Which way is next month’s Referendum on Britain leaving the EU going to go? Opinion polls are split over whether we’re heading for Brexit or not. But you can get useful insight into the dynamics of the race by using other, more emotional methods.
We used our Storyteller tool – designed to help brands find the right story to tell – to look at what the underlying narratives motivating Brexiters and Remainers might be.
The results – set out in this case study – make clear why there’s not yet a clear outcome. It’s because neither side is convincingly telling the story the British people want to hear. And with a month to go, victory will go to the side that tells it best.
1. Finding Britain’s Current Story
Instead of directly asking about Brexit, we wanted to get at the deeper issues lying below the referendum debate. So we asked not about the referendum stories, but about the stories of Britain itself. What is Britain’s story, at this crucial moment in its history?
Every Storyteller project starts by establishing the Current Story – the archetypal narrative that people find most believable right now. We wrote our seven brief narratives, based on the Seven Basic Plots identified by Christopher Booker. We made sure none of them directly mentioned the EU or the Referendum, so people could project their own concerns onto the stories more easily. Then we found out which of them people think might come true.
In the case of Britain, there was a clear winner: Comedy. “Despite all its mistakes and problems, Britain will be fine in the long term.”
Comedy, as an archetype, is all about the happy ending. But it’s not a positive story. For brands it tends to win out when a brand has no clear direction but is too big to fail. That goes double for countries. When we expanded the story by mixing in consumer comments, this became very clear:
“I think Britain will be fine. Not great and not terrible. Not super happy, but not sad either. It depends who is running the country, and some say Britain has gone down too far to be able to get back up, but we will continue on whatever happens. There are no instant solutions in sight but the country has enough in reserve to keep above water. Maybe not thriving, but hopefully it’ll be OK. We will continue the way we are meant to. After all, we’ve been going for centuries and we’re still here.”
Britain, in other words, is keeping calm and carrying on. It’s a story that draws on centuries of continuity to stiffen its upper lip – but “maybe not thriving, but hopefully it’ll be OK” is not a vote of confidence! As Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters once sang, “hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”. He might have been one of our respondents.
So if the Current Story is the stoical Comedy, what is Britain’s Optimal story – the one that would make its people feel good?
2. A Tale Of Two Britains
If you’re a brand using Storyteller, the Optimal Story is the one you want to tell to boost Feeling around your brand and spur it on to higher growth. For a country, the benefits of a strong national story are more abstract, but no less real. If a political party or movement can harness the right story, it can make enormous gains.
But when we started investigating other possible stories for Britain, we immediately saw something very unusual. Normally in Storyteller, there’s broad consensus about which stories are believable across subgroups. People differ over the stories they want to come true. But they broadly agree over the ones that might.
Not so here. The charts above show how believable each story was among Remain and Leave voters, and there were gulfs in believability across several of the stories. Take Rebirth, for instance – “Britain will thrive in the 21st Century by returning to the values that made it great.” 70% of Leave voters thought this story might come true – it was one of their most credible. But more than half the Remain voters felt it couldn’t come true at all. There were similar large gaps on several other stories.
So while people might talk about security, jobs, or immigration as their reasons for voting Leave or Remain, the EU Referendum has touched on something even deeper – a sense of national identity or even destiny.
On the one hand, Britain as a proud part of a globalised future, drawing strength from its links with other countries (the Journey And Return story). On the other, Britain cutting its ties and standing alone, as it did in the past. (the Rebirth and Overcoming The Monster stories).
With two such polarised views, it’s no wonder the Leave and Remain camps have been so entrenched – and no wonder the rhetoric has become so heated, with Remain muttering about the Third World War and Leave invoking Hitler. When stories clash, sparks fly.
So what can the two sides agree on?
3. Finding Britain’s Optimal Story
Britain’s Optimal story has to be one that both Leavers and Remainers would feel is broadly credible, and makes them feel good.
Only one narrative fits the bill. It’s the archetypal Quest story. “Britain will thrive in the 21st Century by building a strong and fair economy”
Quest as an archetype is all about a big, difficult goal. We chose the economy as the goal simply because the “long term economic plan” was the central plank of David Cameron’s winning campaign at the 2015 election. And Quest is still Britain’s Optimal story. Almost 7 in 10 people think it could happen. When asked how people would feel if the stories came true, Quest scored easily the highest on Happiness – 49%, 11 points ahead of its nearest rival.
Let’s look at the consumer language around Quest to get a better read on it.
Everyone hopes for a strong and fair economy. There have always been those who do well and those who do not do as well, but there’s more incentive to work harder when workers are justly rewarded. It will not happen until government put aside politics and do what is right, but fair reward for hard productive work is what we should at least strive for. A strong and fair economy is the way forward – it will lead to a successful nation.
So in the Quest story, “strong and fair” isn’t about inequality, and certainly isn’t about macroeconomics and GDP. It’s about the individual link between hard work and fair reward. Break the link – by not rewarding hard work – and the Quest fails.
The job for Remain and Leave is simple. It’s the economy, stupid. If either of them can convincingly tell this Quest story – about the hard work – high reward economy of Britain’s future – they will win.
But can they?
4. Why Is Brexit Deadlocked?
We asked one final question in our Storyteller project. Which outcome – Leave, Remain, or Neither – would most help each story come true?
The results explain why, exactly, the Brexit debate has become so divided. Neither side is telling the right story.
Both campaigns are linked in the public mind to particular stories – very strongly in the case of Leave and the Rebirth narrative. That isn’t surprising, since heroic national renewal is the story they’ve been telling.
But neither of them has a clear lead on Quest, Britain’s Optimal Story. Remain may have the slimmest of advantages, but it’s really too close to call. Neither outcome is seen as making the strong and fair economy of Quest more likely.
This is a blow for Remain, who’ve been leaning heavily on the economy as a reason to stay in the EU. But they’ve been talking about the wider economy, raising the spectres of recessions and house price collapses. Quest is a positive story and to link yourself to it needs a new approach.
5. What Can Each Side Do?
Remain have been telling a Tragedy narrative – focusing on the decline that will occur if we vote to quit the EU. The Storyteller study shows this has been effective – the Remain side is seen as more likely to make this story come true. The problem is only 40% of people find the Tragedy narrative credible in the first place!
So Remain have to start telling a positive economic story around the Quest narrative. Perhaps they could let Cameron put hard work and fair reward in the big picture context of Britain’s recovery and free his more pro-EU allies from Labour and the Lib Dems to tell a story of how EU membership ultimately protects workers’ rights and pay packets.
What about Leave? They’ve been telling a Rebirth narrative – about Britain going back to the values that made it great. That galvanises their existing supporters but it doesn’t necessarily win the extra votes they need.
So they also have to tell the Quest story. Luckily for them, hard work is seen as one of those essential British values, which gives them a great way in to Quest. If they can sell leaving the EU as a way of restoring the fair link between work and reward, they can win.
With a month to go, there is still time for either campaign to shift their narrative and start telling a Quest storyline. We believe the one that does will have a huge advantage. What if neither of them do? That’s a problem for Remain, which has harnessed its wagon to Tragedy, a negative story few believe. Leave’s Rebirth narrative is highly divisive – but the people who like it, like it a lot.
As the proverb says, “The one who tells the stories rules the world.” In this case, the one who tells the stories should certainly win the vote.