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How Business Influenced the Brexit Vote

By Dipak | 7th Jul 2016 | Posted in Marketing

There probably hasn’t been a more divisive issue in recent times than Britain’s vote for Brexit. The decision has rived both Conservative and Labour parties, with mass resignations all around. The strength of sterling has fallen amidst uncertainty concerning the UK’s leadership, and many are worried about the impact of Brexit upon their jobs, businesses, and even close personal relationships (we have friends, family, and lovers from Europe, after all).

sharing-image-squareCampaigns on both sides were aggressive in an attempt to sway floating voters. This has been reflected in the marketing campaigns not just from political parties, but from businesses themselves. Companies big and small are affected by the EU, and they certainly wanted to have a say in how proceedings would turn out.

There are huge dilemmas, ethical or otherwise, when businesses become overtly political. The risks in doing so can prove to be hurtful to a business’s profit and trust, but for the victors there is a potentially lucrative gain if done right. The results can be costly either way. Decisions that seem right at the time may turn out wrong, and vice-versa. History has a tendency to come back and bite people on the arse. Most companies avoid being involved in politics for this very reason.

However, just because most business leaders tend to shy away from speaking about their personal politics in public, doesn’t mean that they weren’t distinctively for or against in less outspoken ways. Markets fear uncertainty, so it’s not surprising that many business leaders would be pro-EU, even if only for fear of the short- to mid- term effects. Reports from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) confirm this. “Leave” has certainly left many business leaders in the world of digital marketing, advertising, and beyond shocked (and in some instances even dismayed).

In this post, I will look at how specific businesses (rather than political parties) used their respective marketing campaigns to influence the vote, how well they worked, and whether it was wise for them to get involved in the first place. At this point, I would like to remind readers that businesses aren’t people, and that the opinions of the business leaders are not necessarily reflected amongst all the people who work in their companies.

Leave: J.D. Wetherspoons

What was their campaign?

Beermats placed in their pubs throughout the country.

Wetherspoons beermatAs you can see, J.D. Wetherspoons went with the anti-establishment angle. Their advert portrays George Osborne and Christine Lagarde in close proximity, suggesting they are “kissing cousins”. The blurb reinforces this idea, hinting at a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” relationship.

Interestingly enough, the background is red, and mentions the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – Wetherspoons obviously picking up on the distaste many of the left have for the IMF, and sidestepping the issue that although the two institutions work together, they are separate entities.

The beermats are portrayed as “revolutionary” and “studded with facts”. Exposing corruption, bigwig politicians with their faces in the trough, and the relationships between big business and the state.

How well did it work?

I would say, very well indeed. Wetherspoons wants to capitalise in on the idea of pubs being the centre of ‘radical’ political talk for the everyday man and woman, and clearly wanted to foment discussion in their pubs.

Conveniently, Leave would have interesting information right in front of them to use, while Stay would have to ensure they’ve done their research in a day-to-day pub discussion! Wetherspoons managed to get their leave message across, maybe garner a few converts along the way, and do a bit of clever advertising at the same time.

Was their campaign wise?

All-in-all, yes. While Wetherspoons owner, Tim Martin, is known to have links with Nigel Farage and UKIP (he donates to them), the association was downplayed. Instead, the campaign was about the so-called facts – carefully chosen as they may have been – and aimed to blindside critics with an anti-authoritarian stance that appeals to all sorts of political persuasions.

While a looming recession may not be in Wetherspoons’ short-term interests, this campaign of theirs and the Leavers’ eventual victory may help retain Wetherspoons’ stranglehold of the pub game. Martin’s bullheaded, stern opinion makes Wetherspoons seem as if it’s a company that supports the will of the British people, as well as a steadfast business lead by a strong leader. He also registered his intent with the Electoral Commission.

The other Leavers: Dyson, Aspall, Patisserie Valerie and many more…

What was their campaign?

Interestingly enough, with the exception of signing a few letters, many of the Leavers kept their politics and businesses separate. Donations were made, yes, but no major marketing campaigns. However, the Leavers did have one huge asset up their sleeve – a massive media empire known as News International.

How well did it work?

Excellently. They generally followed the old maxim of “don’t mix business with politics”, and staying mostly silent on the issue allowed their opponents to run out of steam by letting them repeat standard and not-necessarily-insightful talking points.

This gave the Leave campaign lots of breathing space and the chance to bring up a huge variety of issues that Stayers didn’t address directly. Where Leavers looked at NHS costs, terrorism, independence & autonomy, immigration, corruption, and lots more, Stayers had a seemingly one-sided argument that focussed only on one issue: economics. The lack of well-rounded argument from the opposition cost it dearly.

Was their campaign wise?

Yes, to some extent. Leave won, after all! The hands-off approach also made the Leave campaign look more honest in comparison to the Stay campaign, as voters weren’t being told which way to vote by big firms. There is a good argument to be made that, had most companies kept a bit quieter about wanting to stay, they may have won. Instead, they pulled out all the tricks they could, and in the process looked more panicky than reassured.

Yet, for many, the associations between UKIP and Wetherspoons might well be a big turn-off. Many Leavers may well feel uncomfortable being in counted as an ally of UKIP, and could well have voted to stay merely because of this association, even if they agree on many points.

Others held their noses for now and voted leave anyway, but may wish to strike back at these companies in other ways in the future. Many companies backing “Leave” are not clean with respect to workers’ rights, especially after the workfare controversies many were or are are involved in.

Many workfare schemes are still ongoing – and interestingly enough many companies involved in workfare get lots of EU subsidies, so it will be interesting to see whether or not they will live on (and whether they deserve to – they’re more often than not considered “worse than useless” at their “jobs”). Ammunition is most certainly being stored up for later.

Stay: Virgin

Richard Branson

What was their campaign?

A series of videos from the Founder of Virgin Group, Richard Branson.

How well did it work?

Hit-and-miss, mostly. Though Richard Branson is a well-regarded and highly-trusted businessman the world over, he is still seen as a bit of an outsider. He is not registered to vote in the UK, and many will merely say to themselves, “Well, he’s bound to say that – he’s just looking after his business interests.” Again, the idea of a back-scratching union between a corrupt EU and big business is helped along in one’s head.

This brings in another issue, and a question some voters will have towards many businesses: were they putting profits before principles? Many businesses knew that voting for Brexit might put them a step back for a little while, but voted for it anyway. This gives Leavers the upper hand with regards to principality. Maybe businesses don’t want to reduce workers’ rights, but protect them from a highly inefficient bureaucracy focussed on crushing democracy…

Yes, this is a huge leap of logic, but not a completely unreasonable one. When you have the likes of Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and other big tech corporations on your side, who are voters going to believe is on the side of big business? Let’s face it – workers’ rights are not usually seen as synonymous with multinational corporations.

Was their campaign wise?

At best, a neutral impact overall. Yes, Branson is popular, but also familiar. Familiarity is usually associated with the status quo and, as we’ve mentioned above with the critical attitudes many have towards politicians and others in positions of considerable influence at the moment, the status quo is not what people want.


Fly home to vote remain, RyanairWhat was their campaign?

A Fly Home to Vote Remain Brexit Special offering cheap one-way flights to UK citizens living abroad, as well as planes carrying pro-EU slogans.

Ryanair sold tickets to the UK for the 22nd and 23rd of June to those living overseas but registered to vote in the UK, as long as they booked the flight on the Ryanair website on the 18th or 19th of May. There were huge campaigns on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms.

How well did it work?

Not very well at all. Ryanair were investigated for breaking election laws. Donators spending more than £10,000 must register with the Electoral Commission watchdog to monitor spending. Police also investigated Ryanair for bribery. Whilst investigations concluded that Ryanair did not break EU rules, mud sticks, and in this case perhaps justifiably so.

Was their campaign wise?

A resounding no. Although no rules were broken, actively trying to give customers cut-price tickets to vote the way Ryanair wants them to vote sticks in the craw, ethically-speaking, and is one of the cheapest tricks in the book.

Ryanair have also potentially shot themselves in the foot twice with their campaign. For one, many expats may have used the chance to come back and vote “leave” (even if only for irony’s sake). Secondly, it cements the idea that big businesses are in league with the EU. The investigations into bribery compound this impression.

So, all-in-all, a huge punch to the gut for Ryanair. With the fact that Brexit has hit UK airlines’ and holidaymakers’ share prices quite dramatically, this is a triple-whammy.

The Neutrals

Supermarkets like Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, and Tesco were all distinctly neutral on the Brexit matter, and this is not surprising. Most companies want to stay away from politics, and supermarkets are particularly careful about coming down on one side or the other. Supermarkets need to foster an image of security, consistency, and bountifulness – something politics doesn’t provide.

However, supermarkets are very much a big part of the EU. Much of the stock in them comes from the EU, and anything that may affect prices (e.g. tariffs) could prove very costly for supermarkets.

Yet, try as they may to stay away from politics, politics won’t stay away from them. Sainsbury’s in particular has been hit hardest post-Brexit, as their recent acquisition of Argos and the fall in the strength of the pound has left them in danger of being exposed to people’s reduction in disposable income. Other supermarkets are also feeling the negative effects of the vote, especially as cost and supply issues become a greater concern.

In conclusion…

Brexit was the better-handled campaign from the get-go, especially as it has been concerned with the issue for a lot longer. The Remainers cobbled together their marketing at the last minute, overconfident in its reliance upon the populace to retain what they’re used to.

This was a long-distance race, and the Leavers paced themselves before dashing to the finish. The Remainers were slow throughout, made a huge run at the end to catch up, and then ultimately lost as they spent so much energy just trying to keep up. Even the name for the Remain camp seemed unsure of itself. Was it Bremain? Stay? In? Brexit had a well-defined strategy, a proper slogan (“take back control”), and name for itself; Remain did not.

On the other hand, history may vindicate the Remain camp. So far, their predictions have come true. Confidence in UK markets is down. Airline companies, property, supermarkets, luxury brands, cosmetics, fashion, and many other industries are facing a slump in share prices. Sterling has lost a lot of its power. Interest rates have been decimated. Oil prices have risen. Parliament has seen mass-resignations all-round.

Scientific, tech, creative, and marketing industries – all booming in the UK right now – are warning of skills shortages, as access to a wider pool of talent is cut. Brands like Ted Baker and M&S are warning of higher prices for clothing in a market that’s already stultifying, as manufacturing plants and workers have to migrate to other locations.

The short-term forecast is certainly looking gloomy. The possibility of entering another recession is very much in view. Much of the UK’s trade relies upon the EU, and foreign investors from around the world are pulling out of transactions. Until leadership is restored and the EU-UK deals are hashed out, we are likely to see a lot of tumultuous activity – both social and economic – over the next couple of years. Whether this post-Brexit activity will be positive, negative, or have no major discernible effect in the long-term remains to be seen.


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