Managing the message, making assumptions and telling a story

What a rollercoaster week it’s been. For the second time in as many years, the pollsters have been proved wrong, and we’re now headed into uncharted territory.

It’ll take months or years for the full enormity of the Brexit referendum decision to sink in. But in the meantime, it’s instructive to look back at the campaigns for Leave and Remain and try to understand what lessons we can learn from them.

So what has the biggest political shock in decades taught us? Here’s what I’ve been thinking: 

  1. You don’t always get the result what you want. But when it happens, you have to be realistic, and whether it’s a marketing campaign or a political one, it’s best to accept that you are where you are and deal with it. 
  2. Be careful what you say, because it might just come back to haunt you. Already there’s been some backtracking on the £350m that was supposed to go to the NHS, and Nigel Farage probably regrets saying that a 52-48 Remain/Leave wouldn’t really be a victory. Immigration figures might not fall, says Daniel Hannan, despite claims to the contrary. Whether it’s political promises or marketing promises, it’s best to keep them realistic.
  3. It’s very dangerous to make assumptions, whether you’re talking about a prospect or a voter. Just as dissatisfied customers don’t generally tell you why they’re unhappy, so disillusioned voters don’t always put posters in the window or answer truthfully when the pollsters call to ask where they’ll put their X.
  4. The message is everything, and you need to keep it simple and understandable, because that’s when it’s most effective. Your marketing can’t just hit people with every last detail, and expect them to sort out what’s important from what’s not. Because at the end of the day, just like a referendum, they’re faced with a stark choice: buy/don’t buy.
  5. Don’t demonize the opposition, whether that’s a political movement or commercial competitor. It can make you look defensive or even aggressive, and negativity never plays well. What’s more, you may need to work with them down the line – in a political arrangement or a commercial venture – so it’s best to maintain a level head. 
  6. Emotions are powerful, whether it’s love or hate, pride or shame. We’re safer, stronger and better in the EU, said the Remain campaign. Let’s be open, welcoming and connected. The Leave campaign urged people to feel pride in being truly British again. To take back control, and move towards a brighter, freer, more independent future. These emotional benefits are far more immediate and appealing than the dull features of tax harmonisation, directives and trade deals. 
  7. You get the answers to the questions you ask, so make sure you’re asking the right ones. If you prompt people with predefined answers, you force them to think the way you do, with your priorities and agenda. Whether it’s customer satisfaction or political issues, it’s always best to do a little less talking and a little more listening. 
  8. You can’t appeal to everybody (but you can learn from them). However good the message, it will fail to appeal to some people – either because it’s irrelevant or too complicated. The truly surprising thing isn’t that 72% of people turned out to vote – more than double the 2014 European elections figure of 35%. It’s that 28% of people didn’t bother. And they’re the ones we really need to talk to, just like customers who didn’t buy from you. Because only then will you understand where you went wrong. 
  9. Decisions are hard, often with too many unrelated elements to weigh up. Financial meltdown vs. undemocratic rule by a distant bureaucracy? Freedom to holiday anywhere vs. creeping benefit fraud? Crowded doctors’ surgeries vs. tariff-free Italian chardonnay? Apples or oranges? In the end, voters and customers often make a snap decision. I’ve lost count of the people I’ve spoken to who were 50/50 until June 23, but were then forced to vote one way or the other. Or didn’t vote at all, as a 24-year-old told me, confessing it was all too complicated. 
  10. Storytelling is highly effective, whether it’s about Jacek the Polish web designer at Silicon Roundabout in London, or your client Katie whose life was transformed when she signed up to your service. Suddenly, dry facts and features fall away, and your story comes alive as readers see the real people behind the words. They connect with another person, and their view is transformed. Which makes it easier to pick up that pencil and make your mark, or pick up that telephone and place your order. 

Somehow, I think that Brexit is going to provide a rich vein of material for marketers across the globe for several years to come.

And in case you’re wondering if that’s my ballot paper in the photo, the answer is yes. But wasn’t photography banned in polling stations? I hear you ask.

Indeed it was. I’m expecting the European arrest warrant any day now. Or maybe not – stay tuned.

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