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 and 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, but 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. Further, 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 and 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
What went wrong?
The “Britain stronger in Europe” message had potential to engage voters, but 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 as 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, and 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:
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.”
Thank you for reading my post. I believe there are some important, but simple lessons to learn from the Brexit ferendum 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.
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- About the author: Neal provides digital optimisation consultancy services and has worked for brands such as Deezer.com, Foxybingo.com, Very.co.uk and partypoker.com. He identifies areas for improvement using a combination of approaches including web analytics, heuristic analysis, customer journey mapping, usability testing, and Voice of Customer feedback. By aligning each stage of the customer journey with the organisation’s business goals this helps to improve conversion rates and revenues significantly as almost all websites benefit from a review of customer touch points and user journeys.
- Neal has had articles published on website optimisation on Usabilla.com and as an ex-research and insight manager on the GreenBook Blog research website. If you wish to contact Neal please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow Neal on Twitter @northresearch and view his LinkedIn profile.