Mark Ritson: If Brexit were a soap brand, life would be simpler

If Brexit were a brand – I mean a real brand, one you buy in a supermarket to wash your undies with – things would have been a lot simpler last week.

Ritson head scratch small

Tasked with marketing Brexit on behalf of David Cameron, the CEO of consumer goods giant UK plc, the company’s marketers started with both qualitative and quantitative research. Focus groups confirmed that many people preferred the new Brexit brand of soap powder because it “washed whiter” and “protected my clothes from stains and blemishes”. Meanwhile other consumers were loyal to a heritage brand called Remain because of its traditional image and its economic savings. “I just don’t want to risk the costs of a new brand when Remain works so well,” explained one participant.

The survey research that followed confirmed three things. First, there was an almost perfect split in the British market. Half would switch to Brexit, while the other half preferred the existing brand Remain offered by UK plc. Second, because the survey had asked for demographic as well as attitudinal and preference data, the marketers were able to examine how ‘Brexit Lovers’ differed from ‘Remainers’. They were older, less well educated and likely to live in England and Wales but not in London. In contrast, Remainers were much younger, well-educated and likely to live in Scotland, Northern Ireland and London. The third set of findings in the survey confirmed the reason for each segment’s brand preference. Brexit Lovers were concerned about keeping their whites white, whereas Remainers actually liked it when the colours mixed in the wash but were concerned about the economic cost of doing their laundry.

Armed with these insights the marketing team made a daring but entirely justified recommendation to David Cameron. Rather than deciding whether to replace the 40-year old Remain brand with Brexit he should consider operating two brands in the market. At the suggestion Cameron – who was known to prefer the Remain brand as he had worked on it as a junior executive – lifted an eyebrow. “Tell me more,” he implored the marketers. Over the next two hours the marketing team at UK plc laid out a different approach.

The company would split its operations into two teams and both brands would be offered to the market. It would require double the marketing budget, of course, but the returns were sensational. A major outdoor campaign, geographically targeted, would promote the launch of Brexit and its incredible performance on whites. Given the age and profile of the target segment the Brexit campaign would also use full page ads in the Daily Mail and The Sun. Meanwhile in Scotland and London significant sums would be invested in reaffirming the economic savings of Remain using The Evening Standard and Glasgow Herald. Given the international leanings of Remainers the team would also take advantage the fact that Remain was the number one brand across Europe, with ads featuring French, German and Swedish consumers explaining why they love the soap powder for its economic security and international appeal.

And that is how, back in the summer of 2016, UK plc avoided a massive strategic error that could have seen sales halved and top executives exiting the soap powder division. Marketing – through research, segmentation, targeting and positioning – enabled two different brands to deliver a combined market share in excess of 95%. Some consumers switched to the new Brexit soap powder and looked at their effete Remain-using neighbours with barely disguised disdain. Remain households felt sorry for the Brexit users up the road who clearly were too stupid to understand simple economics and too afraid to wash their whites with their colours.

With both segments happy, UK plc was able to charge a premium price for both brands because, suddenly, they were not just selling soap powder but rather a way of life.

It’s a nice dream as we awake to the chaos that democracy has bestowed upon this little island. The flaws of marketing and capitalism are legion but they sometimes offer us significant advantages over the monolithic immediacy that political referendums inevitably demand.

As a former Remainer I am going to have get used to washing my socks in Brexit. It’s great that they will be so much whiter but I kind of liked the little hints of red and green that showed up over time on my clothing.

I am worried about the long-term laundry costs of Brexit but hopeful that the Remain brand, in its desperate attempt to stay on the shelves, overstated its economic advantages. I guess it will all come out in the wash.

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Mark Ritson will be doing a webinar on June 30th at 12pm. It’s a great chance to learn more about the Mini MBA but also to get Ritson’s take on some of the big marketing moments of the past few months. To register for the webinar click here.

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