Brexit is still far too divisive for brands to exploit

Better to pretend it’s not happening

As horrid as it is to report, after Tuesday’s kind-of-Meaningful Vote, the Brexit deadlock is set to continue dominating public conversation for the foreseeable future. As Neil Warnock so elegantly proved last weekend, everyone’s got an opinion on what happens next, but what about brands?

It’s not like they don’t know it’s going on. And it’s not like they don’t have opinions. When the World Cup was all anyone could talk about, companies did everything they could to crowbar their way into the conversation. I guess that’s because backing Gareth’s Brave Boys wasn’t contentious. By that measure, it’s a testament to the LGBTQ movement that all brands now feel empowered to dust off the rainbow colourway every time Pride rolls around — whether they should or not. Standing for equal rights is apparently no longer controversial.

Brexit still very much is though. It’s also much more divisive, so the vast majority of brands are simply pretending it’s not happening. A few have hinted at it — HSBC the most overtly. Their ‘We are not an island’ ad is one giant subtweet to the likes of Gove and Johnson. Building on last year’s ‘Global Citizen’ campaign, it champions “the elements of British life that are indebted to the nation’s connections to the wider world — no matter what side of the political divide”. That last bit feels like a cop-out to me. This is anti-Brexit rhetoric, just own it.

Jigsaw, the clothing brand, were a little less sheepish about their own effort. Called ‘Jigsaw loves Immigrants’, it carried the text: “as a clothing brand, we couldn’t do what we do if people weren’t free to move around. Without immigration, we’d be selling potato sacks. We need beautiful minds from around the world.” Ambiguous it ain’t.

On the other side, despite what many prominent business owners stand for privately, only Wetherspoons have dared put out pro-Brexit messaging. (Still waiting for the Leave-themed Dyson and Next ads.)

That said, there have been a couple of dog-whistle efforts. The branding for Tesco’s new ‘Jack’s’ stores — Union Jack colour scheme and 8 out of 10 products are British* tagline — is surely aimed at those seeking freedom from the tyranny of Europe’s Aldi and Lidl. (*Of course there’s an asterisk. There’s always an asterisk.) Meanwhile, Vauxhall’s new Insignia model, with is headlines of ‘True Brit’, ‘Drool Britannia’ and ‘Keeps Calm and Carries On’ is definitely some kind of Brexitmobile.

Across the pond, in perhaps the only Western country more divided than ours, we’re starting to see brands be more overt in their political allegiances. Here it looks like the liberals are winning the culture wars. Nike saw a 31% jump in their online sales after their Kaepernick effort, and Patagonia enjoyed increased revenues after declaring ‘The President stole your land’.

Here’s a question though: do we really want our brands to be more political? Do we care what Mike Ashley thinks about the Irish backstop? Many would argue that even something like Nike’s Kaepernick campaign is disingenuous because it’s driven by moving the bottom line, not the national conversation.

Nike would counter that an advert can do both. Perhaps they have a point. Brands are tastemakers like never before. Harnessing mammoth budgets, star power and cool, they have the power to make people think differently about politics, society and civic movements in a way even the best politicians can’t. The fact they’re driven by shifting units isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. There are no hidden agendas. We know their motive and it can be exchanged for goods and services.

In these tumultuous times, we increasingly demand brands pick a side on the issues affecting our lives. Purpose really is the new brand currency. Our craving for corporate conscience has seen Airbnb supporting refugees, Stella Artois tackling water shortages and, just yesterday, Gillette wading in on toxic masculinity.

But Brexit? In the UK, it’s the biggest political issue of our generation, but it’s also far too hot for brands to touch right now. So, they’ll sit back and wait for public sentiment to flow decisively one way. Then they’ll solidify it, package it, and sell it. For now, though, expect their Brexit silence to continue.

Joseph Richardson — Senior Writer, OPX