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How Marketers Brought Britain to Brexit

with Avi Shankar, University of Bath, School of Management

Post-Brexit, the political classes in the UK are imploding and understandably most analysis is currently focused in their direction. But as marketing professors, one who voted to remain in the EU while the other was born and grew up in its economic powerhouse Germany, we asked ourselves: what role did marketing play in delivering last week’s Brexit result?

The Brexit brand’s appeal was framed through powerful emotions: fear of immigration and anger at the cost of EU membership, money that could be spent more effectively at home. These two appeals were embodied in two of the most talked about marketing communication platforms of the campaign: the now notorious ‘Breaking Point’ poster and the Brexit Battlebus.

Within hours of the result, Brexiters were already distancing themselves from these two ‘Brexit brand touchpoints’. Of course, and as any good marketer will know, brands exist primarily in the minds of their consumers and brand management entails the management of people’s perceptions. After all, a low fat yoghurt sounds great unless you look at the amount of sugar you’re consuming.

That the EU costs ‘£350 million a week’ sounds bad unless you look at the rebates and grants the UK receives in return. Indeed the FT concluded that the areas that receive the most EU funding (like Cornwall for example) were also the most likely to vote Brexit. While it may be legitimate that a marketer may focus or embellish the benefits of a pot of yoghurt, when the same tactic is used in politics it becomes translated into a lie.

The ‘Remain brand’ too used fear but ineffectually. “Project Fear,” as it was dubbed, relied on the fear of the unknown – this “we’re better off with the status quo” appeal was designed to invoke the British people’s ‘natural’ conservatism.

So: why did the Brexit fear appear to trump the Remainers?

Our colleague, Doug Holt, argues that brands become iconic because they ameliorate, sooth and resolve cultural anxiety. Consider Starbucks’ ability to sooth enduring tensions between its clientele’s bohemian and bourgeois sensibilities or how Harley Davidson has creatively combined competing breadwinner and rebel masculinity ideals. Turns out the Brexit brand does the same: “vote for us and we’ll sort out your fears about immigration.”

However, the overarching climate within which these two brands were competing was itself Eurosceptic – the geographic separation of the UK from continental Europe continually produces and reinforces its “otherness”. There was no appeal to the ideal of a shared European experience or identity, one that also requires access to a marketplace of European products, European brands, and European images. Where are our shared European rituals

Consider how in the 1990s Carling Black Label beer poked fun at German sun bed snatchers in a TV ad. A group of fat, old, and loud Germans is seen racing to the hotel pool in the morning to occupy all the sun beds when a canny Brit is throwing a can of beer wrapped in a union-jack themed towel across the pool to save the day.

Granted, this ad is famous for being anti-German (sorry, one of us is German). The same brand’s Dam Buster’s campaign drew a more sympathetic image of a German soldier-come-goalkeeper ‘saving’ the bouncing bombs as they headed towards the dam.

Still, both ads illustrate an important point: drawing on nationalistic themes is perfectly legitimate in contemporary British advertising and mass journalistic discourse. In the above ad, the soundtrack from the original Dam Busters movie and the bouncing towel appeal to British popular memory: the destruction of German water dams during WW2.

Of course, Brexit has many authors and not all British ads strike a uniformly anti-European or anti-German chord. But Brexit is also the responsibility of marketers and journalists who, for decades, have cultivated commercial narratives that cast contemporary uncertainties, doubts, and anxieties in simple contrasts and outcomes instead of exploring how a uniquely European marketplace experience might look like.

We strongly encourage marketers to creatively experiment with the European idea and to work on a European consumer culture that is, at once, captivating and accessible. If Brexit will indeed become a political reality remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: our British-German research friendship will continue.