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If the EU referendum were a competition in branding, which side would win?

By Greg Taylor | global provocation director

June 23, 2016 | 7 min read

So here I am, it’s 23 June. The big Brexit day has arrived, and I’m stuck at Cannes Lions, the traditional summertime mecca for creativity… tough gig I know. I bet you feel as sorry for me as you do those poor Old Etonians David & Boris!

Nevertheless, given that my proxy vote is safely secured back in Blighty, an international festival for creativity provides perfect context to ask the question, 'If the EU referendum were a competition in branding, which camp would win?’ Who gets your branding vote, Brexiteer or Remainiac?

eu ref logos

So let me pop the cork of that chilled rosé and consider some of the basics of branding – what sharp Byronistas might call the four ‘big easys’: easy to understand, easy to remember, easy to reach, and easy to buy.

Easy to understand

Given the political subject matter, this is always going to be a hard one to get right. The heady mix of complexity, spin and counter spin and accusation of mistruths from all sides makes it difficult for the general public to grasp the arguments for or against.

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Setting aside all the mud-slinging, we can thin slice the campaigns to fairly simplistic one-word stories aimed at tapping into a couple of high-level human truths. Our need for ‘control’, to be in charge of our sovereignty, sits at the heart of the Leave campaign with its #TakeControl message.

On the other hand, our propensity for ‘attachment’, the sense that as a herd animal we’re stronger together, drives Remain’s #strongerin thread.

However, unlike the mid-seventies campaign to keep Britain in Europe, the pro-unionists haven’t embedded their message with any semiotic meaning. This is a missed opportunity in a world that is even more visual now than it was 40 years ago.

keep britain in europe

Disappointingly, neither side has created any core iconic assets or amplified their message creatively. Given the best practice set by past political campaigns like Obama’s, this is bonkers and borders on the amateur as far as effective branding goes!

If you asked any Obama supporter back in the day what he stood for you’d get the answer; ‘hope’ and ‘change’. This clear story is backed up by an ownable look and feel.

Even the Obama logo combines the “O” of Obama with the idea of dawn, and a horizon - all wrapped up in a patriotic red, white and blue.


Score for easy to understand = draw

Easy to remember

Can anyone recall either campaign’s iconic brand assets? Compared to other socio-political campaigns like Red Nose Day or Children in Need, there’s little there to hardwire mentally.

If you asked people to draw the brand from memory, I’d be surprised if a single thing sprung to mind! In stark comparison, it would literally be child’s play for people to recall and draw a red nose or a yellow bear.


Score for easy to remember = draw

Easy to reach

Easy to reach is where the fun begins as we see the referendum campaign gangs duke it out for millennial favour.

There’s nothing more debilitating than seeing politicians ‘disco-dadding’ with Gen Viz! Top prize for this goes to the #Votin video designed to appeal to young voters. Apparently dropping the ‘g’ is the cool thing to do to demonstrate your street cred, whilst you’re ‘workin’, earnin’, shoppin’, ravin’ and chattin’. Yeah we get the ‘in’ puns - but really?


Tory MP Sam Gyimah said it was “the job of us politicians to make politics engaging and accessible – less official, less formal, more casual.” OMG, ‘seriously,’ he’s ‘not even jokin!’ Sam, we know you know that young people were born into an EU era and therefore might take it for granted, but ‘McDonaldizing’ your story ain’t going to cut it.

On the other hand VoteLeave’s #TakeControl @vote_leave feels like it can’t be arsed beyond the standard leave political fare.

Winner for easy to reach = Remain (for at least trying)

Easy to buy

Finally, as I sip the last of my ice-cold Provence rosé, let’s consider easy to buy. While we might need to see the results to know for sure, there are a few things still to consider.

Could the Remainers have thought more about a bigger, more optimistic world-view rather than just Europe? Yes, in 2016 we still live in a world of racial, geographical and gender divisions. But in the future our sense of identity will slide further towards something we collect, assemble and arrange – what’s been termed ‘Bricolage Living’.

"Transnationalism and layers of identity are becoming more common, particularly among the young," says professor Ian Goldin, director of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. This is surely the brighter future Obama strived for.

As for our Brexiteers, they should have had a gander at Edelman’s 2015 Trust Barometer. It showed a global decline in trust, with the number of countries with trusted institutions having fallen to an all-time low among the informed public. They might then have opted for a more straight-forward, new found honesty, instead of trying to instill fear into the Little Englander.

Score for easy to buy = draw

So to what general conclusion can we draw on our original question; 'if the EU referendum were a competition in branding, which camp would win?’ Well it’s been a bit of a non-event branding wise. More of a meow than a roar! Perhaps both camps should have used a kitten as their branding mascot. After all, everyone knows how much we love looking at kittens . . .

Greg Taylor is global provocation director at Elmwood

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