EU Referendum: Lessons in Marketing

For all the arguments fueling either camp battling it out right now in the EU Referendum, it has dawned on me that one contributing factor to this milestone event has passed entirely without commentary. 

This factor has nothing to do with the factual or fanciful pronouncements around national competitiveness, control and influence, unemployment, immigration, Brussels and the like. It has, in fact, nothing to do with political machinations or any form of scaremongering at all. 

And yet, it has become so pervasive, so mainstream and so accepted, that to single out its very existence seems a little facile now. But none of us saw it coming. None of us even knew its name a year ago. A year on, however, and it has sailed effortlessly and innocuously into our living rooms and into our lexicon with such assured familiarity that, total alien that it unquestionably once was, it now trips off the tongue with such confidence and ease as to defy challenge or opposition. 

Brexit: a term that, love it or loathe it, has penetrated our psyche so quickly, has stood out so potently and has been accepted so widely (the term, but seemingly the politics too) that the mere mention of Brexit lights up a mental file, as instantly and clearly as, say, Britain (or Brussels!). Brexit has, in an incredibly short period of time, become much more than the name of an EU exit movement – it has become a proxy for the EU Referendum itself. While I’m not one for making glib pronouncements about brands and branding generally, it has become increasingly hard not to grant Brexit its own brand-like status, providing as it does, a number of salutary lessons for us marketing folk. 

First, in politics as in marketing, it’s perhaps reassuring to know that few things are ever entirely new or original. On one level, Brexit is just a me-too – simply, the British version of its Greek predecessor, Grexit. But what Brexit might lack in originality, it more than makes up for in oratory. Brexit clearly revels in the impassioned rhetoric of the hot and contentious issue that is Europe. It furnishes a constantly evolving and compelling narrative that has galvanised this island nation like no other election campaign before it – and in record time. Of course, the media and the politicians keep Brexit’s flame permanently fanned; coverage like this is, quite literally, priceless. But to captivate a nation so completely (this is still politics, after all) is surely proof positive of the impact of a powerful and polarising narrative, constantly refreshed. 

Second, the pro-exit campaigners will tell you that the reason that Brexit is gripping the nation is because of the salience of its arguments over the opposition. The marketer in me tells me that Brexit has gone one better: it does not recognise opposition. Don’t believe me? Look up Brexit on Google and you are instantly rewarded with 57.2m references. Look up the opposite of Brexit… and you first have to first ask yourself what exactly is the opposite of Brexit? There is an alternative, of course, there has to be… this is a democracy, after all. But what is it? What is it called? How should we refer to it? The closest I could get was the catchy ‘Stay In The EU Campaign’ at 26.7m references. A little more digging and I found ‘Bremain’ which surfaced a meagre 276,000 references – hardly intimidating opposition. Brexit’s dominance as a term – or even as a brand – has gone pretty much unchallenged. In marketing terms, the competition has presented no distinctive, recognisable and credible alternative.

Which leads me to my third point. Just because we have a mental file for something does not automatically endow it with our support – there are many brands out there we are aware of that don’t enjoy our custom. But the fact there is no immediately recognisable or credible alternative to Brexit (the term) does, inevitably, make it that much harder to oppose. Can you imagine there being no recognisable or credible alternative to Coke? Or Ariel? Or Tesco? Or British Airways? Sure, you may still not reward them with your custom, but if you didn’t know to ask for Virgin Atlantic, or if you struggled to understand what Virgin stood for, where to locate it, how interrogate it… you might just decide to put up with British Airways in that weary what’s-the-worst-that-can-happen kind of way or, alternatively, put off travelling altogether. 

Fourth, and most ingenious, in the absence of a competing term in the category, Brexit has become the category, with as much airtime given to it by those who support it as by those who oppose it, consciously and unconsciously fuelling its gradual and inevitable rise. In marketing terms, this has to be gold – your competitors have to refer to your name if they are to be understood. As stated earlier, Brexit stands not only as a contender at the main event, but as a proxy for the main event itself. Don’t believe me? The man on the street, as well as the men in the media, most commonly refer to the EU Referendum as the ‘Brexit Vote’. Brexit Vote? That’s a bit like saying the ‘Djokovic Wimbledon Tournament’ or the ‘Lewis Hamilton Monaco Grand Prix’…

Fifth and last, the name Brexit itself is a master stroke. It lays no claim for originality; on the contrary, it is quite brazen about riding on the coattails of its Greek predecessor and, in doing so, cleverly avoids the typical growing pains of interrogation or misunderstanding that a new name must necessarily endure. Brexit conveys the reassurance of being vaguely familiar, while enjoying the novelty of being unlike anything we have heard before. It combines Britain and Exit in a shorthand that – from the local pub to the Houses of Parliament – is instantly gettable and eminently campaign-able. It is short, clear and unmistakable. It has a catchy stand-out while remaining easy to pronounce. And, as if this weren’t enough, it also has that all too rare does-what-it-says-on-the-tin quality. In short, it’s a name that works effortlessly and yet incredibly hard at every level. (Few brand marketers could ask for more…!)

The ultimate success of Brexit will, of course, be determined by the election outcome itself – an outcome so defining in Britain’s future, that to draw parallels with marketing might appear whimsical or trivialise its very real importance. But I’m happy to wager that the very qualities that make Brexit a marketing master class, will also go a long way to making it a powerful contender at the polls.

andrew

-Andrew Welch, CEO: Y&R South Africa