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Brexit: Strategic Significance of Branding even in Elections

Kenya has had its share of referendums. The first of its kind was in 2005 which was a contestation between the Banana and the Orange.  The banana was in support of the proposed constitution while the orange was in the opposing end. The Orange won. Five years later, in August 2010, we had another referendum on the same constitution only that this time political camps were not divided between bananas and oranges but it was Yes verses No vote. Yes won.  This raises the question whether voting patterns had only to do with the issues in the proposed constitutions and nothing about how the vote was branded. Considering Brexit as a case, the reality could be that just by deciding the tittle of this vote, the dice was already cast, it was Brexit.

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When I observed how the vote of either exit European Union or stay was branded Brexit, I said it in my many forums and even my inner circle network that Brexit was a very highly likely not only because of the issues but more because of the branding. Brexit was a referendum – a vote in which everyone (or nearly everyone) of voting age could take part – was held on Thursday 23 June, to decide whether the United Kingdom (UK) should leave or remain in the European Union. The referendum turnout was 71.8%, with more than 30 million people voting. It was the highest turnout in a UK-wide vote since the 1992 general election. This tells you that there was a lot at stake than even Prime Minister David Cameron had envisaged.

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The vote was tight- 51.9 percent for Brexit, 48.1 percent for Remain. This tells you that a small thing like branding would tilt the results, and I believe that the branding for the camp that pushed for exit, Brexit, worked in their favour. Can you imagine how “Brexit” sounds romantic, trendy as opposed to “Remain”! The British Prime Minister had not contemplated how Grexit (an abbreviation for “Greek exit,” refers to Greece’s potential withdrawal from the Eurozone, after which it would most likely revert to using the drachma, its currency) had gotten popularity just for the trendiness in the name in spite of its ill consequences, some of which Britain woke up to its reality in the morning of June 24, 2016 when their Prime Minister had resigned and the markets had fallen with 610 low.

Remember when Cameron agreed to hold the referendum the odds of winning it looked good. All four major parties—the Conservatives, Liberals, Labour and the Scottish Nationalists—pledged to campaign to remain in the EU, lending the “remain” camp significant credibility. At the same time, a range of experts appeared in public to argue that the UK’s economic prospects were better served within the EU than outside of it, prophesying all sorts of economic problems in the event of a Brexit. But then Brexit was too seductive that a number of his own party members defied his authority to join the “Brexit” campaign. Although the party leaders of all the four parties supported remaining in the EU, many of the most charismatic figures in British politics joined Brexit. This branding of the Brexit changed the course of the referendum because it played into the hands of the Brexit camp. Leaders who had previously appeared to be alarmist and extreme, such as Mr Farage and the Mayor of London, Mr Boris Johnson, increasingly seemed to have been proved right, at least in the eyes of voters that were already sympathetic to their rhetoric. From that point onwards, the outcome of the referendum was on a knife-edge. In fact in the end, Brexit camp wasn’t a camp only for those who didn’t see the value of staying in the EU. Instead the different constituencies in the Brexit campaign voted to leave the EU for very different reasons and it is highly likely that the brand Brexit sounded more trendy especially among low income, low literacy areas. I guess those who are more susceptible to identifying with a well-branded campaign that offers no value but sounds great are the less educated, low-income areas and unexposed people. No wonder in the Brexit, areas with high numbers of degree-educated people tended to vote remain, unsurprisingly areas with large numbers of people in Jobs requiring a degree also leaned toward remain. Unfortunately for the young ones, younger people voted for remain, but were fewer in number, dampening the overall impact on age yet it’s the young people who will live longest with the decision.  However, the highest leave votes tended to come from low-income areas, areas where large numbers of people do not hold a passport- an indication they have not been abroad recently.

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There are lots of lessons to be learnt from Brexit but the key message is the power of branding. The educated professionals in this country do not determine this country’s destiny, it’s the common man and woman who does since the less educated, less exposed (the majority) are prone to branding than the highly educated and more exposed individuals. One only needs to look at the kind of followership some political groups have in this country and it will be clear that politics and politicians like David Cameron would have taken the branding of his camp seriously. In fact before the vote, the last set of opinion polls suggested that the “remain” camp would win by roughly the same margin of victory by which it ultimately lost. So what happened? The referendum result was the product of the Brexit campaign performing better than expected in its core areas and the failure of the “remain” campaign to respond. Where people backed Brexit, they did so in large numbers, with high turnouts in many parts of the country. That’s the power of branding that continues to haunt many political camps yet they don’t realize it. It is what worked against banana camp. The No camp and it’s the primary reason the Opposition Camp needs to position itself to win over more vote and take over government. It is instructive that how they position the vote has huge influence on voter turnout thus tilting the tides on their side. Even corporates need to learn a thing – that’s why I am studying the relationship between brand loyalty and age, income levels, literacy levels among other demographic parameters.

 

Written By:

Dr. Fredrick Onyango Ogola ,
Senior Lecturer- Strategy and Competitiveness
Strathmore University
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