OPINION5 August 2016

Could Brexit actually be good for brands?

Brexit FMCG Leisure & Arts Opinion Travel UK

Uncertain times can force change and that can be good for innovation and new business thinking says Flamingo’s Zoe Fenn.

British mini_crop

Whatever your personal view of Brexit, it’s fair to say that most of the coverage so far has focused on the doom and gloom – spooked markets, a nation divided and political instability.

A union of economic, social and political uncertainty. Sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it? The only certainty is that there will be uncertainty. It’s human nature to be afraid of the unknown, to fill the void with our own dark premonitions.

But is there another narrative lurking beneath this murky surface? A bright, shiny, more optimistic story that we can tell? Could Brexit actually be good for brands?

Brands are in the ideas business, whether that’s an emotional idea (selling a vision of sexual success, realising childhood potential, being a good citizen), or a literal innovation (a new SKU, model of car or banking product). Good ideas are borne from a collision of three forces – understanding people, understanding the cultural context and understanding the role a brand can play in addressing these aspirations. And these aspirations evolve as cultural forces evolve. Ideas are fluid, and innovation is, of course, all about the new.

And so if the life-blood of a brand is change, then external situations that force us to think again and look for new ways of doing things should galvanise us. The best brands don’t want to be hostages to circumstance, they will look to set the cultural agenda, and they will innovate.

We don’t have to look very far into the past to see this principle in action. In emerging markets, with limited infrastructure, we observed disruption on a macro and micro level – from leapfrogging fixed line and becoming early adopters of mobile internet, to umbrella traders on the streets of Lagos setting up power supply stands for people to re-charge their tech. Holiday brand First Choice showed marketers in Britain are starting to respond with its recent ad. It was an agile response to the fall of the pound and its impact on European holiday prices – a wonderful master-stroke which chimes perfectly with its carpe diem philosophy ‘life’s too short to say no’.

/img/Image 2.jpeg

As well as a tactical response, brands will need a response at a big idea level too. Brexit has thrown us headlong into a Great British identity crisis. Who are we? Who are our parents and children? And why do they have different values from me? What about our community?

Brands that play off big cultural ideas of Britishness, Class and Identity will need to evolve. They will need to understand the new cultural context that will shape people’s thoughts, feelings and intentions towards a brand.

What does the voting decision do to Brand Britain – how is Britain and Britishness regarded both within, and beyond, our country. What of certain stereotypes like John Bull? And those behaviours the British are so-called famous for – drinking tea, politely queuing and going to the pub. A lot of brands play off such tropes – take Pimms and the way it plays up the British class system or British Airways’ ‘to fly, to serve’ that connotes good old-fashioned service principles.

But such shifts in identity will create fresh challenges for brand building. They ask us to question what parts of our identity and DNA still connect with our audience, what will we need to take with us as we evolve and what will we need to leave behind.

The creative challenge becomes more exciting too – what stories do we want to tell about people and culture? And what signifiers will we use? What does a London Taxi, the British flag and James Bond mean in a post Brexit world?

At Flamingo we recently spent time listening to both remainers and leavers from around the UK to get to grips with post-Brexit sentiment and what it means for brands.

Some clear themes emerged that brands can leverage to beat those Brexit blues:

  • Keep calm and carry on: People are taking comfort in the familiar and the stoical. They are looking for brands to display resilience, vision and leadership in a time of uncertainty.
  • Purpose over provenance: It’s not where you are made, but its what you contribute to Britain that counts, “It doesn’t matter that Aldi’s a German brand if it employs British people in its supermarkets and helps stretch my weekly budget”.
  • Demystify the other: In a sudden empathy vacuum, there is a huge opportunity to shed light and understanding on our fellow citizens. Be wary of the stereotype and look to show the more complex and common ground that exists in the supposed other.

Uniting all themes is a belief that a thirst for the new will see us through these uncertain times. What better excuse to evolve, than to be forced to. When circumstances change, when times get tough, brands have to come up with fresher, sharper, more compelling ideas. Ultimately, this climate will favour those that are confident, brave and get excited by the new. The brands and agencies that will not only survive, but also thrive in the wake of Brexit, won’t be those that stay tucked up in bed with their Bovril.

Zoe Fenn is head of UK practice at Flamingo