What Brexit Teaches Us about Crafting Campaigns that Compel Action

Alex Moscow
9 min readMar 13, 2018

It’s been described as “the stupidest thing any country has done,” “a declaration of economic war upon ourselves” and “a monumental act of self-harm”.

One that could derail the economy, cost the UK £100s of billions in lost revenue and put an unprecedented number of businesses and livelihoods at risk.

Yet on the 23rd of June 2016, the majority of British voters (albeit a slim one), decided it was time to leave the EU and close the door on nearly 50 years of close collaboration and free trade.

It’s too early to say what impact the decision will have in real terms. Economic and social phenomena seen in the present are typically the result of actions taken years in the past. So, it’s unlikely we’ll feel the true aftereffects (positive or negative) of the Brexit vote for quite some time.

As a 40 something Brit, born a year after the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC), I’ve never known a world outside the EU. I’ve enjoyed the freedoms it’s granted me and must admit to being concerned about the repercussions of our decision, as well as some of the darker undertones of the populist agenda that underpinned it.

But this is not the time, nor the place for political debate. It is, however, the perfect platform for exploring the secrets of compelling campaigning. And, as is the case of Brexit, what it takes to successfully convince people to take the action you want them to take.

As a PR man and content creator who’s in the business of persuading people to take action, I find myself pondering the Leave campaign and asking one simple question — how did they do it?

How did they manage, beyond the expectations of even its biggest proponents, to convince the British voting public to pull the trigger on Brexit?

Success Against Considerable Odds

No matter how good an argument for change, the status quo can exert an irresistible pull. After all, it’s not unusual for people to say they’ll do one thing, only to do another, (or do nothing at all), when the time comes to act.

A lesson pollsters had to learn the hard way.

Therefore, even if many had been convinced of the Leave argument and decided to vote in its favour, it would not have been a surprise had those same people gone on to vote Remain, once face-to-face with the ballot paper.

While it’s true to say that Euroscepticism was at an all-time high in 2016, leaving the Bloc was not on people’s minds. The most common sentiment was Britain should remain in the EU, but that its powers should be stripped back.

More surprising perhaps, is the number of people that were inspired to take up the pencil. As was reported by the BBC, “One of the most striking features of the EU referendum, was the substantial increase in turnout.”

Around 3 million more people voted that day compared to the 2015 general election. An astonishing increase of about 7%. More interesting still, is “the greatest increases in turnout mostly occurred in those areas that delivered the biggest majorities for Leave.”

The Leave Campaign then, not only managed to usurp the relative safe haven of the status quo, but to also motivate those who usually abstain from being counted, to take up their cause.

So how did they do it and by extension, what can we learn from this extraordinary example of compelling campaigning?

It’s an important question for anyone involved in sales or marketing.

When you consider that every buying decision is a vote for change — a change in circumstance, a change in supplier, a change in behaviour — understanding how to facilitate that change, when so much stands in its way, is critical.

The 4 Critical Components of Content Campaigns that Inspire Action

While Likes, Reads and Shares make us feel good about our content, the real measure of a successful campaign is action. After all, Likes don’t pay the bills. So, in addition to so called ego metrics, content must also motivate positive affirmative action that results in revenues.

Affirmative action was critical for the Brexiteers. Anything less would result in a very public defeat and potentially put a line under the European question, once and for all.

To achieve their goal, they needed more than just nodding heads and social shares. They had to get people out of their armchairs and into polling stations. They needed millions of crosses in the box marked Leave.

And if there ever was a good example of why marketers must get under the skin of their audience, Brexit is it.

When you break down the critical elements that made the Leave campaign a success, there’s no doubt their audience insight was watertight.

Component 1: A Shared Vision for the Future Underpinned by Common Values

History teaches us there’s no better trigger for a popular revolt than a compelling cause. But to create a compelling cause you need a powerful vision. A shared ideal for the future that draws on the values of your audience and promises a world they aspire to live in.

And that’s exactly what the Brexiteers sought to create.

Drawing on nostalgia for a bygone era, those in charge of the Leave campaign created a vivid vision for the country. One where Great Britain was Great again. Where, no longer hamstrung by a remote legislature, we could regain our sovereignty and with it, our independence and the freedom to control our own destiny and borders.

This intent, driven by shared values of Britishness, resonated with huge swathes of the country for whom a loss of national identity, immigration and globalisation, were a major concern.

A study undertaken post-referendum by NatCen, Britain’s largest social research agency, offers some enlightening insights. It found that:

  1. Leavers were those who see themselves as English rather than British (74%) or more English than British (62%).
  2. Matters of identity were equally if not more strongly associated with the vote to Leave — particularly feelings of national identity and sense of change over time.
  3. A group NatCen classified as the Older Working Class — those who identify strongly with British — were also most likely to vote Leave.
  4. Those who believed Britain has got a lot worse in the last ten years (73%) were also more likely to vote Leave.

In sharp contrast, the Remain campaign offered nothing with which to counteract the lure of Leave’s vision. Rather than a picture of unity and prosperity, we got sold a story of economic calamity. The plan was to scare people into action, but nobody really bought it.

The NatCen survey concludes, “there was a greater sense of certainty about the impact of leaving the EU on immigration and independence, compared with impact on the economy.”

Key Lessons for Marketers

  1. Your audience is on a journey. Find out what their desired destination looks and feels like.
  2. Clearly describe that future and your audience’s place in it.
  3. Connect your objectives with the realisation of their future.

Component 2: An Acute Awareness and Empathy for Your Audience’s Current Situation

People act according to their own selfish self-interest. This sees them gravitate towards and follow those who they feel have their best interests at heart.

The pull of these people becomes more acute when people are faced with problems they feel they can’t solve on their own.

The NatCen study found that people most likely to vote Leave were:

  1. Those with an income of less than £1,200 per month (66%)
  2. Those in social housing provided by a local authority (70%) or housing association (68%)
  3. Those finding it difficult to manage financially (70%) or just about getting by (60%)

More telling, the study found that, “participants who agreed that ‘politicians don’t listen to people like me’ were significantly more likely to vote Leave (58%).”

Leave messaging demonstrated an acute awareness and empathy for the things that weighed heavily on their target audiences’ minds.

Campaign videos and posters leaned into images of a failing health service, a country overrun by immigrants and the housing crisis. It didn’t just speak to the fears and concerns of the electorate. It confirmed a keen awareness for what their audience’s lives were actually like.

Leave campaigners clearly described their current situation and showed a deep solidarity for why it was not OK. Something successive governments had failed to do.

Suddenly the disempowered and disenfranchised had a champion. People in power who understood what they were going through and could put things right.

Once again, the Remain campaign was found wanting. You could argue that the scare mongering had exactly the opposite effect. It emboldened voters who saw voting Leave as a way of upsetting the status quo and resetting the world in their favour.

Key Lessons for Marketers

  1. People want to feel understood.
  2. They put their trust in the people they feel understand them.
  3. Demonstrate empathy for your market’s woes and they’ll believe you can set them free.

Component 3: A Root Cause that Resonates

Every movement needs a bad guy. A bogeyman who you can position as the root cause of your audience’s problems. Something that clearly connects with the pain they’re experiencing in the present moment.

For some, sugar is the enemy. For others it’s salt. For the Brexiteers, it was the EU.

Having so clearly captured the concerns of their audience, the Leave campaign’s next job was to establish the EU as the Big Bad. Something they did with relish.

Freedom of Movement, the cornerstone of the European ideal was an easy culprit for uncontrolled immigration, the erosion of British values and the unsustainable pressure on the NHS.

The corrosion of our independence and sovereignty was blamed on the remote legislature whose powers they said were inexorably on the rise. Then there was the matter of the huge sums of money leaving the UK to line the pockets of the EU’s unelected Eurocrats.

The £350m that would be so much better spent on our ailing NHS. Money for which we enjoyed no obvious benefit and was therefore being wasted. More Fat Cats taking advantage of real people.

The Remain campaign tried to counter with their own big numbers. The job losses, the negative impact on the economy that could run into the £billions and a currency thrown into freefall.

But these intangible, incomprehensibly big figures could not compete with the very real challenges felt by ordinary people, for whom the economy had little bearing on their daily lives.

Key Lessons for Marketers

  1. Before people can move forward, they must first see what’s holding them back.
  2. Clearly link their current circumstances to the behaviours and beliefs you want to replace.
  3. Show. Don’t tell. Let them connect the dots for themselves.

Component 4: Affirmative Action Your Audience Can Take to Quickly Trigger Momentum

Running a marathon. Writing your first novel. Building an online audience of avid fans. All huge undertakings that require hard work, determination and dedication.

Lay out the enormity of effort involved in completing any one of these tasks upfront and few would likely take on the challenge.

But give someone some simple behaviours they can follow that will quickly deliver demonstrable results and they are more likely to put in the effort.

People like quick wins. They also like it when they are easy.

As is becoming abundantly clear, the road to Brexit is neither quick nor easy. It is fraught with complexity, confusion and complication.

The claim that striking a new trade deal with the EU will be ‘one of the easiest in human history’ made by one leading Brexiteer will go down in history alongside ‘home by Christmas’ as we come to realise the woeful inadequacy of the two-year timescale.

Already over half way through the process, we’ve only recently cleared the first hurdle and there are many more to come.

None of that mattered in the lead up to the Referendum.

The right to take control of our borders. The end of the freedom of movement. And the promise of £350 million diverted from Europe and available to spend on the NHS sealed the deal.

Voters simply connected the dots. They could clearly see how their actions would deliver the vision set out by the Brexiteers.

All Remain had to offer was more of the same. Business as usual.

Suddenly, there was an answer to all their frustrations and Brexit was the lever they had to pull that would make everything right.

So, they pulled it.

Key Lessons for Marketers

  1. People like quick wins.
  2. Make the wins easy to achieve and people will take the action you want them to take.
  3. Help them make tangible progress early and they’ll trust you to take them the rest of the way.

This article first appeared on Marketing Profs on February 28th, 2018.

Convert Your Customer Insight into Compelling Content

Making an impact in today’s crowded B2B marketplaces isn’t easy. Not just because of the noise. But because people are adept at shutting the din out. Creating the kind of persuasive content that triggers positive, affirmative action, requires a precise process. A process we have captured in a new guide:

How to Craft Content Campaigns that Inspire Action. You can get your complimentary copy here.

About Alex Moscow

Alex is the owner of 9mm Public Relations, a strategic communications consultancy that helps B2B businesses build profile, pipeline and profits. By helping his clients to demonstrate the value of their skills, knowledge and expertise, he’s helped build pipeline worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Photo by David Dibert on Unsplash



Alex Moscow

I help ambitious business owners to showcase your value, enhance your message and attract ideal clients & employees.