What can we learn from Brexit battleground storytelling?

So, it’s actually happening. The letter has been penned, signed and handed over. Britain’s Brexit has officially begun.

Regardless of which camp you identified with – and regardless of whether you have changed your mind – there is no denying that stories had a huge impact on the Brexit referendum. I am staunchly pro-Europe, and even I still marvel at the power of the stories spun by the Leave camp. These big, bold claims were designed to appeal to deep-rooted emotions and played to old school sales messaging and the ethos of red-top journalism: strike fear in the hearts and whip up a frenzy.

As we desperately search for a silver lining on this, Official Brexit Day 1, it’s worth looking at the two big stories that won the referendum for Leave. Are there lessons we can learn from the fallout and apply to our own storytelling?

There’s always something to learn from others’ stories.


“Fund the health system, not the EU”

"Brexit bus" in London with political slogan
The “Brexit Bus”, spinning NHS funding stories for the Leave campaign

The message

We give £350m each week to the European Union; that money would be better spent at home. Like, on the National Health Service.

Why it worked

The NHS is one of Britain’s crowning achievements: free healthcare at the point of access to anyone who needs it. It’s also almost 70 years old – the world was a very different place when it was formed. It’s struggling under the weight of today’s larger, older population. It needs money, and it needs it fast. Naturally, tapping into this and claiming that huge wads of cash could be diverted into the NHS post-Brexit would win the hearts and minds of those who need the free healthcare system the most: older people, and lower socioeconomic demographics. You remember the big red Brexit Bus, right? It was all over the media, as the Remainers demanded proof of the claims, and the Leavers kept on spinning their stories. And in the middle, the populace was listening.

How it unravelled

As The Independent reported earlier this year: “As soon as we did vote to leave, politicians backtracked and Nigel Farage denied ever making the promise. The Leave campaign quickly erased the promise from its website. In her Brexit speech last month, Theresa May failed to mention the NHS at all.” It was a line spun by a camp that perhaps didn’t expect the story to take off as it did. One by one, Leavers claimed they had been misled. They had changed their minds. They didn’t want to leave unless the NHS got more money. But it was too late; the damage was done.

What we can learn from the mess

Apart from think carefully about what you vote for, as there’s no turning back? It’s simple: authenticity is essential. Even if you think you have no chance of anyone listening, even if you think the only way to get attention is through grandiose statements, make sure you can back up the claims with cold, hard facts. Data may not be sexy, but it helps your credibility and ensures that audience you have ensnared doesn’t turn away at the first sign of trouble.


“Take back control of the borders”

The message

Immigration is not only out of control, but anyone can walk into the UK at any time. Leaving the EU will let Britain regain control of who enters the country.

Brexit advert showing large queue of people
UKIP’s anti-immigration messaging: hard to ignore

Why it worked

In an age of widespread terrorism and an increasing closed-mindedness, fear of the other is real. What better way to get people on your side than by playing to those fears? Tell the people that all the jihadis in France and Belgium are Syrian refugees – and with open borders, they could stroll over the white cliffs at any moment and bring the terror to our shores. It’s an easy story to get people aligned with: threaten their safety, and they’ll hang on your every word. It played to a global narrative that is scarily growing day by day.

How it unravelled

During the referendum, the cries of “what’s the plan” were largely drowned out by fearmongering on both sides. Post-vote, though, the lack of plan emerged quickly as the Leavers started bickering about what “leave” really meant. Key players started to argue about whether Britain would stay in the single market – and if staying in the single market meant that the borders needed to remain open. And if the borders remained open, and Turkey joined the EU, and…. You get the picture. This is a loose thread that is still not tied up, and will be a centrepiece of negotiations over the coming two years.

What we can learn from the mess

It’s tempting to go for the easy target, the dominant narrative, to grab the low-hanging fruit and stir up existing trouble to get attention. But you need to make sure you have a follow-through, and a back-up plan. Stress test your claims, put them through the wringer. Make sure they’re solid. And try not to jump on any bandwagons if you can avoid it – it’s hard to control that narrative.


Learning from Brexit: Be authentic, and be ready to back up your claims with cold, hard facts

Yes, it’s easy to argue that the world of politics is hardly something content marketers should look to for inspiration, but in reality politicians are some of the world’s greatest storytellers. There is definitely much to learn from the storytelling nous of the likes of Churchill, Obama, Mandela, Castro, de Gaulle, Whitlam – and much to watch as the storytelling triumph of Trump’s electoral victory unravels across the Atlantic. You may not agree with the politics of these individuals, but they knew how to tell a story. Watch and learn, and spin it for yourself.

So, step up to the podium. What’s your story?