Branding Brexit: the comms strategy failures around the EU referendum


By Sammy Mansourpour, Managing Director, AgencyUK

Nine minutes before Boris Johnson publicly declared which side he was backing in Britain’s referendum on membership of the European Union, he texted David Cameron to let him know – “Dave, I’m backing Brexit. Soz.” Or words to that effect. It was less than ten minutes before the media-at-large knew.

This was the part of the process of preparation for the announcement, apparently taken after ‘enormous heartache’. Does it sound like a course of action followed by a decisive and committed campaign spokesperson? Not exactly.

Irrespective of your political view, the communications strategies (or lack thereof) around the EU referendum have been a litany of failures.

Grassroots and leave

BoJo’s announcement wasn’t a tidy affair, not much involving the former London Mayor is, but it felt like a kind of campaign ‘kick-off’ for the Brexit movement. Which perhaps added to the general sense of confusion around the campaign’s communications, typified by the fall out of which Brexit campaign got dubbed to be ‘official’.

‘Vote Leave’, the Johnson and Michael Gove backed campaign, was given the honour, beating Nigel Farage and Peter Bone’s ‘Grassroots Out’. It was a narrow margin of 45 to 49 on the Electoral Commission’s criteria, itself indicative of the lack of a through line communications strategy on part of the Brexiters.

What is particularly odd is the fact that the EC stated greater public backing as the key differentiator. How could Farage, who it must be said has been the most vocal anti-EU proponent over the last few years, end up backing the losing horse?

Complacent, or just unexciting?

Which isn’t to say that the ‘leave’ camp has been alone in making mistakes through the course of this campaign. For transparency, I should say that I am firmly pro-remain. But I have remained firmly uninspired by my side’s campaigning.

Perhaps it’s just that the old ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ message is difficult to communicate in a non-patronising way. Perhaps it’s simply because the sensible option is always going to sound less exciting.

Which leads me to the question I keep asking myself – where is the fun in this referendum?

Black and white ‘facts’

There should be plenty of scope in the topic for humour. Why hasn’t anyone taken the sting out of the tail of the debate with a bit of whimsy? And not of the ‘Accidental Partridge’ kind Farage’s flotilla delivered. Satire is a powerful political weapon, and both sides of this referendum are ripe for sending up.

From social media, think of the political memes we’ve had in recent years; David Cameron in airbrushed for change, BoJo on a zip wire photoshop wars, “I agree with Nick”, Milifandom. This referendum has had none of that, and in its place has been monotonous furrow browed debate.

Very arguably, the complexity of the issues at stake here is deserving of seriousness. But it is a complex debate with many perspectives – it’s shades of grey, while the media’s treatment has been black and white. The national news organisations picked their predictable sides, and have done nothing but throw (supposed) evidence based arguments at their opponents, leaving many an average reader with a likely very blinkered view.

Then there is evidence that is getting thrown out of the window, with the UK Statistics Authority repeatedly decrying the leave campaign’s central ‘£350 million a week’ message. Even the facts can’t be communicated properly in this campaign.

Nothing to engage young voters

My main concern is that the outcome of this referendum could have serious consequences, and that none of the tactics deployed by either side seem to have engaged at a wider level. With the outcome likely to have such a longstanding impact, the younger voter you are, the are more impact this referendum will have on you.

And what are the campaigns doing to engage younger voters? Well this is where the impartial Electoral Commission really takes the biscuit, in attempting to inject the humour so lacking in the opposing sides’ messaging. Its ‘#BoatyMcBoatface’ campaign was not only patronising (do young people need the election turned into a joke, or do they need the issues relevant to them communicated properly?) and desperate seeming, it’s literally a real life version of a Private Eye spoof.

As I’ve mentioned, this is a complex debate, and given we rarely get perfectly delivered communications campaigns from our political leaders when they’re on designated political teams, it’s hardly surprising that it’s a bit of a mess when they are working in hurried cross-party alliances. But the complexity is exactly the reason why that’s worrying – young voters have not been engaged, the electorate at large has been stood in the middle of a slinging match of muddied truths, unable to decipher fact from fiction.

Clear marketing communications have an important function, particularly in the political sphere where the outcome is of such gravity. Where intelligent communications strategies should have been cutting through the noise, we’ve had negative campaigning – embittered, repetitive shouting to get heard. I can’t help but feel that both sides of the Brexit camp have failed their voters in this referendum.

Image credit: Sibi Moore and Claire Green take to the streets of Bristol (Picture: SWNS)