This is a post about planning and professional capabilities, not politics. Specifically, it’s about the failure of one campaign group in the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union to plan at all. And its failure to apply even the basics when it came to professional communications.

The picture below tells you a lot about the thoroughness of the Vote Leave campaign. But also something about marketing basics.

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. The deadline for voters to register was even extended by emergency legislation. 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 that ad. It took you straight to the Vote Leave website. That advert sat above the official government voter registration page (which was here).

That ad was a simple and entirely predictable piece of work. It was a smart way 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. 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 in particular was said to be for 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 leisure service facility ratings app) so this ad wasn’t really targeted at me. It was targeted at  younger people. Someone was doing their ‘hygiene’ work in Vote Leave’s marketing team. Meanwhile I was beginning to wonder 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 of them signals a dynamic action? Which one sounds a lot like doing nothing? Active versus passive.

I’ve dug around to try to understand the reason why the choice we were presented with was leaving vs 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?Did anybody in the pro-stay campaign ever consider this glaringly obvious connotation?

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 conduct or its outcome. 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. It’s marketing & PR 101. It’s basic 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, the runner-up campaign group in the bid for ‘official’ status. The group that actually probably won the referendum for Leave.

Then there was Britain Stronger In Europe.

Really? Did they seriously think that this bland assertion would inspire aprecariat who are actually desperate for things to change?

Try telling someone who feels anything but strong that the status quo makes them stronger. It was risible.

What about brand profiling and presentation?

I regularly popped by to view the Vote Leave website and compare it with that of Britain Stronger In Europe.

That’s what I call a landing page. Zing! It was fun. It brilliantly amplified 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. This is the kind of marketing poncy marketers call ‘integrated’.

Once you clicked through the fun just got better.

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? Not really. Just good solid, engaging messaging.  Like 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 neo-liberal elite manor house. 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”.

How did the Britain Stronger In Europe website compare?

Anyone bothering to watch the rotating banner header here was in for a disappointment. You got pictures of a city, which I couldn’t decide was either Birmingham or Sheffield, a night-time waterfront scene – like a tourist leaflet – a picture of some trees and another one of some cranes that lift containers off ships.

It looked like the cover for a year 9 geography project.

There was a video to watch there too. 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 and 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. Lovers of a good slogan. This wasn’t just about failing to come up with a ‘Labour isn’t working’ type of 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’m certain a reasonable local marketing agency in any provincial town would have nailed things like this better than the official Remain campaign. Especially once they’d seen the opposition doing 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, expressed clearly in excellent direct language. The line about how ‘technological and economic forces are changing the world’ sounded intriguing. It 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, there was this.

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 contributor to the campaign. A despairing one.

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

Contrast this





With this

I could never quite place it, but that union-jackified ‘In’ logo constantly reminded me of a visual asset from when people were trying to look really modern in the 1970s. Kind of made up quickly by an intern who could use Adobe Illustrator and 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. 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 that was the problem, it has now emerged. There was never a communications strategy.

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

More of these treatments 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 or wouldn’t have made a positive impact. 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 when Britain Stronger In Europe was first put together.

Eventually my suspicion on planning was confirmed. In an article contributed toThe New European pop-up newspaper that has emerged since the referendum a very telling comment is offered by Richard Huntington, chief strategy officer of Saatchi & Saatchi in London. He says:

“Yes, the agencies might have created more and better work, but in the final instance it’s not clear that there was ever a real plan.”

We all know that failing to plan is akin to planning to fail. But so is failing to do your hygiene work.

In marketing and PR you fail by getting the basics wrong. If there’s no foundation to build a killer blow on, you’ll never land one. This is 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 and experience of your target market. How you bring the story of that relationship to life. How well the brand understands 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, whether they are promoting something good or not. The Britain Stronger In Europe brand was stillborn. On the basis of preparation, presentation and messaging, it deserved the kicking it got.

PR, digital & social marketing consultant at Mike Hind Ltd

Footnote: Since publishing this post, I’ve seen further compelling arguments for the inadequacies of the Stronger IN campaign branding and messaging, compared with that of the Leave campaign groups. I have decided to add them here and will continue to do so, as they come onto my radar.

By Rob Coke, Group Strategy Director at Studio Output – ‘Brexit: How design made the difference

By Warren Hatter, behavioural expert – ‘The Brexit Referendum Through a Behavioural Lense

And another Stronger In schoolboy error is detailed here – Vote Leave Used A Really Simple Trick To See All Remain’s Announcements In Advance


published 18 July 2016.