written by
Katherine Diggory
Katherine Diggory

Brexit campaign – what can marketers learn from it?

Brexit campaign – what can marketers learn from it?

The UK’s referendum on 23rd June 2016 whether to stay in or leave the European Union was a major milestone in my country’s political history. It was a hard fought, emotional campaign. The campaign broke records for campaign spending, estimated to be around £28 million in total for both sides. The referendum resulted in 51.9% of voters voting in favour of leaving the European Union, on a national turnout of 72%, the highest ever for a UK-wide referendum. The vote had huge political implications, forcing the resignation of a sitting Prime Minister and an attempted coup against the leader of the UK’s second party.


he opinion polls predicted a win for Remain right up until the end, and yet Leave won the vote (albeit narrowly). With stakes so high and the opinion polls stacked against them, Leave confounded their critics and stormed to success.

Firstly, for full disclosure, I voted for Britain to remain within the EU. I live in Germany and the benefits the UK receives from close partnership with its European neighbours feature constantly in my life. But as a former political campaign manager, I could not fail to be impressed with the Leave’s campaign strategy. My mother, ever a barometer for middle England, called it right when, on the eve of poll, she said “I think they’re going to win this Katy”.

There is much that traditional marketers can learn from the Leave campaign’s strategy. How did they do it?

Appeal to emotions, not facts

When people buy a product or cast a vote, they are looking for that butterflies-in-stomach-feeling. In a world of constant messages and choices, they want and need to know something will change for the better as the result of their action. Quite simply, Leave inspired this feeling among their supporters and Remain failed to, concentrating more on facts and risks of leaving instead.

Remain mounted a large, well-resourced and energetic nationwide campaign. It did so with much technical proficiency. It pumped out colourful and effective campaigning material. But the Remain campaign focused on the dry benefits of staying in the EU. The campaign website, for example, pumped out facts such as “over 3 million UK jobs are linked to our trade with the EU”, “leaving the EU means your shopping costs £220 more”, “you save £350 each year because being in the EU means lower prices”. These arguments were supported by an army of trusted experts, including economists, union bosses and healthcare professionals. However valid these arguments were, Remain made the incorrect assumption that people would weigh up the facts of the two arguments and vote rationally – not so.

Don’t forget the UK population had been subjected to anti-EU reporting from a dogmatic press for over 40 years, persuading people that Brussels was now in control, taking all our money and sending us immigrants in return. The Leave campaign provided voters with a clearer and more emotional connection. Leave and “take back control” they said. Their website showed an ever-increasing ticker with the UK’s total payments to the EU (which was up to £511,496,258,774 when I looked. Compare this figure to the sums quote by the Remain camp in the paragraph above. Huge!). The campaign sent red buses into every town with the slogan on the side “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead.” As much as many people in the UK disliked the EU, most people in the UK love the NHS (National Health Service). Any attempt by politicians of either side to dismantle it over the years has been met with extreme opposition. A socialist healthcare system where every UK resident can access free healthcare, irrespective of their ability to pay. What sane person wouldn’t want EU money spent on this instead?

Then there was the pop-up on the Vote Leave homepage. In the style of an online gambling pop-up, it asked you to: “Click to win 50 million! Predict the European Championship results and win 50 million! The amount we send to the EU every single day. Click to play!”. It was fun and it appealed to their target audience. There was a sense of purpose to it all. Stop sending all that money to foreigners, it said, and spend it on “our priorities". The Remain campaign could not as easily articulate the benefits of EU funding (Common Agriculture Policy anyone?).

Employ active and meaningful rhetoric

The Leave rhetoric was active. It was meaningful. And, while many accused some of the Leave campaign’s messaging of being misleading or false, it was unfaltering in the message that the future would be better for Britons if they left the EU.

“Take back control.” “Save our NHS.” “There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Vote leave for a brighter future.”

Their messaging was very positive and painted a picture of a better tomorrow.

The Remain campaign however warned against potential turmoil if we left the EU. They didn’t offer prosperity or a brighter future. Their message was a negative one.

“Don’t let the future go down the drain. Vote remain.” “Leaving Europe is a leap in the dark for you and your family. Don’t risk it.”

People want hope. They want bright expectations. Remain offered darkness if voters did not choose them. Leave offered an alternative bright future. Marketers often find more success when they sell benefits and solutions instead of warning against potential negative outcomes.

Win the online marketing war

It would be misleading to say that Leave won the referendum because they adopted a more sophisticated online marketing strategy. For one thing, the majority of Leave voters were from the older age groups and these groups are traditionally underrepresented online. However, it is certainly true to say that online facilitated the spread of ideas and trends throughout the campaign, something which certainly contributed to the Leave victory.

Vyacheslav Polonski, Network scientist at the University of Oxford, conducted research into the Leave campaign on social media. He found that not only were there twice as many Brexit supporters on Instagram than Remainers, but these supporters were five times more active than Remainers. On average, Instagram posts from the members of the Leave camp received 26% more likes and 20% more comments, while the most active users in the dataset were also all campaigning for a Leave vote. The top 3 most frequently used hashtags in the campaign came from the Leave camp and were well integrated into all networked conversations online: #Brexit, #Beleave and #VoteLeave. Using the Internet, the Leave camp could create the perception of wide-ranging public support for their cause that acted like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But it wasn’t just social media. Leave’s campaign generally hit more targets with the online marketing basics. In the final stages of the campaign there was a big rush of people registering to vote. Leave recognised that many people would be typing “register to vote” into google, wanting to be redirected to the government website which offered information on how to register and how to cast their vote. And when they searched, the first link they were offered came from the Leave campaign “Register to vote – have you registered yet?”. Leave had placed a google ad. It looked like an official site and busy, distracted people probably did not notice the small word “ad” by the side of the link. It was a very savvy way to capture people who didn’t have the time or the inclination to tell the difference between an ad and an organic listing. It is hard to say how big an impact this had on the result, but we do know that this action gave rise to thousands of complaints from Remainers. Which went unheard of course as Leave had not broken the law, but in the cut and thrust of political campaigning certainly knocked Remain off their game.

Interesting following the result was the huge rise in social media activity from the Remain side. The #notinmyname and #notmyvote hashtags gained huge momentum from tech-savvy younger people, many expressing grief and sorrow about the result. It is also possible that these people were expressing disappointment not only in the result but in themselves, as a smaller proportion of younger people had turned out to vote.

Lessons for marketers? Online cannot be ignored. It creates the tone of any campaign and helps to spread ideas, particularly in emotionally charged situations. Often the simplest strategies, as we saw with the google ad, can demonstrate a tech-savvy campaign team and throw the opposition off their game.

Choose your best salesmen (not always who you might think)

Marketing 101 states that products should be endorsed by celebrities. The celebrities should embody the brands they represent, and be influential in their field so as to persuade consumers of their product‘s benefits. Remain had by far the more influential and impressive celebrities including David Beckham, Elton John and Harry Potter author JK Rowling. Leave had former England goalkeeper David James and racing driver Perry McCarthy (who?).

Rather than concentrating on celebrities, Leave simply had better salespeople who spoke directly to their target audience. Never mind that many of these people were on the far right and had complicated relationships with the truth. Former Mayor of London Boris Johnson and former UK Independence Party Leader Nigel Farage were regulars on television panel shows and debates, more presenting themselves to the public as media personalities rather than serious politicians. Both had been involved in public and private scandals. Nigel Farage liked nothing more than to be photographed holding a pint of beer and a cigarette, being as he was “one of the people”. Both had the ability to command press attention and the ability to exploit this to the full. But more than this, both figures appealed to Leave’s target audience as characters who were straight shooters, avoided political correctness and who “tell it like it is”.

Meryl Streep using her Golden Globes acceptance speech in January 2017 to slam the Trump administration is another example of where celebrity endorsement missed the mark this year. Her speech was undoubtedly a fine piece of writing, filled with feeling and delivered brilliantly. But Trump’s main support lies in the rust belt of middle America, in places where people feel forgotten about, are disappointed in liberal policies and are desperate for change. In voting for Trump, they voted for someone who would transfer power and “give it back to you, the American People”. A millionaire Hollywood actress speaking from a ballroom at an awards ceremony is far removed from this world. The speech certainly gained support on social media but did little to speak to Trump supporters who, by voting for Trump, were protesting much of what Meryl Streep stands for.

Traditional marketers take note: Celebrities enjoy notoriety and attract the press, but if they don’t speak to your target audience their endorsement is near worthless.


(Really) know your audience

Remain talked about jobs, economy, housing, healthcare. About all the things people would put at risk if they voted to leave the EU. And yet Leave talked about immigration, immigration, immigration. They knew this was their strongest card, anyone who wanted to limit the number of EU citizens entering the UK had no choice but to vote Leave.

Remain never developed a convincing narrative on immigration because it was an uncomfortable subject to them. EU membership would inevitably mean free movement of people and they could not therefore offer a fitting alternative. But their audience wanted to discuss it. Just prior to the referendum in June 2016 top polling organisation Ipsos Mori concluded that immigration was the top issue for voters in the referendum.

It appears that Remain underestimated just how eager people were for change on this issue, or thought that when hearing the benefits of EU membership, these fears would simply melt away.

Marketers should make efforts to really get to know their audience and challenge their own established opinions about what their target group wants, even if this information makes for uncomfortable reading.

It’s politics stupid

The Brexit campaign is a relevant story from our recent history of two well-funded marketing strategies, from which traditional marketers across the globe can learn a number of lessons.

Appeal to emotions, not facts. Facts do not keep you warm at night. Win the heart and the head will follow.

Employ active and meaningful rhetoric which extols positive values. Negative messaging, while important in a campaign, will only get you so far.

Win the online marketing war, even if online is not your supporter base’s natural home. Online facilitates the spread of emotions and ideas which in turn supports your entire campaign.

Choose your best salesmen: these may not be the traditional celebrities. It is important to know who your target audience want to hear from.

Know your audience: Most voters in the UK before the referendum wanted to talk about immigration. Remain wanted to talk about the economy. If you really know your audience’s priorities, however uncomfortable this might be, you can tackle issues head on, determine the framework of the debate and formulate your message effectively.