Why Brexit is a symptom of EU brand failure

Saffron Senior Strategist Adrian Pring asks some searching questions of the state of Brand EU.

As a company with roots in London and Madrid, and projects across Europe and beyond, many at Saffron continue to soul search in the face of Brexit. How could this happen? What went wrong? Could it have been avoided? There’s a pre-Brexit article that offers some clues. The prime minister at the time, David Cameron - campaigning to remain - channelled an infamous Monty Python scene to ask, “What’s Europe ever done for us?”. The analogy was a valuable one. As a continental force, the EU has governed over significant improvements to the quality of life of millions. Cameron’s list included "…the market of 500 million people, the regional grants, the access to the market, the support for our universities…". As important as the prime minister’s cause was, the repetitive list was limited to a set of bureaucratic and economic achievements. 

It should be no surprise then that, beyond immigration, the main arguments for ‘leave’ revolved around perceptions of the EU as a distant, technocratic, costly layer of government. The most iconic image of the ‘leave’ campaign was a red bus heralding the “£350m a week” sent to the EU instead of the beloved National Health Service. ‘Leave’ supporters could argue they were getting poor value for money.

One of the issues brands often face is where reality fails to inform perception. That the South West of England could overlook the reality that it was the largest beneficiary of EU funding in England and vote ‘leave’, suggests failings of the EU to inform perception by connecting with the people it serves to demonstrate its value.

Another marker of brand success is audience engagement. A look at past elections tells a woeful story of Britons’ engagement in EU issues. In the 2015 UK general election, turnout was 66% (low by historical standards). By comparison, in May 2019's European elections, only 37% of the UK electorate voted. Even amidst increased focus on the results in the British press and heightened Brexit tensions, the turnout barely changed from the 36% who voted in 2014, pre-Brexit. If the EU had a CMO they would be asking serious questions about the levels of engagement in one of its key markets.

Low engagement is not isolated to the UK. Since 1979 (a few years after the EU started to expand beyond its six founding members) the EU average election turnout has dropped from 62%, steadily declining to 42.6% in 2014. Some of this decline might be explained by the EU’s 21st century expansions. Looking again at the 2014 data, of the members that were present before the 2004 expansion, average turnout was 52%; for newer members (since 2004 expansion), average turnout was only 33%. This hints at EU accession driven by governments seeking economic advantages, rather than a popular love of, or cultural disposition towards the ‘European project’.

But fundamentally, where the EU has failed as a brand, is to convincingly capture the imagination of its members’ populations. This was made clear by Richard Ash, a British independent Member of the European Parliament. On the 28th of March, the eve of the original Brexit date, in an impassioned speech he proclaimed, “For over 25 years, no British prime minister ever explained to the British people what Europe did, what were the benefits and why it mattered”. A damning account of British leadership, but with a warning for the EU as a whole that the follies of an island nation were not irrelevant to a continent grappling with similar concerns across its member states.

So, like many brands, the EU has to face familiar challenges: informing perceptions, engaging audiences and capturing their imagination.

Informing perceptions starts with recognising that in daily UK life, the EU is largely an invisible, theoretical force. When John Cleese’s Monty Python character, Reg asked “What have the Romans ever done for us?”, he was met by a chorus of “aqueducts, sanitation, roads”. The Romans’ rule was felt by all, everyday. So distinctive were their straight roads, they are still recognisable today. The great symbols of the EU’s impact; the Euro and borderless movement, are absent from the UK, making it harder for individuals to relate to it on a daily basis.

Efforts are being made. The European Structural and Investment Funds logo is used consistently for organisations that are beneficiaries. But surely there is more that could be done. Take the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy; controversial as it is, UK farmers alone were set to receive €28 billion over the 2014-2020 funding period. In today’s hyper transparent world, where food can be traced from farm to fork, what if every piece of meat or grain of cereal produced with the aid of EU funding had a clear EU logo on its label? By changing awareness of how we feed ourselves, how might that impact perception? Like “Intel inside”; you don’t need to know anything about microchips, but you know that without it things don’t work as well.

Actions like this might also help to improve engagement. By bringing simple symbols of the EU’s impact into everyday lives, it forces people to think about the role that the EU plays. It encourages reflection and potentially debate. In addition, simplifying the often complex legislation and policies written in Brussels would make it easier for people to understand what the EU does. Creating a more engaging digital experience would help. It also needs recognisable role-models. Arguably the most famous MEP is Nigel Farage. Think on that for a moment. Where are the EU’s visionaries? Donald Tusk’s “special place in hell” rant, raising a laugh among ‘remainers’ and provoking the ire of ‘leavers’, showed a human face of the European Council. But he hardly comes across as someone with the common touch.

It would be over-simplistic to suggest that the sole solution to all of the EU’s problems is to slap a logo on everything. The UK’s relationship with the EU has always been more tempestuous than tranquil. Many of our politicians and the vitriolic corners of the British press have pandered to populist sentiment at best and perverse paranoia at worst. But the Euroscepticism that led to Brexit exists across old and new members. From Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, to Polish president Andrzej Duda’s reluctance to continue Poland’s EU integration, the EU faces significant threats. Tackling these challenges starts with bridging the gap between what people think the EU does and the real, positive impact it has on its members. The EU needs to reframe the vital role it plays for all.

Which leads finally to the need to capture the imagination. Ultimately this is about storytelling and creativity. Removing the emphasis on politicians in Brussels and bringing the EU to the people it serves. Giving it a local presence and relevance, showing why the EU truly matters.

You could start with a better answer to David Cameron’s question “What has Europe ever done for us?”. As he closed his speech in the European Parliament, Richard Ash finished with a clear message, “So let Brexit stand as a cautionary tale to the people of Europe. To the people of Europe I say this: you are the generation that have lived through the longest period of peace and the greatest level of prosperity ever. Never take it for granted. Value it. Fight for it. Defend it everyday.”


By Adrian Pring, Strategist Director.