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Why did we stop listening? Brand lessons from Brexit

For our first Noisy Thinking of the Autumn we stepped outside the immediate confines of our world for a theme and for our speakers. A little bit of me was concerned that we’d talked ourselves out on this one but we thought it was important to address the implications as a community and think about what part we might play in the post Brexit world – not least in shaping the strategy on our clients’ brands.

So we invited speakers from politics and policy, cultural insight and polling/research to give us their view. Matthew Taylor is a former Chief Advisor on Strategy to Tony Blair and now runs the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), that excellent institution whose raison d’etre is enriching society through ideas and action. He dived straight into a serious historical and political analysis of what he perceives to be the underlying problems in society. By his analysis the forces of Brexit have their roots in crumbling hierarchies, loss of faith in authority and trust in leaders, erosion of community and solidarity (being able to understand and like people who are not like ourselves) and the loss of hope that things will get better.

He believes that the marriage of economic liberalism and democracy that held sway in the first half of the C20th is unlikely to endure in a period when markets have become destructive and capitalism is about money, not about making things. The social exclusion that this brings about meant that 52% of the public ignored the advice of 90% of leaders and authority figures; and this is deeply worrying.

Essentially the problem is far deeper than not listening; it’s structural and endemic, and fractured community is dangerous. His prescription for re-building society is through projects which rekindle a sense that we can do things together – and empowering people in authority to recalibrate things on our behalf. Specifically, he is leading the charge on Universal Basic Income; creating a society where everyone has enough to live on and challenging the assumption that people are lazy and have to be ‘screwed down’. This would encourage us to value volunteering and caring and give people the chance to pursue projects and make us all feel that we can still do big, bold things that give us hope of a better future.

Helen Job is Head of Cultural Intelligence at Flamingo and her career in London and New York has been devoted to lifestyle, culture and trend analysis. She agrees with Matthew that there has been a profound erosion of shared culture that we need to engage and encourage our clients and brands in a generosity of spirit and more democratic, shared experience.

She believes that we thought we got better at listening, but what we actually did was encourage the hyper-fragmentation of culture. Public spaces are diminishing, the club scene (the only means of escape for disadvantaged northern teenagers and a properly democratic experience of shared culture) is rapidly declining. We thought we were listening because we were on-line but actually we’re increasingly alienated from one another by the ‘filter bubble’. We think we’re being egalitarian but brands like Airbnb are essentially elitist, and you can only play Pokemon Go with an expensive smart phone.

We listened to Brexiteers but failed to understand what they were saying – fear of immigration is more about fear of exclusion. And most tellingly, we’re paid to listen to the 48% and not to target the DE’s; hence the tyranny of the aspirational target.

So what does it mean for brands? Precision targeting doesn’t really work. P&G have acknowledged this and so have Facebook (in an acknowledgement of the force of mass-reach strategy). Brands are about triggering shared memories and the herd effect is powerful.

So how do you build culture back into marketing and communication? Forget tokenism and the horrors of ‘a revolutionary new service designed for those oh-shit moments where you've realised your award show, corporate brochure, conference panel is entirely composed of white men’.

Try and do it properly like McDonalds with their creation of a democratic space where anyone can belong; The Tate whose advertising is about immersing yourself in the experience, not about prior knowledge; and IKEA, which focuses on belonging. Get out of your office and connect with real lives. Stand in an Aldi queue first thing in the morning and witness food being given out to the hungry. Reflect the diversity of society in your employment practices, think of people as people not targets.

Or Brexit is just the beginning.

Alex Batchelor is COO of BrainJuicer and has worked for clients and agencies in a series of senior roles. He had it in for polling as a ‘science’ on the basis that it has been getting it wrong relentlessly since its inauguration in 1916. Alex thinks it’s all about asking the right questions in the right way and that effective listening is a by-product of that.

In any case we always start ‘listening’ with our own opinions firmly in the ascendant.

So Brain Juicer has been looking carefully at both the Brexit vote and the US elections, using different kinds of question asked in a different way. They predicted the Brexit result and – spoiler alert – they think that Hilary will just shave in. Fame, your feeling about a person or issue and fluency (how familiar an idea, person or concept seems to you) are pre-eminent in peoples’ thinking and decision making. And the candidates people are most familiar with in the US election? Trump, Hilary and Trump’s hair. ‘Nuff said.

Alex’s analysis is that Leave won because they had the distinctive slogans, distinctive issues, memes like straight bananas and £350 million to the NHS, and distinctive people like Farage and Boris. Remain had no celebrity quotient and were not distinctive; and the weight of 90% of expert opinion – to Matthew’s Taylor’s point, was pretty valueless by comparison. In a complex narrative with no certain outcome either way, we reduce choices to stories we can understand. This enabled people to believe a ‘comedy’ narrative that said despite all its issues and problems, Britain will be OK in the long run. And more important than that the Remain campaign were very poor at creating a broad impression of a positive future so people felt as though were choosing between two essentially rubbish options – in essence how they voted didn’t really matter anyway.

His prescription is to ask better questions and really seek to understand the stories that are being told.

All three speakers went deep; they looked at the question through remarkably different lenses and found new ways to understand what is going on in our culture and society, and helpful practical ideas for what we can do and how we can change.

Sarah Newman

APG Director

You can view the slides and videos from the evening here

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