrill scaremongering stories in the final days of the campaign regarding the EU army and Turkey’s possible accession.
Compare this to the Remain campaign.
It was almost overwhelmed by the messages it could have used – open borders, greater opportunity, greater security, secured growth, and much, much more – but in the end became swamped under its own arguments.
As with maintaining the status quo, there’s no new element. There’s nothing new to promise. You can’t say something will happen.
And so it creates a void where the promise should go.
Remain needed to agree on two or three lines of argument and still wholeheartedly to these. The problem was there were too many and they were too vague (remember we’re talking specific promises, not the Big Idea).
Another area where the Remain campaign suffered was a lack of traction from its avalanche of expert opinion. It seemed in light of the vote for Brexit, no-one was listening to the experts.
Why ‘Experts’ Don’t Matter – Post-Truth Politics
It is marketing lore that people buy on emotion, and justify on logic and rational thought.
People don’t make decisions based on logic, carefully reasoning through the facts.
In Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking, he discussed in great detail the effect of confirmation bias in humans; our need to find evidence to support the decisions we’ve made.
In fact, in the days after the referendum, anyone who had the pleasure of being on Facebook will have seen this on both sides with Leave voters desperately trying to find evidence that Britain isn’t headed into freefall and Remain voters – aside from finger-pointing and blaming Leave voters for making the “wrong” choice – wallowing in the despair of any news that points to a negative effect (even if it isn’t directly related to Brexit)
Confirmation bias is a product of lack of critical thinking. The inability to even “see” contradictory evidence to a position you’ve already adopted. It’s linked back to self-worth and how once we’ve made a decision, we’ll do anything we can to justify it… even bending the facts to make it work.
That’s why in the face of so much expert opinion in favour of Remain, it was shocking – from the Remain side – that facts and experts could be discarded so wilfully when then avalanche of evidence was that Brexit would be a bad move.
A perfect example of this was when the Leave campaign latched onto James Dyson’s support for Brexit as one voice in a sea of entrepreneurs and experts who were going the other way. One voice that agrees with your point of view in a sea of disagreement is always heard the loudest.
When people lay the blame at the door of the media – and it is culpable for shaping beliefs for many reasons – it is because they believe the media to have changed people’s minds.
It’s very hard to actually ‘change’ someone’s mind if they’ve already made a decision. But it is possible to shape and direct that belief so that it hardens and expresses itself in different ways.
Combine that emotional element – the “gut instinct” or “lizard brain” instinct – and you have a powerful cocktail.
There was one element of this campaign which did surprise…
What Happened To Social Proof?
One of Robert Cialdini’s key principles of persuasion is social proof. In his book, Influence, Cialdini suggests that individuals look to other for guidance in their decision-making and – if they see many other people making a certain decision – in all likelihood they will follow the decision of the majority.
Why did this not appear to work in this situation with the overwhelming amount of support and visibility of the Remain campaign?
I have no evidence for this, so this is simply me surmising but it appears this was more of a more independent decision for voters – not tied to previous voting behaviour – and their opinion was an outward expression of their enhanced status in this campaign (where EVERY vote counted)
It IS a general psephological trend that we are more likely to vote more independently and pragmatically than before. In previous, decades if you were a Tory or Labour voter you always were and always did. Voters are now – very generally – more independent and less entrenched for who they vote for. This goes hand in hand with the disintegration of the old Left and Right way of thinking to more values-based thinking on a range of issues.
In many ways, the traditional political parties are struggling to understand and keep up with these wild variations in voter behaviour. Fortunately – from their point of view – the current voting system mitigates this by still hanging onto safe seats. But when it comes to more direct democracy, the handcuffs – it appears – are off.
Perhaps on a lighter note, the referendum campaign proved one thing: the electorate could not care less about celebrity endorsement. Fewer campaigns have attracted the amount of celebrity endorsement than the Remain campaign from Daniel Craig to JK Rowling and even Jeremy Clarkson (who you’d have thought was a dyed-in-the-wool Brexiter).
Yet, for all the celebrity endorsement – much like expert endorsement – it did little to swing the vote.
Why Most Media Analysis Is Wrong
Since the referendum there have been multiple pieces online and in newspapers which seek to analyse who voted and why.
Various media pieces suggested there has been some kind of inter-generational war with a vote by the Baby Boomers to pull up the ladder on Millennials (post-vote statistics show that over-55s voted overwhelmingly for Leave while younger voters were predominantly Remain).
Many have suggested the vote was almost entirely fuelled by immigration fears and that racism and xenophobia played a major part in pushing individuals towards a Leave choice. The reason Labour leader, Corbyn, is facing a vote of no confidence in his leadership is precisely because he was accused of not doing enough to tackle the fear of immigration among traditional Labour voters and has underestimated the threat of UKIP its core vote.
Others have posited that an uneducated and frightened electorate has simply responded to all the “lies” and “scaremongering” from a campaign which left little for either side to be proud about and which was criticised repeatedly for its negative nature. That it was really an electorate desperate to give the Tory government a bloody nose, or the Establishment or the Liberal Westminster Elite who have always got their way… but NO MORE!
(It almost makes you want to daub blue paint on your face and cry “FREEDOM!”)
The reality is, of course, that both all and none of these are the reason why people voted Leave. The motivation for a 32 year old minimum wage retailer worker in Sunderland with a family of four living in a council house voting to Leave is certainly going to be very different from a 65 year old retiree living in leafy Surrey without a mortgage and children who have flown the nest. Yet, they both voted Leave. Why?
I can’t give any answers here, only to say that when dealing with a mass market audience, it pays to avoid generalisations.
In marketing terms, we have segmentation for a reason. People are in different places, at different stages of realisation or awareness or education. Circumstances are varied and it’s difficult to tailor messaging without knowing exactly where your audience is, in terms of their situation.
There were a number of motivations in action, but there is one which hasn’t been discussed. And again, it comes back to identifying those “base drivers” in human psychology.
And for this we need to look at a really strange phenomenon.
A really interesting statistic also emerged in the days after the referendum. Those areas in the UK which benefited MOST from EU funding, such as Cornwall and South Wales, were the areas with the highest Leave vote.
How could this spectacular feat of “biting off the hand that feeds you” be true?
I’m being bold in saying that it was a status play.
Status – and threat to your status – is the most powerful force.
It acts both consciously and unconsciously.
It effects all of us.
When people talk about money and sex being the most powerful motivators, they’re wrong. Because status sits behind both of these.
Feeling powerless and not in control, as we’ve already discussed, goes to the very heart of the human condition. It almost strips you of the ability to act with free-will.
For once, huge sections of the population which have voted and voted and voted but whose voice has never been heard, had a chance to exercise that voice. And when they did, it was a roar.
Many have put the fact people voted against their own best interests as stupidity or lack of education. I’ll go for something less patronising and say there are some things more important to people than financial considerations: their status.
Whether they’re consciously thinking it or not. The ability to put a stake in the ground and feel you’ve made a difference not only goes to the heart of democracy, it goes to the heart of what it means to feel control, to shape our own destiny: it gives us status.
We feel important again.
This is a gross simplification, I hope you understand. There is bound to be greater nuance and so many factors play a part in an issue so complex. The point I wanted to make here was that status and self-identify has been forgotten as a motivator for why people act the way they do. Even if it’s seemingly against their own best interests.
So what does it all mean?
In every respect, it was a perfect storm.
The confluence of so many factors – The Big Idea, clarity and consistency of message, a nebulous villain that transforms depending on who you are and an opportunity for a whole swathes of the electorate to finally make their vote count – conspired to deliver the victory for the Leave campaign.
Whether it was a consciously masterful campaign in terms of its execution, we’ll never really know. The point is, it hit the right marks for it to succeed at what it needed to do.