Brexit & Branding: Minding the (social) gaps…

mind the gap

This is a piece first published in Spanish, by the good people of AEDEMO in the March edition of their magazine.

If you’ve never visited the UK, the term ‘mind the gap’ might sound pretty obvious. Why wouldn’t you watch out for a gap? Well, when you visit London, if you don’t pay attention when getting off the Underground, you can come unstuck quickly.

Torturous analogy aside, it’s become quite obvious to anyone with even a passing interest in Britain that we are in something of an unexpected gap ourselves at the moment; where what divides us influences our day to day more than what brings us together, exemplified by Brexit.

Brexit has showcased a major binary response, but it’s not the only ‘gap’ within broader culture; in this article, I want to draw your attention to five more gaps, highlighting ways in which businesses and brands have begun to address them.

 

  1. In politics, the detachment between politicians and the people.

In the UK, ‘the Will of the people’ is frequently used as a stick with which to beat those who disagree with the Prime Minister’s steadfast determination to leave the EU. In fact, it’s an amorphous branding concept, and it masks a fundamental political divide.

Bear in mind that with the collapse of the third political party in the UK (particularly with marginal seats[1]), there’ve never been more safe seats for the left and the right, and with that, an entrenchment of political views. So, we’ve ended up with a number of poorly qualified politicians able to say what they like, knowing they’ll get re-elected. As a result, people feel disenfranchised, and social divisions grow.

Brands that are able to recognise and acknowledge the division between what people want and what people feel able to change and support are succeeding. This is best demonstrated by the likes of Spotify’s topical print work since 2016 or HebTroCo’s commitment[2] to supporting local industry and materials.

 

  1. In economics, the gap between London and the rest of the UK

London is the dark star of the UK, with £419 more spent per head versus rest of the UK[3]. There’s always been a famously pronounced divide between the north and the south of the country, but, nowadays, it’s more London and the rest of the country.

Consider this; in London, each person is given £10,323 per person which is over a thousand pounds more than many regions within the UK[4]. It’s easy to get angry and resentful when you feel like it’s ‘them and us’. Attempts may have been made to broaden the regional diversity of the nation, but there’s still a discernible difference between the power-centre that is London and the rest.

Businesses that have encouraged broader, more diverse thinking that steps beyond the M25, whether that’s within the realms of flexible working (as my own employer, Publicis Media has mandated), or a breadth of research (such as Ogilvy’s ‘Get out there’ initiative) will succeed.

 

  1. In culture, the gap between generations

Brexit has underlined the divide between the young and old. Far from being looked to for their wisdom and forethought, the younger generations feel profoundly let down by Baby Boomers, driven by economic pressures; today, millennials born 1981-90 have similar earnings to those born 15 years earlier.

This, coupled with a rapid increase in asset value (millennial families are now only half as likely to own their home by age 30 as baby boomers were[5]), and slow growth in real wages, stokes a sense of resentment; the belief that Boomers had it easier – the average home now costs 19x the average salary, versus 4x in the 1960s[6].

Brexit has brought this division into even sharper focus. The older someone was in the UK, the more likely they were to vote for Brexit.[7] But why would those who’ve benefitted from a nation be so keen to keep it separate from the rest of Europe? Simply put, it’s the belief in British exceptionalism. From the historical ideal of England as ‘Albion’ (thought of as being God’s own nation[8]) and its portrayal as a ‘green and pleasant land’, it’s a mythology which hasn’t ever truly been defeated.

Brands who understand this are either addressing the exceptionalism issue head on, such as the recent HSBC ‘Island’ work which tackles the temptation to think inwardly, or Burger King’s ‘McWhopper’, which tries to bridge brand exceptionalism within its category. Acknowledging exceptionalism, whether that’s real or brand created, is increasingly a viable marketing approach.

 

  1. In communications, the gap between who makes it and who consumes it

In the UK, the average age of an agency employee is 33.7, according to the IPA. The average age of the nation’s new car buyers are over twenty years older (54, according to the SMMT). The average creative director is more likely to be male, yet women make up the overwhelming bulk of the household purchase decisions[9].

It’s not surprising, when we have a communications industry so riven with division. Socially detached work comes from group-think, where lots of similarly monied people violently agree with each other[10], and it’s remarkably easy to do that when the low wages (average starting salaries in advertising were between £19-24k[11], versus an average of £27k in London) of the comms industry are factored in. We need more of this, to prevent the comms industry becoming a hobby for rich people’s children.

This socio-economic division must change how companies recruit and train. The best way of solving the former has come from a PR agency. Golin’s B&B[12] addresses one of the core barriers to ensuring diverse thought and behaviours – money and set up costs.  When it comes to training, the School of Communication Arts 2.0[13] has a unique model that focuses on real world learning, worlds away from learning about from communications from someone who was last in the business twenty years ago.

 

  1. In messaging, the gap between purpose and product

Somewhere along the line, marketers and advertisers, in lieu of understanding who’d buy their products, began to believe that marketing to generations was the right way to understand cohorts of people.

The advent of search and the web removing product and service mystery heralded a shift away from simply communicating a product benefit. This, coupled with more parity products, and always on content marketing meant that marketers and agencies didn’t have the time to dig into discovering a differentiating benefit.

As a result, it became increasingly tempting to conflate a ‘millennial mindset’ or a ‘Gen Z first’ approach with audience groups. Plainly, this hasn’t worked; just look at the Diet Coke work[14], or Pepsi’s belief that Kendall Jenner and a can could solve street riots. Even more troubling, the UK supermarket, Iceland’s stand against Palm Oil, licencing Greenpeace’s old ad in order to push their non-Palm oil credentials, which fell apart when they declined to follow through on their belief[15].

Brands and businesses that overcome this are those who have a laser focus on their product and how people consume it in the real world. They can talk about purpose, but it’s always grounded in what the product or service is or does. Just look at Hiut denim’s belief[16] in ‘doing one thing well’, or REI’s ‘Opt outside’ campaign[17] – a direct response to the excesses of Black Friday. Both of these promote products and services that are grounded in where they come from, and they promote a version of the sort of world their offerings lend themselves to.

To conclude, it’s evident that there’s a real need to consider ‘the gaps’ when thinking about businesses, brands and broader society. In this author’s view, more should take a leaf out of Raymond Loewy’s (the father of industrial design) thinking[18], and begin with MAYA: The Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable products and services that people will buy into and support, versus dealing in empty brand purpose or needless product ‘innovations’. That’ll really help us mind those gaps.

[1] New Statesmen / Political Betting.com ‘Winning Where?  The Lib Dem Targets for 2022’, 28th January 2019.

[2] HebTroCo, ‘About us’, Web, 28th January 2019.

[3] The Guardian, ‘Transport Gap: London gets £419 per head than the north of England’, web, 28th January 2019

[4] House of Commons Library, ‘Public spending by country and region’, web, November 2018.

[5] Resolution Foundation/Intergenerational Commission, ‘A new generational contract’, May 2018

[6] Daily Mail, ‘The millennials bite back! After a Mail article provoked fury among 20-somethings by dubbing them lazy and selfish… they respond and blame baby boomers for betraying THEIR generation’, March 2017

[7] “Polls suggest that just under two-fifths of Baby Boomers (generally – albeit contentiously – defined as those born between 1945 and 1965, now aged between about 50 and 70) voted to remain in the EU”. LSE, ‘How did baby boomers get the blame for Brexit’, February 2017.

[8] ‘God’s own Country’, various, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God%27s_Own_Country, January 2019

[9] Catalyst.org, Buying power: Global women, 2013 / The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), “Women Want More: Updated Findings on the World’s Largest, Fastest-Growing Market,” Webinar Presentation, September 2013.

[10] “48 of our agency sample [identified] as left wing compared to 28% of the modern mainstream” Tenzer, Andrew. Trinity Mirror Solutions. ‘Why we shouldn’t trut our gut instinct’. July 2018.

[11] Prospects.ac.uk, ‘Job profile: Advertising account executive’, January 2019.

[12] Golin, <https://golin.com/uk/golinbb/&gt;, January 2019

[13] School of Communications Arts 2.0, January 2019

[14] Diet Coke, ‘Because I can’, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1YBP8v6fi2w>, 2018

[15] BBC, ‘Iceland removed own label from 17 products rather than palm oil’, January 2019

[16] Hiut Denim, http://hiutdenim.co.uk, January 2019

[17] Rei, ‘Opt Outside’, https://www.rei.com/opt-outside, November 2016

[18] Thompson, Derek. ‘Hit Makers: How things become popular’, 2017

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