Lesson from Brexit: How to Craft Campaigns that Inspire Action

It’s been described as “the stupidest thing any country has done,” “a declaration of economic war upon ourselves,” and “a monumental act of self-harm.”

It’s a decision that could derail the economy, cost the UK £100s of billions in lost revenue, and put an unprecedented number of businesses and livelihoods at risk.

Yet, on the June 23, 2016, the majority of British voters (albeit a slim one) decided to leave the EU and close the door on nearly 50 years of close collaboration and free trade.

It’s still early to say what impact the decision will have in real terms. Today’s economic and social phenomena are typically the result of actions taken years in the past, so it’s unlikely we’ll feel the true aftereffects (positive or negative) of the vote for quite some time still.

As a 40-something Brit, born a year after the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC), I’ve never known a world outside the EU. I’ve enjoyed the freedoms it’s granted me, and I must admit to being concerned about the repercussions of our decision as well as some of the darker undertones of the populist agenda that underpinned it.

But this is neither the time nor the place for political debate. It is, however, the perfect platform for exploring the secrets to compelling campaigning—and, as is the case of Brexit, what it takes to successfully convince people to take the action you want them to take.

As a PR man and content creator who’s in the business of persuading people to take action, I find myself pondering the Leave Campaign and asking one simple question: How did they do it?

How did they manage, beyond the expectations of even their biggest proponents, to convince the British voting public to pull the trigger on Brexit?

Success Against Considerable Odds

No matter how strong an argument for change, the status quo can exert an irresistible pull.

After all, it’s not unusual for people to say they will do one thing, only to do another—or do nothing at all—when the time comes to act.

That’s a lesson pollsters have had to learn the hard way.

So resistant are we to change that even if many Brits had been convinced of the Leave argument and decided to vote in its favor, it would not have been a surprise, once face-to-face with the ballot paper, had they gone on to vote Remain.

And although it’s true to say Euroscepticism was at an all-time high in 2016, leaving the club was not on people’s minds. The most common sentiment was that Britain should remain in the EU but that its powers should be stripped back.

More surprising than the result, perhaps, is the number of people who were inspired to take up the pencil.

As was reported by the BBC, “One of the most striking features of the EU referendum…was the substantial increase in turnout.”

Around 3 million more people voted that day than in the 2015 general election, an astonishing increase of about 7%. More interesting still, also noted in the BBC article, is “the greatest increases in turnout mostly occurred in those areas that delivered the biggest majorities for Leave.”

The Leave Campaign success is all the more incredible. They not only managed to usurp the relative safe haven of the status quo but also motivate those who usually abstain from being counted to vote.

How did the Leave Campaign do it—and by extension, what can we learn from this extraordinary example of compelling campaigning?

That’s an important question for anyone involved in sales or marketing.

When you consider that every buying decision is a vote for change—a change in circumstance, a change in supplier, a change in behavior—understanding how to facilitate that change, especially when so much stands in its way, is critical.

The Four Critical Campaign Components That Compel Action

Although likes, reads and shares make us feel good, the real measure of a successful campaign is action. After all, likes don’t pay the bills. So, in addition to so-called “ego metrics,” content must also motivate positive affirmative action that results in revenue.

Affirmative action was critical for the Brexiteers. Anything less would have resulted in a very public defeat and potentially put a line under the European question once and for all.

To achieve their goal, they needed more than just nodding heads and social shares. They had to get people out of their armchairs and into polling stations.

They needed millions of crosses in the box marked “Leave.”

If there ever was a good example of why marketers must get under the skin of their audience, Brexit is it.

When you break down the critical elements that made the Leave Campaign a success, there’s no doubt they knew their audience back to front.

Component 1: A Shared Vision for the Future, Underpinned by Common Values

History teaches us there’s no better trigger for a popular revolt than a compelling cause.

But to create a compelling cause you first need a powerful vision—a shared ideal for the future that draws on the values of your audience and promises a world they aspire to live in.

And that’s exactly what the Brexiteers sought to create.

Drawing on nostalgia for a bygone era, those in charge of the Leave Campaign created a vivid vision for the country: Great Britain would be Great again. No longer hamstrung by a remote (and foreign) legislature, we would regain our sovereignty and, with it, our independence and the freedom to control our own destiny and borders.

That intent, driven by shared values of Britishness, resonated with huge swathes of the country for which immigration, globalization, and a loss of national identity were major concerns.

study undertaken post-referendum by NatCen, Britain’s largest social research agency, offers some enlightening insights:

  • Leavers were those who see themselves as English rather than British or more English than British.
  • Matters of identity were equally—if not more strongly—associated with the vote to Leave, particularly feelings of national identity and sense of change over time.
  • A group NatCen classified as the Older Working Class—those who identify strongly as British—were also most likely to vote Leave.
  • Those who believed Britain has become a lot worse in the last 10 years were also more likely to vote Leave.

In sharp contrast, the Remain Campaign offered nothing with which to counteract the lure of Leave’s vision. Rather than a counter vision of unity and prosperity, they sold a story of economic calamity.

The plan was to scare people into action, but nobody really bought into it.

The NatCen survey concludes that “there was a greater sense of certainty about the impact of leaving the EU on immigration and independence, compared with impact on the economy.”

Key Lessons for Marketers

  1. Your audience is on a journey. Find out what their desired destination looks and feels like.
  2. Clearly describe that future and your audience’s place in it.
  3. Connect your objectives with the realization of their future.

Component 2: An Acute Awareness and Empathy for Your Audience’s Current Situation

People act according to their own self-interests. So it’s no surprise when they gravitate toward and follow those who they feel have their best interests at heart.

That pull becomes more acute when people are faced with problems they feel they can’t solve on their own.

The NatCen study found that people most likely to vote Leave were…

  • Those with an income of less than £1,200 per month
  • Those in social housing provided by a local authority or housing association
  • Those finding it difficult to manage financially or were just getting by

More tellingly, the study found that “participants who agreed that ‘politicians don’t listen to people like me’ were significantly more likely to vote Leave.”

Leave messaging demonstrated an acute awareness and empathy for the concerns that weighed heavy on the target audiences’ minds.

Campaign videos and posters leaned into images of a failing health service, a country overrun by immigrants, and the housing crisis. They didn’t speak just to the fears and concerns of the electorate; they confirmed a keen awareness for what the audience’s lives were actually like.

Leave campaigners clearly described their current situation and showed a deep solidarity for why it was not OK—something successive governments had failed to do.

Suddenly the disempowered and disenfranchised had a champion: people in power who understood what they were going through and could put things right.

Once again, the Remain Campaign was found wanting. You could argue that the scare-mongering had exactly the opposite effect: It emboldened voters who saw voting Leave as a way of upsetting the status quo and resetting the world in their favor.

Key Lessons for Marketers

  1. People want to feel understood.
  2. They put their trust in the people who seem to understand them.
  3. Demonstrate empathy for your market’s woes, and they’ll believe you can set them free.

Component 3: A Root Cause That Resonates

Every movement needs a bad guy. A bogeyman you can position as the root cause of your audience’s problems is something that clearly connects with the pain they’re experiencing in the present moment.

For some, sugar is the enemy. For others, it’s salt. For the Brexiteers, it was the EU.

Having so clearly captured the concerns of their audience, the Leave Campaign’s next job was to establish the EU as the Big Bad, something it did with relish.

Freedom of Movement, the cornerstone of the European ideal, was an easy culprit for uncontrolled immigration, the erosion of British values, and the unsustainable pressure on the National Health Service (NHS).

The corrosion of our independence and sovereignty was blamed on a remote legislature with powers inexorably on the rise.

Then there was the matter of the huge sums of money leaving the UK to line the pockets of the EU’s unelected Eurocrats.

The £350m would be so much better spent on our ailing NHS, the Leave Campaign argued Brits were giving away money for which we enjoyed no obvious benefit, and it was therefore being wasted. More Fat Cats were taking advantage of real people.

The Remain Campaign tried to counter with its own big numbers: job losses, the negative impact on the economy that could run into the billions of pounds, and a currency thrown into free fall.

But those intangible, incomprehensibly big figures could not compete with the very real challenges felt by ordinary people for whom the world of finance had little bearing on their daily lives.

Key Lessons for Marketers

  1. Before people can move forward, they must first see what’s holding them back.
  2. Clearly link their current circumstances to the behaviors and beliefs you want to replace.
  3. Show. Don’t tell. Let them connect the dots for themselves.

Component 4: Affirmative Action Your Audience Can Take to Quickly Trigger Momentum

Running a marathon. Writing your first novel. Building an online audience of avid fans. Those are all huge undertakings that require hard work, determination, and dedication.

Lay out the enormity of effort involved in completing any one of these tasks up front, and few would likely take on the challenge.

But give someone some simple behaviors they can follow that will quickly deliver demonstrable results, and they are more likely to put in the effort.

People like quick wins. All the more so when they are easy wins, too.

As is becoming abundantly clear, the road to Brexit is neither quick nor easy. It is fraught with complexity, confusion, and complication.

The claim made by one leading Brexiteer, that striking a new trade deal with the EU will be “one of the easiest in human history,” will go down in history alongside “home by Christmas” as we come to realize the woeful inadequacy of the two-year timescale.

Already over halfway through the process, we’ve only recently cleared the first hurdle, and there are many more to come.

None of that mattered in the lead-up to the Referendum.

The right to take control of our borders, the end of the freedom of movement, and the promise of £350 million diverted from Europe and available to spend on the NHS sealed the deal.

Voters simply connected the dots. They could clearly see how their actions would deliver the vision set out by the Brexiteers.

All Remain had to offer was more of the same: business as usual.

Suddenly, there was an answer to all their frustrations, and Brexit was the lever they had to pull that would make everything right.

So, they pulled it.

Key Lessons for Marketers

  1. People like quick wins.
  2. Make the wins easy to achieve, and people will take the action you want them to take.
  3. Help them make tangible progress early, and they’ll trust you to take them the rest of the way.
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2 Comments. Leave new

  • What a very interesting and well argued article. It all makes sense even to a non marketeer like me. I’m old and I was horrified that the older generation was conned so easily by the incorrect and dishonest arguments of the Brexiteers.
    What I want now is a campaign of positive action against Brexit which would involve people like me who are horrified by the impact of Brexit actually doing something.
    Simple things like a boycot on any business who supported Brexit. Don’t go to a Wetherspoons pub comes top of that list. If you are eastern European the don’t work at a Weatherspoons pub. Let him find his staff from the masses of English people who want to work for the minimum wage. Next don’t ever again vote Conservative. Don’t vote, or vote for anybody else but please don’t vote Conservative.
    Why is this not happening. Who is suppressing the pent up anger of people who are adversely affected by Brexit every day. I am affected. Fishermen are (what a joke). Sheep farmers will soon be up in arms and going bust.
    Why is nobody calling out the government for giving taxpayers money to selective industries to stop them complaining about the adverse after effects of Brexit.
    What has gone wrong with you guys who have power to sway public opinion?

    • Thank you for your comment and I sympathise with your points a great deal. The issue I feel is that many who voted for Brexit don’t feel as if they have been conned. For whatever reason, they wanted out of the EU and they got their wish. Many aren’t plugged into the repercussions. They are tuned out to them. But they still respond to the onslaught of EU negativity that continues to grace our mainstream media. However, the real issue is moving people from one camp to another. People on both sides have entrenched themselves in their respective echo chambers. From what I can see, there isn’t anyone who is looking to bring the two groups together. It is only when the reality of Brexit really bites in Britain that we may see some backlash but even then any problems will be blamed on the EU.


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