The Brexit referendum has seen emotions running at an all-time high: from mud-slinging in the House of Commons and the predictable sensationalism of the red tops, to friendships ended in Facebook comments sections and picking up your pint in Wetherspoons only to find a sodden pro-leave beer mat underneath. Ultimately, whether you’re in or out, there’s no escape from the debate.
Speculation as to what will happen if Britain leaves the European Union is rife. Our tiny island returning to its sepia-tinged former glory; the proud British bulldog running circles around the rest of the world; sun-drenched cobbled streets where parents can let their kids play out without worrying about immigrants; a reanimated Churchill grinning as he throws up the victory sign. Health and safety be damned. Keeping Britain British. The post-EU vision, as conjured up by Leave.
Or maybe it would go the way many Europhile politicians are predicting and on the day our proud nation withdraws from its European alliance we will all die. There will be explosions, the world will catch fire, all the volcanos will erupt at once, half of Scotland’s residents will be swallowed into the fiery belly of the Earth; and due to all the economic uncertainty The End Times would no doubt throw up, Sterling will dramatically depreciate.
But the big question for us isn’t whether we should Brexit or Bremain, or even whether we should avoid getting on a night bus with Michael Gove: it’s how brands are handling the debate.
Traditionally brands are advised to stay out of politics: not only do they run the risk of aligning themselves with the losing side, but they may also alienate a significant section of their audience given that most companies cannot be confident that 100% of their target demographic is going to vote a certain way.
In a blog for campaign, Jon Sharpe, CEO of RKCR/Y&R, explained that in the digital marketing era when every organisation is trying to be your best friend, perceived brand personality is at the forefront of the consumer subconscious when purchasing decisions are being made.
He wrote: “We know from findings in neuroscience that humans make most purchase decisions extremely quickly and largely based on emotions.
“If we know that a brand disagrees with us on a major issue such as Brexit, where feelings run very high, it can go so far to make us question the brand’s product or service as a whole.”
This makes a lot of sense. So why have so many brands been so quick to leap into the Brexit debate, dismissing marketing sensibilities in a bid to push their political agenda?
It all boils down to money of course.
Companies on both sides of the debate are concerned about how the outcome of the election could damage their business. CEOs of large companies may well think it’s worth trading a few disgruntled future customers for the sake of financial stability.
Furthermore - the temptation for brands is always going to be to jump on a topic that literally everyone is talking about, in spite of any potential risks.
Or maybe - like most Brits - they feel extremely strongly about the outcome, and as influencers feel a duty to put their principles above their business.
But it’s probably the money thing.
Ryanair: Flying the flag for Europe
Out of all the brands that have got involved in the EU referendum, Ryanair is potentially the least surprising. The Irish airline’s CEO Michael O’Leary - widely known as ‘a bit of a character’ - is renowned for stirring up controversy. But he’s really gone full throttle with this one.
Back in February the brand threw the weight of its marketing budget behind ensuring we stay in Europe, running ads in several newspapers and emblazoning “Vote Yes” on the side of a number of its jets. While passengers are allowed to fly in peace, its website and emails to customers also include the pro-EU logo, and - like its fellow airline Virgin - it is also hammering the message on its social media accounts, with political articles popping up amid its more traditional plethora of football and Father’s Day posts.
Chief marketing officer Kenny Jacobs told Marketing at the time: "There’s going to be videos, infographics and a bunch of other stuff that we’ll push out on social media.
“I think it’s a great campaign for social”.
With just a day until the election, Ryanair announced that if - and only if - Britain chooses to stay in Europe, the airline will hold its biggest seat sale yet.
Spoons: Fork the EU
Fancy a helping of political propaganda with your lager? Head to JD Wetherspoon, where you’ll find posters, beer mats and magazines all trying to convince you that the UK will be much better outside of Europe.
Never has a trip to the pub been so politicised. Have you ever tried to eat a Spoons beer and burger meal while surrounded by various images of Nigel Farage? Well that’s what I was doing the other night - #goals - when I noticed a poster that loudly declared “ONLY WETHERSPOON CAN GATHER THE FACTS AND OPINION FOR YOU”. I did reflect that the fourth estate must have really taken a nosedive if the best place to source up-to-date political facts is from the guy mixing my gin and tonic.
As well as placing an EU debate banner on its home page, the company’s website features a landing page packed with links to articles and videos about the referendum. While presenting facts and opinion from both sides, the pub chain’s website prominently features a blog penned by CEO Tim Martin which has the tag line: “Will the UK be better out of Europe? Of course, says Tim Martin”.
In case anyone was in any doubt as to what side of the argument Tim falls on, he is also conducting at 100-pub tour to “spread the word” like some sort of Eurosceptic Messiah. If you’re interested you can also find “the latest news” from his tour on the website.
Despite this, the budget watering hole is actually positioning itself as an impartial entity in the debate, whose only agenda is to inform its customers of the facts and opinion surrounding the debate. This is clearly a business decision: if you look hard enough the CEO’s opinions are very much present, but those who are just visiting for a pint are unlikely to immediately pick up on Eurosceptic vibes. This is no doubt an attempt to avoid alienating any pro-EU customers, and to position Wetherspoons as a trusted thought leader in the Europe debate.
Dyson: Europe sucks
Perhaps the most surprising revelation was when inventor Sir James Dyson came out as being pro-Brexit, labelling the idea that Britain could not successfully trade outside the UK as “absolute cobblers”.
However, this argument has been presented very much as a personal opinion, rather than one that is intertwined with the brand - unlike that of Sir Richard Branson for example, who is harnessing Virgin’s massive marketing power to push his pro-EU message.
The Dyson website and its Twitter feed are devoid of any mention of the EU, devoted solely (perhaps as they should be!) to vacuum cleaners, hairdryers and other such technology.
Whether it was a conscious decision to avoid politicising the brand, or whether it just didn’t cross Sir James’ mind to use his business to encourage Brits to leave the EU is unclear.
So who wins?
It remains to be seen whether those brands that have very publicly taken sides in this heated debate will be affected in the long term.
Ultimately these are companies that have crossed a blurry line and tried to use marketing power - usually dedicated to persuading people to buy products - to get consumers take their side in the vote.
Whether Brits feel comfortable with that, or whether some of these companies will now be tainted by their outward declarations of political intent, will become clear after the dust has settled.
While I have noticed that I feel more warmly towards the brands that passionately feel the same way I do, I still believe that non-political companies should steer clear of pushing such an agenda.
Admittedly, it’s unlikely that the Premier League is going to see ticket sales slashed because it’s backing Bremain or that Leave supporters will spit out their Danone yoghurts because the company - along with 33 other French businesses - sent us a transcontinental love letter reading “s'il vous plait, amis britanniques remain!” (please stay British friends).
That said, in an era where brands are throwing their marketing budgets at finding out who we are and what makes us tick in a bid to become more relatable, it feels like a bit of a gamble to pick a side on such a hot-blooded issue.
And that is why I won’t tell you which way I'm voting.