Brand Activism: The dangers of talking Brexit


Written By: Written By: Rebecca Pike & Steven Son - Our BAMM Academicians visiting from JWT


The last two years haven’t been the best. In several ways. One of the many effects of this is that big business has become increasingly involved in the political sphere. In the USA there have been various high profile examples of brands behaving like political activists, often protesting against the president himself. Huge companies like Lyft, Air BnB, Google and Starbucks have all weighed in on Trump’s immigration policies.

These examples of brand activism in the political space have received huge PR coverage and consumer support. It is often celebrated when companies come out and publically denounce Trump, or better still to do something which works actively against his politics.

This flurry of activity throws the lack of anything similar in the UK into the spotlight. When you stop and think about it in the context of Brexit, it is an ostentatious absence.

So why have brands failed to get involved in Britain’s very own political maelstrom in the same way? Big business has stayed out of the Brexit debate, apart from a few statements from Unilever, EasyJet, Ann Summers and HBSC before the referendum took place. Without the US cult of the celebrity CEO, these statements had a fairly low impact, and brands have been pretty much mute on the matter since we unceremoniously wrenched ourselves adrift of the rest of Europe on the 23rd June 2016.

But why so reserved? Other than the stiff upper lip?

The fact is that the Brexit debate is infinitely complex. In the US, if you have liberal inclinations you’ll condemn Trump until the cows come home. You’ll go out protesting.  You’ll make anti Trump memes. You’ll refuse to shop in places that support him.

But in the UK, we are painfully aware of the nuances of the Brexit vote, of the deep rooted social issues that drove it and of the years of inequality that pre-date it. In our case, it isn’t as clear cut as condemning a travel ban or an Uber license. Trump’s views and statements are so out there, so against many of the values that the West has stood for in recent years, that it has become an ethical debate as much as a political one.

The Economist announces its warning of right wing Republicanism.

Brexit, on the other hand, can be argued from many angles. There is no right and wrong. The anti-immigration propaganda of the Leave campaign was reprehensible in many ways, but it is now a relatively small part of a big and nuanced conversation about politics, economics and sovereignty.

We are a nation divided down the middle and the fact is that Brexit will certainly work in favour of some businesses and some people. Many companies were pro-Brexit before the vote, though whether that is still the case is less clear.

It’s true that many of these issues also exist in the US, but they conveniently have someone to blame: those who disagree have a figurehead to heap their distaste on. Without a Trump of our own – Nigel Farage having taken a back-seat since his great victory – people look inwards and become increasingly insecure.

Plus, as we know, we haven’t actually Brexit-ed yet. The US is on the Trump presidency train, whereas we are standing nervously on the precipice. Brexit is still the great unknown. Any brand that ties themselves to either side of the debate risks an awful lot for a small gain.

For these reasons, sticking your oar into the Brexit debate is a risky business and most brands have decided to opt out for now. Looking at the favourite brands of Leave voters vs. Remain sheds more light on why this might be.

Ryan Air flying its Remain flag before the referendum.

Those who voted Leave like brands such as HP Sauce, Bisto, Birdseye, Iceland and Cathedral City. Those who voted Remain like the BBC, Instagram, Spotify, Air BnB and Twitter. What this shows us is that many big British heritage brands that could naturally enter the conversation would risk alienating their core customer base if they expressed an opinion that they didn’t agree with. It also shows us that the sort of brands that have a successful track record of political activism are primarily from the US and don’t have the right to enter such a uniquely British debate.

All of this can act as both a warning and an opportunity. If the right brand were to take a stand then it would certainly drive a lot of publicity and could work in their favour if it were properly and carefully thought through. But the question is: should they? At the moment all of this remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: brands should think very carefully before laying their cards on the table when it comes to Brexit.

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