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Inside the Remain campaign: why it failed and what next

Volunteering for a movement backed by all the major parliamentary parties should have been easy. Fearing the case for EU membership might not succeed without more support, like thousands of others, I registered online. But from the start, Britain Stronger In Europe seemed an elusive organisation. Weeks and months passed without much contact.

After some poorly targeted messages about ‘local’ events miles away, eventually, an e-mail invite to a volunteer meeting close by arrives. A diverse group of talented people from every party and none, each with powerful, personal reasons to want to stay in the EU. An encouraging mix: all ages, a few nationalities – students, academics, marketing, finance, small business owners, scientists and the retired.

Concerns were expressed that the Stronger In campaign seemed lacklustre and Remain politicians’ debating efforts feeble. Stories were exchanged where people were surprised people they knew were veering towards ‘out’.

Those potential ‘outers’ had said that there wasn’t enough information, even though the facts were just a search away: “Ok Google, how does the EU really make laws?”. It seemed what they really meant was, “We get the economic risks, but give us a positive reason to stay. We don’t get what Those People Over There do for us.”

The original St Albans Stronger In team - early meeting of the generations in a local social club
The original St Albans Stronger In team – early meeting of the generations in a local social club

Hopelessly confused

The Remain campaign seemed hopelessly confused. With fingers burnt from collaborating in the Scottish referendum, every party had its own messages and its own colours. Was the main message workers’ rights in red, or deregulated airlines in blue? In a modern world of unlimited communications, this lack of consistency would struggle to hit home as a clear and shareable message.

When questioned about this, a representative from a local party who had dipped in to the meeting late, looked up from checking their Blackberry and effectively said, “That’s the way it’s going to be” and left early. Comments to Stronger In online about the need for more single-minded messages were ignored.

In contrast, Vote Leave’s big shout of ‘take back control’ struck an emotional chord about people’s stagnant living standards and their relationship with politics. Even if rationally it was unclear what ‘control’ we’d lost, what we might get back, and how it would come about.

Really it was a cynical phrase – making a claim about lost sovereignty, but knowing it would tap into people’s fears about ‘uncontrolled’ immigration.

VoteLeaveRed

Leave’s visual identity was consistent, their simple name tied directly to the ballot box decision and their communication ‘facts’ deliberately exploited the loophole that means political advertising isn’t subject to normal truth and evidence scrutiny. They even stole the colours of the ‘people’s party’.

The Stronger In party machines seemed determined to use the same old methods – leaflets, door-knocking, press conferences – the very analogue tools that have failed to reach the critical busy young voters at every recent election. Meanwhile, the debate raged online on social media, sometimes barely informed by credible information on either side. Because it’s always an emotional decision.

The parties weren’t present in this dialogue online. They weren’t intervening with strong, rapid counter attack messages, nor an emotional vision for the future. They were sticking to what they knew: broadcasting at people from the centre. They missed the change in successful marketing today – from ‘shout loudest’ to igniting strong brand conversations with people.

Shy Remainers (‘I’m in, but I find it hard to explain why’), weren’t sure how to get involved. Whereas UKIP had built their base and a single-minded focus over two decades. Too many metropolitan Remainers were complacent about the result, and struggled to find a rallying cry for staying together.

Stronger In and the established parties couldn’t tell us if they actually measured the effectiveness of their conventional campaign methods in reaching the critical swing voters. With limited time this seemed crazy – how could we know hours leafleting and pounding the streets in (pretty dire) t-shirts was the best use of our minimal resources? It was like campaign advertising stuck in the land of the 1970s referendum.

National support was woeful

Early on it was also clear that Britain Stronger In Europe was not a powerful machine. Our local volunteer coordinator did a great job, but regional and national support was woeful in getting us answers and resources. During national phone calls, they reassured that they had a strategy, but it all sounded rather academic. Experts are to be trusted, but not listening to local feedback doesn’t make for good field research insight.

We resorted to spending our own money and visiting the chaotic and inexperienced London campaign office team to pick up more materials. Even if leaflets were ineffective, better to have something than nothing.

Nobody seemed quite sure who should be paying for what, or what was allowed. We ordered better t-shirts, they never arrived. The ‘merch’ lacked any sense of wit and style to engage the critical youth vote.

Richard Warmsley, half dressed as the StrongerIn Lion
Richard Warmsley, half dressed as the StrongerIn Lion
The StrongerIn lion out and about
The StrongerIn lion out and about
St Albans market stall: taking the party politics out and debating on the streets
St Albans market stall: taking the party politics out and debating on the streets

So locally, we decided to work out who we thought we should target and how. With just 6 weeks to go, we focused on some simple tactics:

– Be the decent people. The more approachable, respectful and upbeat (a contrast to the local angry pub bores, with their false claims about being ruled by Brussels, despite EU laws being voted on by elected national ministers and elected MEPs). Those that were unconvinced by either side would tend to vote for the status quo and the campaign perceived to be the most ‘normal’ we believed. We targeted two key audiences: persuading undecided middle-class mums and getting out the youth vote. We focused on positive emotional messages, to complement the rational economic ones being blasted at us from Westminster:

– That ‘your kids’ might lose the right to study and working freely in their nearest neighbour countries, preparing them for the future global job market (try doing a summer placement in China or the US)

– That our local businesses and universities have benefitted from cooperation with EU trade and academic partners.

– That St Albans was a city with strong historical links to the rest of Europe that have served us well.

– That we’ve experienced 40 years of relative peace and prosperity, so even if people thought that the Remain forecasts of economic problems were exaggerated, Britain’s economy has performed well overall – should we risk giving that progress up? This message might not have worked in areas with more divergent economic experience, but was very relevant in a prosperous commuter city.

Taking the message to new places: cycling to a Sussex campsite in Stronger In t-shirts.
Taking the message to new places: cycling to a Sussex campsite in Stronger In t-shirts.

We experimented with new techniques to take the message to people ‘where they are’, not where the parties expected them to be: targeting train station and supermarket conversations, but also taking the t-shirts to Parkruns and Friday night pub crawls. We dressed up in daft lion costumes. All these tactics an excuse to open a conversation with people who didn’t normally talk about politics.

We gave young people cards about getting on the electoral role, busted EU myths and asked them to talk to their parents and grandparents about a vote for their future.

One of a series of videos created by the St Albans group, this one featuring Jack, 82, who was evacuated to St Albans in the second world war
One of a series of videos created by the St Albans group, this one featuring Jack, 82, who was evacuated to St Albans in the second world war

We created videos with a little local emotion – including the legendary Jack, 82, evacuated to St Albans during the war, and a passionate advocate of ‘not going back’ to the bad old days.

We secured one of the highest ‘In’ votes in the UK, on a huge turnout, but still some critical flaws in the Stronger In campaign seemed to let us down in securing more votes for that national total.

A confused brand identity and messages

The bland ‘IN’ branding was lost on many voters, with people squinting to see what it meant and asking us, ‘Which side are you?’. Every party using it differently just confused people (Labour’s IN version even resembled the Vote Leave logo at a distance).

Perhaps ‘Vote Remain Together – a new partnership with Europe’ might have created a sense of a bigger community – linking clearly to the ballot box choice, a collective act, and emphasising the EU’s role in solving big cross-border challenges together. ‘A new partnership’ might have reminded people that reforms had been agreed (however small), and that there was potential to fight for our international relationships to continue to evolve. ‘Together’ could have been dropped in Scotland, where it might be too closely associated with Better Together and ‘No’ for some.

‘Vote Remain together, for a new partnership with Europe’, ready for the future – in contrast to the empty ‘Vote Leave, take back control’ looking to the past. It wouldn’t have persuaded the vehement Leavers, but it might just have nudged us over the 50% line. Stronger In claim to have tested messages, but it sounds like they used conventional focus groups and online testing, not the co-creation and prototyping methods used by experience and service design teams to shape big innovation ideas.

Poor social conversation and no strong viral content

The parties mostly pumped out content in dull formats, failing to match the popular ‘Brexit – The Movie’ in digital sharing. They didn’t understand the need for conversation online to win over voters.

Where was the army of rapid response social media myth-busters, fact-checkers and EU enthusiasts? Where was our world-leading creative industry brought in to create an emotional idea that might stimulate viral content?

Instead, the embarrassing ‘youth-in’ video and several calls from the parties asking for more money. What for? Yet more home phone calls and bloody leaflets! Like a 1980s telethon.

Were there any clever viral parodies of Vote Leave’s logic? They mostly came after the vote.

We need to talk about the EU brand story. With 40 years of dodgy brand perceptions in the UK, fuelled by much of the print media’s banana-shaped myths, the EU needed to be re-positioned as a people’s brand – a pan European crowd solution to cross-border challenges and a high-tech global future.

Many people seemed to want to stay, but found it difficult to articulate why. We should have been talking about the ‘real’ people of Europe, pioneering mobile phone technology or building the Airbus consortium together. The strengths of our incredibly diverse academic, engineering and creative talent, brought together to take on global competition.

The EU identity should have been embraced, with the UK nations and EU symbols shown as complementary, not as an in/out, either/or decision – English, British and European symbols together.

Daniel Craig Insta
Daniel Craig posts an image of himself wearing one of Wolfgang Tillmans’ T-shirts in support of the Remain campaign

‘No man is an island, no country by itself’ on a t-shirt was the closest we got to powerful emotional messages around European unity. We certainly didn’t need the lazy brand tactics of usual suspect celebrities. Nor endless academics writing letters together (is it 1816?).

Weak leadership and organisation

The leading Remain party leaders stood together like CEOs of some brand mega-merger, trying desperately to reassure that everything would be alright, but not quite knowing who was in charge of the awkward new Stronger In corporate brand and fearing that none of their staff was buying into the plan.

In early debates they got across the risks about the economy, but missed the point that people had heard it all before. After a decade of enduring a wobbly economy they didn’t cause, but were asked to take the hit for, many voters didn’t think they had much more to lose. They doubted the leadership wisdom from the top of Big Business and its perceived excesses. And they wanted to blame someone.

They’d been told by the newspapers that Brussels was interfering, and UK and EU law-making facts had never really been on the school curriculum, so why shouldn’t they believe their money was being wasted on projects that benefitted other people? This is what we were hearing consistently in local campaigning. People wanted to hear a positive vision for why we should stay.

Leaders were slow on the counter attack. They not only lacked passion and consistency but they took on Leave lies much too late. Broadcast media seemed to be so concerned to avoid bias that factual errors about how the EU worked were left unchallenged. We pointed people to independent fact-checking websites, but we were always challenged, Trump post-truth style, that these were funded by the EU.

We felt a turn back towards Remain in the last week, once smart rebuttals were communicated. But by this point many people had already sent in their Leave postal votes. Particularly older voters.

Stronger In claimed to have a smart voter targeting database, but we didn’t see any evidence until the day before the vote. And it didn’t seem to provide any useful intelligence beyond priority streets for more door-knocking. Hardly the stuff of innovative marketing, the campaign strategy seemed design for electoral constituencies, not creating a mass movement vote.

As the vote became clear in the early hours, we were heartbroken. The drinks stopped flowing. Our comfortable city of St Albans had recorded one of the highest ‘Remain’ votes in the country at 62.7% on a massive 82.5% turnout. But it was cold comfort.

Global picnic: bringing all faces of the community back together after the vote
Global picnic: bringing all faces of the community back together after the vote

What now?

We’ve looked to progressive politicians to seize the moment, to use the network of Stronger In volunteers to create something new from the brand and the movement. Mostly, it has been quiet. A void.

More United and Stronger In continue to have some promise, but to date they remain as slow and lacklustre as the Remain campaign. ‘We’ll have more soon’ Tweets aren’t good enough in the digital age. Yet more petitions won’t steer the best outcome. Some great ideas, but still the same old party habits.

So we’ve carried on, agile startup style. We’d already formed stronger bonds as a team, so why not carry on? We’ve held events to bring together people across the community. We’ve revived market stalls – but this time asking people ‘What is Britain’s future with Europe?’ – asking people to write down constructive ideas about how it should work. Crowdsourcing intelligent debate. Trying to create small platforms to reconnect people and politicians in the digital age. To exchange ideas and develop policy, not just to gather names or share press releases.

"What is Britain’s Future with Europe?": market stall after the vote
“What is Britain’s Future with Europe?”: market stall after the vote

There has never been a clearer opening for a new progressive movement to challenge the cold, divisive, deliberate and vacuous ‘Brexit means Brexit’. For a popular campaign to lead on optimism on the scale of the 1997 landslide, whatever your politics back then.

Campaigning on the activist sidelines, wishing people to join you somewhere on an old left/right spectrum, reviving (incorrect) north/south industry/banking divides, isn’t going to draw ordinary people into politics.

Ultimately, ‘Parliament means Parliament’ and given the contradictions in the Leave logic between free market trade and immigration, it looks increasingly like we will end up very close to where we are today. As part of a re-branded ‘European Partnership’. With marginally more immigration control and considerably less say in the European rules and regulations that we will still need to comply with to trade.

Meanwhile our national economy and international brand will have taken a hit from the uncertainty. We’ll have been distracted from building the very growth industries that could have fired us back into faster-growing living standards for everyone and a strong place in the world economy.

It all seems a long way from the re-positioning of Britain at the 2012 Olympics. Maybe London shared its global brand, but we’ve yet to find a new story for the rest of England that everyone buys into.

Where next?
Where next?

Unlike many criticised private sector re-brands, this won’t take months, but years, when we could have been more focused on boosting those advanced economy digital skills – to close the economic divide between low value and high value jobs in our 80% service sector economy. Investing in our digital infrastructure, education and training is now even more vital – it should start with the whole Westminster and party system.

Meanwhile, pro European liberals need a stronger movement to represent their side in the new political divide between the open and the closed. The New European newspaper has created a bold, positive new voice in that debate.

But new movements can seem poorly funded and confused in approach. Stronger In emailed volunteers recently, asking for more money, but with no explanation as to what it would be used for. What is the new strategy? Who will be doing what?

Ultimately, political campaigns need to re-engage people in conversations about constructive policy solutions for our new place in the world. What we’re missing is a coherent brand and digital campaign platform to take us there. To push for reform of politics at every level, including the EU. If parties don’t stop their internal debates and grab hold of momentum for change, an opportunity to reinvent national political debate to secure our future will be lost.

Richard Warmsley is an independent brand innovation and service design director at On Tap Growth Design, ontaphere.com

Richard Warmsley
Richard Warmsley

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