A brand lesson from the Referendum

It’s instructive to consider last week’s momentous political event in the UK, the Scottish Referendum, without getting all political because therein lies a valuable lesson for anyone building their business or building their brand.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to make the proclamation that a ‘no’ vote was on the cards all along. Yet actually, albeit for different reasons, a ‘no’ vote was on the cards all along.

Why? Because we are all inherently conservative.

And to reiterate, that’s conservative in a sense without the baggage of that particular Party. No, we become deeply conservative from the moment we are born, even the most radical of us, even those of us most ardent for the cause of change.

A contradication? No.

The roots of our conservatism lie in the way our brains shape and respond to the billions of stimuli we receive each moment from the time we are born. Practically, we have to deal with thousands of pieces of data each day: most, so insignificant that we deal with them on ‘autopilot’; others requiring consideration, concentration, greater thought, our ‘rational’ minds. Yet, the data we deem insignificant today was once significant in our lives. ‘How do I get from here to there?’ ‘I need to learn to lift myself up and move forward, one foot in front of the other’. Walking? No thought today. Not the same when you were 1 year old.

We spend our lives dealing with the data, learning ways of thinking and doing, making decisions. Think of these actions like hundreds of thousands of algorithms or macros designed to help us operate efficiently. Macros that whirr in the background, letting us concentrate on the ‘big stuff’.

These macros become pathways in our brains: well trodden paths that make navigating through life easier. As we re-tread the paths, so they become deeper and more ingrained; so we become more likely to take that path that we have created: why use someone else’s route when I have my own (and it’s better!)? We become, in the brain theory parlance, anchored to beliefs and behaviours.   We become inherently conservative around the beliefs and behaviours that we create and learn.

Which is why the apparent contradiction isn’t really so. If you are brought up or become a radical thinker, then you will become anchored to being radical. It will become your modus operandi. You will, perversely, become conservatively attached to the idea of being radical. The pathways in your brain will support the very notion.

Indeed, these ways of operating and thinking seem ordered and perfectly rational to us, but to someone else may look bonkers (so many examples are beautifully brought to life in Dan Ariely’s ‘Predictably Irrational’ –it’s worth looking up). These little ticks or biases become part of us: some will be highly individual; others become common across groups or people, even across societies. Ways of believing; ways of thinking; opinions, perceptions, culture.  This is what the Prime Minister’s ‘Nudge Unit’ was designed to understand and influence: the belief (which in many cases was proven) was that if you can understand the way people have learnt how to behave then you can nudge it.   Look out for example for the life size cut out Policemen in petrol stations. There is evidence of Mr Cardboard Policeman reducing shoplifting by 75%*

So with the referendum, the Yes Campaign had to overcome the trillions of billions of mental pathways that have got used to living their lives in the Scotland they knew. It’s not to say it wasn’t insurmountable but you would have to ‘Drop a Bomb in the Water’ as a famous Scottish ad agency Creative Director once said to me. They nearly did, just not big enough.

And so too with brands: it’s no good bandying around grand promises of ‘re positioning’ a brand without understanding the depth and strength of the mental pathways around it. Millions of Pounds of advertising revenue have gone into building Beanz Meanz Heinz or Work Rest and Play. If you walk away from associations like that you need a big wallet and a long term perspective. Successful repositioning? My money would be on a ‘No’.















*In Asda, Leigh, Lancs, 2010.

IMG_1067David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 7885 408367;; @crowflieshigh.


© The Crow Flies, 2014