#epicfail How Britain Stronger In Europe blew it on basic PR & marketing

What’s the marketing strategy then? (photo credit: Evan Dennis — Unsplash)

This picture tells you a lot about the ruthlessness of Vote Leave. But also something about marketing basics.

We’re offering ‘all your voting information right here!’

In the closing stages of the referendum the need for the official ‘Britain Stronger In Europe’ campaign to dig deeper for their vote was big news. There were lots of web searches to register for a voice in the referendum. Busy, distracted people doubtless Googled (or Binged — in the case of the search result above) ‘register to vote’. If you did, the chances are you saw an ad that took you straight to the Vote Leave website. It sat above the official government voter registration page (which was here).

It was a simple and predictable piece of work. It was almost guaranteed to capture less web-savvy people who don’t notice the ‘Ad’ tag in a search result and probably don’t know the difference between an ad and an organic listing anyway.

Inevitably hands-to-cheeks gasps of indignation erupted among ‘Remainers’, with accusations that people were being conned into signing up for Vote Leave’s mailing list. Which, of course, they were. A bunch of pointless ‘official’ complaints were threatened. You’ll never hear about those again because no laws were broken.

It was just an obvious thing to do.

So was this.

Remember how important the youth vote was to Remain? This advert consistently greeted me on an app called Swarm. I’m probably about the oldest Swarm user you’ll find (it’s an appendage of the Foursquare ratings app) so this ad wasn’t really targeted at me. It was targeted at — you guessed, didn’t you. Someone was doing their ‘hygiene’ work in Vote Leave’s marketing team. Meanwhile I was wondering why people in the Stronger In campaign weren’t.

Yes, the Leave marketing was ruthless. But that’s not the only reason it was more effective. It was more effective because it was just better. Let’s go back to basics and the choice we were being presented with.




How obvious is the psychology. Take a look at those words. Which one signals a dynamic action? Which one sounds, well, more like doing nothing? Active versus passive.

I’ve dug around to try to understand the reason why the wording on the ballot was a choice between leaving and remaining. I haven’t found anything definitive. The Electoral Commission necessarily had a hand in the form of words because controversy can erupt when one side is able to claim the other has an unfair advantage due to wording. That’s why we weren’t being offered a Yes-No choice. But really? Remain?

When did you last hear a conversation go like this:

“This is a rubbish party — let’s leave”

“Actually, I’d like to remain”

Did nobody actually think of the connotations of the word ‘remain’ without thinking about how you promote it as an inspiring thing?

Attractive choice, huh?

If you were sparring on Twitter during the referendum campaign, the chances are you saw a lot of scorn poured over those who didn’t want to quit the EU — and of course vice versa. But the Leave side were handed a gift, which their supporters used well — branding their opponents Remainiacs, Remainians or Bremainians. It was an open goal for the Brexiters. It’s even happening now, with the coining of ‘Remoaners’ for those who aren’t happy with the referendum result. But consider this;

Ripping the piss out of people as ‘Stayers’ might well have proved a bit trickier.

Did anyone consider this?

Did anyone at all think about how these words would play in the media or — just as importantly — on social media?

After the campaign, friends on Twitter (thanks @BruceJBeaton & @JimReidVehicle) pointed out to me that ‘stay’ is a word used in hundreds of well known songs. The opportunities for creating viral content just on that basis were myriad. In contrast, how many tune classics contain the word ‘remain’?

This is hygiene stuff, when you’re in the profession of persuasion. Marketing & PR 101. It’s simple due diligence. No one at Britain Stronger In Europe seemed to have ever done it.

This lack of basic marketing chops goes all the way back to the names of the official campaign groups.

‘Vote Leave’ — it’s a call to action. Dynamic, a thing you can do to assert your will. The same goes for Leave.EU.

Britain Stronger In Europe. Really? Did they seriously think that this bland assertion would inspire a precariat who are actually desperate for things to change?

Try telling one of those people, feeling horribly unstrong ‘hey, you’ll be stronger in Europe’. It was risible.

Marketing & PR 101. #epicfail

What about brand presentation?

I watched the Vote Leave website and compared it with that of Britain Stronger In Europe.

‘Weheey! In this Saturday’s super soaraway Sun, er, no — campaign to leave the EU’

Zing! It was fun. It brilliantly amplified in its £350m per week to the EU lie, by offering the daily figure (£50 million) as a competition prize. Bang on message. Sinking that number deeper and deeper into the national psyche. Brilliant marketing. The kind of marketing poncy marketers call ‘integrated’.

Once you clicked through the fun just got better.

‘OMG — look at that money counter go’

Even I couldn’t help smiling. There was a picture of some Turkish MPs having a scrap in their parliament, Prime Minister Cameron looking like a gasping fish and with a nicely-chosen quotation to make him look really stupid. And (when you watched the rotating banner header) loads of young people, smiling, in red Vote Leave t-shirts. Like absolutely no young people I ever met, during the campaign. The oldest person featured on the Vote Leave web banner was Michael Gove.

Genius. And even more genius was the ‘total contributions to the EU’ figure, ticking inexorably and rapidly up. It was enough to make you want to grab the nearest pitchfork and storm the local globalist elite manor house. But it was fun. It was vibrant. There was a sense of purpose to it all. Stop sending all that money to foreigners, it said, and spend it on “our priorities, like the NHS”. Because the NHS is a much loved brand. It’s so obvious and appealing.

How did the Britain Stronger In Europe website compare?

“We’re so nice. We’d quite like you to understand all this stuff”

Anyone who could be bothered watching the rotating banner header here were in for a real treat. You got pictures of a city, which I couldn’t decide was either Birmingham or Sheffield, a nigh-time waterfront scene where you might find unelected elite Europeans and neoliberals eating tiny portions off slates in expensive eateries, a picture of some nice trees and another one of some cranes that lift containers off ships.

It looked like the cover from a year 9 geography & economics project.

There was a video to watch. There was nothing entertaining about it. It appealed to reason. ‘Why we’re stronger IN’ and ‘reasons’ for this and that. It didn’t even pique my interest.

Vote Leave nailed the marketing in their campaign because they knew their demographic. Back in May the Telegraph ran this illuminating analysis of the two broad camps — EU referendum: Who in Britain wants to leave, and who wants to remain? You don’t need me to tell you the socio-cultural, educational and economic profiles of the two camps.

But it constantly seemed as if Stronger In were too embarrassed to take on Vote Leave by actually marketing to the older, less formally educated milieu. People who don’t read a lot, but trust their instincts and feelings. People who are more susceptible to a striking image and a one-line epithet. This wasn’t just about finding a ‘Labour isn’t working’ meme and prosecuting it hard. It was as much about failing to think at all about how different people perceive different types of information.

I’d hazard a guess that a reasonable local marketing agency in a town of any size would have nailed things like this better than the official Remain campaign. Especially once they’d seen the opposition doing this.

How much? Ethel, come and look at this…

Look at that page description. An eye-catching (and eye-watering) number you just needed to feel angry about. Simple claims that could be avowed over a pint with your friends, along with excellent direct language. Those ‘technological and economic forces are changing the world’ sounded intriguing — and that made the Leave website seem switched on and authoritative. I especially liked ‘Our Case. Here is why we think you should Vote Leave.’ No finger-wagging there.

In contrast, read this and yawn.

There was nothing to appeal to emotion. Who ever clicked on a link that promised you’d ‘Get the Facts. Jobs & The Economy’?

It was almost as if Remain actively wanted to exclude you if you read the Daily Express. Tepid offerings of business information and hesitant requests to support them if you’d “like to” hardly spoke of a passion to mobilise people who are generally more turned on by a direct call to arms. It didn’t work for me — and I was a financial supporter.

Vote Leave even had superior, more eye-catching brand assets. They just looked cooler.

Contrast this

Does this look a bit 1970s to you?

With this

How to win the war of the logos

I could never quite place it, but that union-flagified ‘In’ logo constantly reminded me of a visual asset from when people were trying to look really modern in the 1970s. It just seemed to me a bit ‘clunky’. Kind of made up quickly by the one intern who could use Adobe Illustrator and which was instantly signed off by excited people in their 50s and above. I’m certain there’s something in this.

The Vote Leave logo was, in contrast, actually beautiful. It was many things at once. It was a ballot box. It invited you to anticipate the moment when you could drop your vote into it. It was also, cleverly, a little red leaf, signalling hope. Or a tiny flickering flame, waiting to be fanned into a blaze of beautiful democracy. It had movement. It pointed — arrow-like — up, up and away. God, I loved that logo, from a professional perspective. Someone deserves an award for it.

The BSIE group had an insane amount of talent at its disposal. A roster of agencies who were gagging to roast the opposition with striking images that went to the heart of the issues. But, as this very short post post reveals, that’s not much use if the client doesn’t have an actual strategy.

And if evidence were needed that there was always trouble at the mill between the marketers and a fusty campaign group leadership, it finally came with the release of rejected material by angry agencies. Like this one, mocked up by M&C Saatchi.

True dat

And this, by CHI & Partners.

Divisive? Yes. True? Also, yes.

More of these can be seen — along with an interesting comment thread on the cons of pursuing a brutal ‘cut through’ message — in this article ‘The Remain campaign ads that got away’.

The point here isn’t that negative campaigning like this would have made a positive impact. My sense is that it probably wouldn’t, after April, when the polls began to swing. The point is that there was clearly no marketing strategy at all. Ever. If it’s true that BSIE were running around the agencies, looking for ideas, as deep into the campaign as mid-June, that’s a problem that really began 12 months ago.

It began with getting the basics wrong. The belt-and-braces stuff that anyone who has survived in communications and marketing beyond their probationary period knows. How good your brand looks on a TV screen, or a podium or on a mobile device. How well it fits with the lives of your target market. How you bring that story to life. How well the brand gets the people it wants to impress. A good brand anticipates and cares about your experience of it. Brands that don’t do that always die. And this one was stillborn. On the basis of presentation and messaging, it deserved the kicking it got.

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