Brexit: How design made the difference

A month on from the vote that changed everything – and nothing – Rob Coke analyses the role of design in winning the argument for Leave

I’ve been talking recently about how design makes the difference for brands. And now, a month after the EU Referendum, I can think objectively enough to say that design had a big impact on that result too.

When it comes to design and branding, ballots are rare occasions when the return on investment becomes crystal clear. For once, we’re able to compare two campaigns going head to head, with one outright winner and one loser.

Design works by creating a strong emotional pull. This is something that focus groups struggle to measure because, when asked, people will use logical, rational explanations for their choices. Our brains don’t like admitting they’ve been undone by our hearts.

And if ever we needed an example of a campaign designed to stir emotion beyond reason, it’s Brexit. Of course, there are dozens of reasons why the Leave campaign won, but let’s look at a few relating to the design of each campaign and how these worked – or didn’t.

Words are important

When I talk about ‘design’ in this context, I mean everything about the campaigns, including naming and language as well as the visual look & feel. Because the words we choose are important, and as brand identifiers they become extremely powerful.

For a start, the simple presence of a de facto brand increased the likelihood of it happening. As irritating as it is, ‘Brexit’ ticks all the boxes for a strong brand name: short, easy to spell, good mouthfeel. It’s immediately familiar – the sort of brisk, sprightly portmanteau you might use to name a new breakfast cereal. Which makes it sound quite a jape. Something fun to fill that restless period between elevenses and lunch.

So the idea of leaving was already baked into the vote’s name. It wasn’t a ‘Breferendum’. This wasn’t ‘Brecision Time’. It was ‘Brexit’, and it was already on the way to being brecided. Two powerful motivation theories were at work here. While humans are generally averse to the idea of loss, we’re happier being ‘pulled’ towards something than ‘pushed’ away from something else.

In this case, the door to the Brexit was subconsciously ajar, while later attempts to hijack the name with a feeble ‘Bremain’ were already doomed.

Vote Leave logo
Vote Leave logo

Brutally simple

What about the campaign names themselves? Vote Leave had a brutal simplicity about it. It’s literally the thing you’re going to do when you get your hands on the ballot paper. And then you’re going to put it in that box in the picture. Don’t think, just do.

Vote Leave is also a petulant, bitchy message. It speaks to people disenfranchised from authority, and to people who are sick of their spouse but too polite to tell them. It taps into the sentiment that if you’re powerless, this is the final act of defiance you can make. Don’t like it? Vote Leave.

Never mind the fact that people’s revolts aren’t usually led by a group of old Etonians. As Laurie Pennie wrote in her brilliantly angry response to the vote, if you give everyone a hammer, suddenly everything starts to look like David Cameron’s face.

By contrast, the instruction to Vote Remain was a passive ‘so what?’. It’s about maintaining the status quo, which means it’s always going to lack the active ingredient of leave. It brings to mind what’s left – ‘human remains’, ‘archaeological remains’ – it comes with decomposition as standard.

It’s not even the best ‘remainy’ word. Vote Stay might have been a bit needy, but would at least provide the opportunity to tell a more emotive story. It would also have played up the divorce factor that was clearly on people’s minds.

“Won’t you stay love, for the kids?”
“Balls to the kids, what about those bloody immigrants?”
“Go on, stay – I’ll make you a nice cottage pie for tea.”

IN logo
Various uses of the IN identity

No time to be flexible

But here’s the thing: The Vote Remain camp clearly knew the instruction sounded too weak, so they actually called their campaign ‘IN’. Or was it ‘Stronger in’? Sorry, ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’. ‘I’m IN’. Okay, so it was a flexible ‘IN’, I get it. It worked as one of those flexible brand systems we all love these days.

Now, maybe I’m being deliberately thick – but for an instrument as blunt as a referendum, this seems a bit sophisticated. I understand the sentiment of course, but it’s not actually clear to me what this campaign is called. It doesn’t feel single-minded enough. So it lacks both the urgency and consistency of Vote Leave. And in political campaigns, the need to unite behind a consistent idea is more vital than for any commercial brand.

logo red vote leave
Vote Leave logo, white out of red version

Seeing red 

The subconscious power of colour also played its part. Blue is the most institutional colour, the colour of continuity and not rocking the boat. It’s the colour of ‘big C’ Conservatism precisely because it’s the colour of ‘small c’ conservatism.

If you want to stir things up, red is what you need: the colour of blood, fire and action. So not only did Leave have the most powerful name, they took the most active colour. This gave middle-class aunties in the Home Counties the chance to do something that felt radical.

Did it also persuade Labour voters in the forgotten North that they were doing the right thing, rather than voting right wing? Who knows, but one thing this has all shown is that half the population have been viewing life through a red mist for some time. Vote Leave reflected this, and made a connection in the gut where Stronger In failed.

Sheffield Hallam University IN
The Britain ‘Stronger In’ campaign visits Sheffield Hallam University. Image: Sheffield Hallam University

Got the message?

How about the messaging, and the way those messages were delivered? Look at the image above. ‘A brighter future IN’ is the sort of positive sentiment that everyone claimed was lacking during the campaign. But look again. There are three different messages in that shot. Does that show flexibility? Or, again, a lack of consistency?

Other than the constant promise of economic annihilation, can you remember a single positive thing the Remain camp said throughout the whole campaign? Was spreading fear about the economy an emotive enough message? I don’t think so – it played into the idea of a bunch of bureaucratic bean counters, eating fois gras while measuring the EU butter mountain and making our poor, brave fisherman throw their catch back.

Remain ad Obama Trump
Remain ad contrasting Obama and Trump

Rolling out comparisons between Barack Obama and Donald Trump didn’t work either. It was all too sensible and rational, and people were angry. Trump is connecting with people in the States because they’re angry too. Suggesting ‘if you vote leave you’re as stupid as this bloke’ is unlikely to endear you to your audience.

Do you even remember seeing any of the Stronger In campaign posters? They remind me of contributions to a  hashtag run by The Poke, that have been hijacked and used officially. By contrast Vote Leave had a powerful hashtag – ‘Vote Leave #TakeControl’ – it’s simple, active and empowering language.

Image: ITV News
Image: ITV News

Iconic images

Stronger In responded with ‘save our NHS’, but Leave had already grabbed that and plastered it on their bus. Despite its deception, ‘£350 million a week’ was the one stat that people really remembered from either campaign, because Leave were consistent with the way they rolled it out. Boris and the Battle Bus became a defining icon of these campaigns, a bankable brand asset.

While it wasn’t an official Leave poster, Nigel at Breaking Point became equally iconic. The original photographer, Jeff Mitchell, said its subjects had been ‘betrayed by UKIP’. But, as cynical and deceitful as this poster was, it’s the sort of brutally powerful, single-message communication that plays on people’s fears and insecurities. It resonated with the subconscious and made an emotional connection with its intended audience.

Ukip's infamous Breaking Point poster
Ukip’s infamous Breaking Point poster

So the communications did their job. The images evoked memories of conflict and hardship, and a convenient scapegoat was found. Why let the truth get in the way of a good story? Unlike corporate brands, for some reason these campaigns don’t seem to be subjected to any level of accountability. Why not?


Let’s face post-facts

Maybe no one really cares if this stuff is true. We’re told we’re living in an era of ‘post-fact politics’. Where myths are far more powerful than truths. Where ‘people have had enough of experts’. That’s why the guttural, emotive stuff won people over ahead of more rational, logical arguments. The urge for action was stronger than the desire for continuity. And the respective campaigns proved that emotional will beat rational every single time.

2.8 million more people voted than at the last general election, and almost all of them voted to leave. Stronger In failed in its aim to get younger people out to vote. Vote Leave succeeded because it persuaded its audience to do so. It designed a campaign which wasn’t about aesthetic value – it was about making an emotional connection. And that’s something we can all learn from.

Rob Coke is Group Strategy Director at Studio Output

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