How do we heal the rift in the national psyche laid bare by Brexit?
Marketers looking at the UK post-23 June will observe a tense standoff between segments of our society: young versus old; Remainer versus Brexiteer; rich versus poor; metropolitan elite versus narrow-minded little-Englander. These character types seem to be at odds with a society that prizes tolerance and inclusivity. The spate of racist abuse feels like a country we don’t recognise as ours.
Compounding the agony, our political class has lost its wits. The Conservative Party, ever fractious over Europe, is a Game of Thrones-style gore-fest. Jeremy Corbyn’s Momentum movement, meanwhile, has mounted a ‘Trojan horse’ takeover of the Labour Party. Angry Remainers rend their garments and fill our social feeds with Edvard Munch emojis, while backbench MPs take to Twitter to threaten castration on parliamentary foes.
Tempting as it is to pull up a chair and binge-watch our social and political landscape blowing up like a set from the show 24, our lurid fascination is a displacement activity. It is temporary relief from the challenge ahead: how do we rediscover the sense of nationhood that unites us?
The first step is to understand what lies behind the Brexit vote. Judging by the open-mouthed shock with which the news was received by those at the Festival of Creativity in Cannes, our industry of marketers, creatives, brands and agencies is not accurately reading the British public. Although that is an uncomfortable truth, a bigger truth is that hardly anyone saw Brexit coming.
The question ‘why did we read the vote wrong?’ needs an answer. Dismissing Brexiteers as backward-looking provincials isn’t it.
The day before the referendum, WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell interviewed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in Cannes. Friedman proffered a sobering analysis of the populist revolt sweeping Europe and the US.
Post-War governments, he surmised, are no longer fit for purpose. Built to deliver the New Deal and to prevent a Third World War, they have no strategy to tackle the problems of jobs moving to cheaper economies and tech that displaces humans from the workforce. Globalisation is creating winners and losers. And a fault line in between.
Communities thrown under the bus by globalisation and austerity expressed anger on 23 June. The older, Northern, non-metropolitan parts of the UK voted overwhelmingly for Leave. Looking at the England vote in isolation shows a demand for change that neither pollsters, politicians nor marketers were able to predict. Could it be true that people who are not consumers, who are old and are not sought-after ABC1s, fall into a collective blind spot, particularly where marketers are concerned? This group proved to be the majority when it came to a vote, showing that as an industry, and as a society, we need to listen to voices from everywhere. Not just the ones that are easiest to hear.
Four months ago, The Lad Bible began a campaign to challenge youth apathy around the EU vote. Quickly we found our audience were not apathetic at all. In fact, they had a great deal to say. Some content got more than 21,000 comments – giving us a huge amount of insight into the prevailing mood. It was a robust debate on every side (“fuck off, Lad Bible” turned up as a statistically significant response). Sixteen weeks of poll data showed 58% in support for Remain, but significant emotional support for Leave.
We were able to unlock this range of opinion because we didn’t try to sell our audience a view. Telling people what to think, or what is good for them, or why they should agree with us, is the point at which ‘not listening’ begins.
If there is a lesson to be drawn about post-Brexit Britain, it may be that there are big parts of our country that we don’t listen to enough. Our national selfie has filters that need to come off. Certainly, the tendency of pollsters and politicians to be toppled at the ballot box suggests that there is a reality in our society that isn’t visible through the prism we apply.
As marketers, we are in pole position to understand our society and how complex it is. That is what we do. As an industry, perhaps the first step to healing this rift in society is to listen better. That is how we begin to help the whole range of voices feel that they are heard.
Mimi Turner is a member of Marketing Week’s Vision 100, in partnership with Adobe. The Vision 100 is an exclusive club of the brightest and best marketers, all worthy of the moniker “visionary”. Click here to see the full Vision 100.