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No SAFETY 'In' or 'Out'

Are you feeling the fear? Can you smell it? It’s everywhere. Remainers and Leavers, politicians on both sides, big and small business, countries inside and outside the EU.

So where are you going to put your cross? In 24 hours we all have to decide. In about 48, we’ll know the outcome. Then we'll have to live with the consequences.

From early on, the Remain campaign has been labelled ‘Project Fear’. Day after day, George Osbourne has appeared to tell us how much worse off we’ll be if we leave. An army of fellow dead-eyed doomsayers have put forward the same pessimistic view of Brexit.

The Leave campaign have tried to set a different tone by focusing on the political rather than economic arguments. But over and over again, their message has been dragged back towards uncontrolled immigration. It’s ended up as Project Fear meets Project Fear.

Mark Ritson, in his column last week, looked at the two campaigns from a marketing point of view. He argued the Leave campaign was gaining greater support because it climbed higher up the benefit ladder. So uncontrolled immigration makes for a more emotive and persuasive argument that tougher economic times ahead.

I’ve never been a big fan of benefit ladders. They start from the product, which is OK if one particular feature stands out as a clear and meaningful point of differentiation, but less OK if there are several contenders (or none). Benefit ladders also seem to imply that there’s one big emotional benefit up there in the clouds and as long as you keep climbing, you’ll eventually find it.

But what if people have different needs and so perceive different benefits? So your ladder could be leaning up against the wrong wall. Or it could be the same wall as everyone else. Or there’s no wall at all.

For me, there are two marketing lessons to be gained from the EU campaigns. How much difference it’s all made in an issue this complex, I’m not sure. There’s a triteness in reducing the Referendum debate to a question of marketing strategy. But if, in the end, people’s decision on which way to vote will be driven by their emotions, which I think for many it will be, then maybe it is fair to treat this like any other brand challenge.

In which case, Lesson One – don’t target the same need as your competitor. It’s madness. How are you going to position your brand in a distinctive place in people’s minds by doing that? You might manage to find a subtly different insight into that need. But scared is still scared.

And Lesson Two – if people do have a need for Safety, don’t set out to frighten them. Again, it’s madness. It’s like telling your children they’re perfectly safe in bed because all the monsters live underneath. You’re right, they’ll stay under the duvet, but only because they want to keep hold of their toes.

Couldn’t either side have found a more positive message or story that stuck? There have been glimpses in both campaigns. We’ve had ‘Take Control’ from the Leavers and ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’, and even ‘Leading Europe Not Leaving It’, from the Remainers. But none of them seem to have properly taken root.

Maybe politicians are just incapable of resisting the negative. Maybe they’re right to treat us like a bunch of scaredy cats because that’s the truth of it. Or maybe 'positive' inevitably comes across as a bit naïve or ill-informed.

In the end, what has come across is that no one actually is positive about the EU, not even the Remainers. That’s why more nuanced arguments are emerging now, like we should stay in because we can always leave at a later date if the EU doesn’t reform. Or we should leave because we wouldn’t actually have to physically leave for years to come, by which time it will all have fallen apart anyway. So the safest place to be is as ever, halfway across the English Channel.

But tomorrow we all have to make our choice. With our hearts in our mouths, we’ll put a cross in one or other box. 'I don’t want this less than I don’t want that'.

Ironic, of course, that it’s a cross. They should make us put a tick.

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