Last night I watched C4’s dramatisation of the 2016 EU referendum campaign – Brexit: The Uncivil War- and was struck by the Leave side’s almost implacable belief in the rightness of their cause. Not just in its moral superiority, but in its logic; in its undeniable rationality. In a key scene, Leave campaign guru, Dominic Cummins (a sort of balding Che Guevara with a felt-tip pen), thumped the table to assert that there were only really two issues at stake: cost (economic) and control (political). And I thought, maybe there’s a lesson for marketers here.
When I studied economics and political science, I was taught that each was a product of the Enlightenment, of the triumph of reason over irrational belief systems. Yet that has never prevented the two from coming into conflict. Brexit is a classic example: Leavers want above all to be ‘free’ from the EU, to take back (political) control over our borders, laws and money. Remainers, on the other hand, see the matter much more in terms of economic cost, emphasising the negative consequences of ‘crashing out’ or even of signing up to a bad deal.
It would be unfair to describe either of these camps as ‘irrational’, since both justify their point of view by citing a plausible benefit – either political or economic – that would result from their proposed course of action. A reason, in other words, and sometimes more than one. Leavers are keen to emphasise the (usually long term) economic benefits of the UK “making its own way in the world”, while Remainers value the political cooperation and consensus that a supra-national organisation like the EU creates. But I believe Cummins (or Cumberbatch) pretty much nailed it: for most Leavers gaining political control was the key issue, while for the Remainers it was mainly about avoiding (or mitigating) economic loss.
It’s tempting to say that one is all about emotion, while the other is about hard-nosed rationality. Now, while it’s true that concepts such as freedom, accountability and sovereignty are abstract, and that are hard to quantify, there are relatively few people who would deny their value. But how do we to put a figure on that value? If the cost of gaining ‘control’ is a fall in national income, is it worth it? Are two units of freedom worth one unit of GDP?
So…. what’s all this got to do with marketing? Well, if we bring it right down to earth, the very notion of brand value is largely abstract. Brands are not for the most part about product benefits – it’s the aspirations, dreams, experiences and lifestyles that we attach to them that feed and inform our view of what that brand is worth. That’s why, when offered two almost identical products, we’ll pay a premium for the one which we feel has the highest brand value.
Attaching a value to a brand may be non-rational, but it certainly isn’t irrational. We may not be able to explain why we prefer brand A to brand B (which is why asking ‘Why do you prefer that brand?’ is almost useless), but the value that brands they create (in our minds) is real and measurable.
It seems to me that in choosing Brexit, Leave voters elected (perhaps unconsciously) to put politics ahead of economics. Few (outside of Rees-Mogg’s circle) argue that leaving the EU is risk-free in economic terms, but most Leavers seem to accept that whatever loss that might be suffered is somehow) compensated for by the value gained – usually expressed (often hazily) in terms of a few abstract nouns: freedom, control or sovereignty.
If you’re a Remainer, you might (justifiably) think this is non-rational, but don’t fall into the trap of seeing it as irrational, any more than the average punter’s preference for a particular brand is irrational.
If Brexit was a brand, I might consider buying it, but I wouldn’t vote for it!