A marketing lesson from the Scottish referendum

September 2014

Some of you reading this will already know that I live in the north of Scotland, and anyone reading this from anywhere in the world will know that this month has seen a momentous day in the history of Scotland: a referendum to determine if the country should remain part of the United Kingdom or become independent. Of course we now know that the No campaign won the day and by a reasonably convincing margin, but what I want to briefly explore here is the role of marketing in each of the two campaigns, and why a fundamental rule of modern-day marketing ultimately helped determine the result.

The first thing to say is that the Yes campaign, on the face of it, had the better story. It was one of optimism, hope and pride. Indeed, the only thing to remove a smile from Alex Salmond’s face or change the ‘good news’ tone of his voice would be a relatively challenging question from a BBC reporter, or a debate with Alistair Darling. In contrast, the No campaign was underpinned by a sense of doom and gloom if the country gained independence, and any talk about ‘better together’ was somewhat tarnished by the reality of what we already know. So in other words everyone in Scotland already knows what it’s like to be part of the UK – good and bad – but not being part of it was something of an unknown.

Next up to consider is how socioeconomic groups lined up with each of the two campaigns. This table shows a good indication from some 9 months before the big day, and actually the figures were broadly the same come September.


So what we’re really looking at here is the ‘haves’ largely voting no, and the ‘have nots’ largely voting yes. My business contacts and friendships in Scotland not only confirmed this position, but actually it was more pronounced. I was aware of a few people who were voting yes who were either self-employed or were in a management position, but not a single person who had their own business and employed people. Indeed, I was struck by the fact that the less folk had to lose, the far more vocal they were about voting yes, and the far more vocal they were when poring scorn on those that wanted to retain the union.

And it’s the latter point which, for me, started to undermine the Yes campaign, because although the words from the politicians were focused on the positives of independence, the words of the masses – and widely expressed on social media platforms – were too often downright nasty. So if a Yes supporter came onto a Facebook page to sensibly debate with predominantly No supporters, then they’d probably get a reasonable reception. But if a No supporter tried to the same with predominantly Yes supporters, then they’d seriously risk a torrent of abuse. And note that I’m using the word ‘probably’ in both scenarios because there were of course plenty of exceptions either way, but there’s no question that grassroots support for the Yes campaign had a decidedly nasty side to it. Why? Well you don’t have to know too much about the basics of nationalism and people on lower incomes to work that out.

But, ultimately, it wasn’t the belligerent words of too many Yes supporters that lost them their campaign, it was the simple fact that the campaign lacked substance on the most important of issues: the currency an independent Scotland would adopt. This issue couldn’t of course just be seen in the context of what the name of the cash would be when used at the supermarket checkout or in a Glasgow bar on a Saturday night, but mind-blowingly important and complex issues around fiscal policy and, for example, the ability to borrow huge sums of money on the global financial stage. Of course if you have little to lose in life then these things don’t really matter, but if you have a whole lot to lose then they most certainly do.

The world we now live in means that it’s actually pretty difficult to pull the wool over the eyes of the majority. So when Alex Salmond was telling us that, effectively, the whole currency issue would sort of work itself out, then all we had to do was go online, Google the subject, and 101 respected economists would state that he was wrong. And very wrong at that.

If, hypothetically, the referendum had been held in decades past and ahead of our permanently online world, then perhaps the result might have been different. But the fact of the matter is that however upbeat and optimistic your marketing message is, you now have to have substance and clarity behind it.

Would you buy a new BMW on the promise that it ‘should’ be well made and ‘shouldn’t’ break down in bad weather? No, me neither.

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