Can I start firstly by saying this is a marketing view not a political one (although inevitably there'll be some politics). And secondly that Remain lost the referendum, Leave didn't win it. The campaign to stay in the European Union went from a secure opinion poll lead at the start of 2016 to losing the referendum six months later. At the outset of the campaign - which really started back in January not at the official campaign launch - Remain (or Stronger In) held all the cards. The campaign could count on the support of the three mainstream party leaders, most of the established names in politics, business, academia and science. Plus a reliable stream of celebrities happy to smile at the camera and proclaim "Stronger In".
The 'Stronger In' message - immigration aside - should also have been a winner. Thousands of foot soldiers to be recruited from the direct beneficiaries of EU members, from organisations receiving grants, from the ranks of universities. Big business, local government and the 'third sector' could be relied on to do the right thing in getting that message across.
So what went wrong? Well before some analysis from cleverer marketers than me, I'd like to share a couple of anecdotes (or qualitative analysis if you prefer).
Here in Cullingworth, the Village Hall decided to hold a referendum debate - they'd sounded out some folk in the village who all seemed keen and got a time and date (the venue, of course, would be the hall). A call to the local MP provided a Leave speaker pretty quickly and the Hall then contacted Stronger In - firing an email off to the address on that organisation's website. Nothing. No response at all. The good folk from the Hall chased - still nothing. I messaged the chief executive of the campaign, the Stronger In press office and another In twitter account. No response. Eventually, on the eve of the event, we got a limp phone message: "have you got a speaker?"
As it happened, other avenues had got us a speaker (thank you to Richard Corbett MEP for stepping up). But had we not used those avenues the event wouldn't have happened. The Stronger In campaign had failed at the very first hurdle of any campaign - not responding to enquiries. And, while Will Straw and the Stronger In press office were having a fun spat on Twitter with the much better organised (if smaller and poorer) Leave campaign, they also failed to respond to a request - from a non-partisan organisation - for campaign help.
The second anecdote is about public perception of what the vote was about. I'm sat in the sitting room of some local members - we were actually there to talk about the May local elections - and the referendum, perhaps inevitably, came up. Now these members are both elderly - 70s maybe even 80s - and they spoke about their doubts. Not selfishly but from the perspective of their children and grandchildren - "this is about twenty, thirty, forty years in the future - what sort of Britain we want for them" was the driver of their doubt. Now I don't know how this couple voted but I do know that the Stronger In campaign completely missed their perspective - the public campaign (where it was coherent) was entirely about the next few years.
I picked up this time perception time and time again but the Remain campaign stayed trapped in its short-termism - there was no message that answered my members' question: "what would a Stronger In Britain be like in twenty, thirty or forty years". Other than a sort of grandfatherly (at best) "it won't be good, you know - I wouldn't do it". And this short-termism continues after the Brexit vote - West Yorkshire Combined Authority in a report on 'Brexit implications' described 'long term' as 2017-2018.
I commented before on how the advertising folk - and Remain had access to all the top agencies, a deep well of marketing knowledge - saw the campaign as a shambles, without any positive message and focused more on personalities than on that message. Well here's another comment - focused more on tactical communications issues - from Mike Hind:
It was almost as if Remain actively wanted to exclude you if you read the Daily Express. Tepid offerings of business information and hesitant requests to support them if you’d “like to” hardly spoke of a passion to mobilise people who are generally more turned on by a direct call to arms. It didn’t work for me — and I was a financial contributor to the campaign. A despairing one.
Hind looks at web messaging, brand development and the lack of any apparent strategy. But this paragraph gets to the core of it - there was no message for the elderly couple sat in a Yorkshire sitting room worrying about their grandchildren. Instead Stronger In figures spent time painting these likely (but not certain) Leave voters as if they were pariahs - racist xenophobes, Little Englanders, selfish, ill-educated, lacking in understanding. A communications strategy designed to reassure the core thirty- and forty-something professional audience of Stronger In not a strategy to have a conversation with people in places like Cullingworth who hadn't made their minds up.
As I started out saying - Stronger In, or Remain, began the campaign with all the advantages, all the expertise and the basis of an effective organisation. And blew it. On the evening of polling day - a few minutes after the polls had shut, the BBC interviewed Ed Miliband. It doesn't matter what the MP for Doncaster North said in the interview, it matters where it was conducted - from London. Miliband wasn't where he would have been most effective - in his constituency where he's known, influential and probably liked.
The problem now is that those who campaigned to remain a member of the EU are compounding their error. They're still preferring to paint Leave voters as thick, ill-educated, oafish bigots rather than begin the job of listening to those people. Analyses of voting that confirm this view are shared. Bad news of any sort is leapt on and spread around - whether its reports of xenophobic attacks (do note that West Yorkshire police say there's no post-referendum increase in such attacks) or some snippet of economic news, mostly opinion or anecdote, that confirms the Remain campaign's predictions of short-term doom and gloom.
Right now there's a peace to win. And it won't be won by portraying half the nation as stupid, bigoted, ignorant and selfish. It will be won by presenting the case most of us support - Britain as an outward-looking, co-operative, creative nation that's up for trade, intellectual exchange and, yes, sensibly managed immigration.