Brexit’s Bottom Line For Brands: Familiarity is the Key to Avoiding Disruption
Britain’s stunning vote to leave the EU last year sends one message above all others: regardless of how interconnected society has become and despite the many benefits of that interconnectedness, people still want to belong to something familiar. They like having their own country, their own language, their own flag, their own economy, their own people, their own identity. They want to believe they can do better for themselves by themselves, with the help of their neighbors rather than the often-disruptive interference of foreign people and organizations. Above all, they want the certainty and comfort of knowing who they are and who they are not.
There are, of course, many popular and plausible psychological and sociological explanations for these attitudes, which I won’t explore here. Disparage it as atavistic tribalism if you wish. Link it to the ancient fears of our ancestors prowling the earth in tiny bands beset by famine, beasts, harsh climactic conditions, or competing tribes. Whatever its roots, the instinct to cluster together in familiar and stable settings is real and, for many, it defines the boundaries of their psychological and physical world.
Obviously, the fruits of global cooperation and alliances do not inherently exclude these communitarian worldviews. There are plenty of political, social, and economic frameworks that allow nations to maintain a sense of the familiar while increasing global interdependence. Britain, much like the United States, however, has failed to pay attention to—or at least create the perception that it’s paying attention to—the concerns of the average citizen. Western governments have instead focused primarily on macroeconomic data points, like GDP. But growth in overall financial and economic health does not equate to the social health and lived experience of individual citizens. Governments must do a better job of satiating and managing the communitarian drives and desires of their people.
The same could be said for brands, which in an era of increasing consolidation is more important than ever. The same forces driving the resurgence of Western nationalism can impact consumers’ perceptions of brands. Indeed, the heightened attention to local and independent businesses evidences this. If you’re responsible for your organization’s brand or stakeholder engagement activities, take heed. June 24—Britain’s Independence Day—has three major lessons.
1) Little is big.
There is something to be said for small and knowable. Gigantic, faraway multinational corporations driven by sophisticated metrics and automated processes may not be the best magnets for customer affinity. Mom ‘n pop, start your store! In a world of communitarian and protectionist tendencies, you may have a competitive edge.
2) Localness is universal.
A global company that acquires a local competitor—e.g. financial giants gobbling up regional banks or healthcare conglomerates devouring private practices—should think twice before obliterating the brand and culture of their acquisitions. Everyone hates “the big banks.” People might cut bankers some slack if they still looked and acted like Marine Midland or Republic National Bank of New York or Credit Commercial de France, all of which were ground into the ghastly monolith called HSBC.
3) Force is feeble.
Forcing customers to do things often fails. The EU bureaucracy’s imposition of rules, regulations, and mass immigration sparked a populist revolt. The annals of marketing are filled with examples of Coke, Netflix, and other big brands telling customers to change their habits, and then having to backtrack and apologize. People like to feel like they’re in control. Impositions from the top down, whether by a government or a company, takes that perceived control away from people, often causing them to revolt in frustration.
The bottom line of Brexit is that people are the bottom line. It’s about more than simply “listening to your customers,” which has become a platitude of marketing and management. It’s about making things familiar and making stakeholders feel like they’re in control of their own destiny. The EU bureaucrats and Britain’s political elite did not heed this lesson. They dictated to their British customers, and last night those customers told them to go to bloody hell.
About the Author
Claude Singer, Ph.D. is Brandsinger’s Managing Partner. He has served in executive roles at branding firms Siegelvision, Siegel+Gale and Lippincott, and previously held VP positions in corporate and employee communications at Aetna and Chemical Banking Corporation. He holds a doctorate in History from University of Washington.