A view from Alex Van Gestel

Emotion gave Leave vote the advantage

Something extraordinary has just happened. Emotion has been demonstrated to be the real winner in the Brexit debate, writes Alex Van Gestel.

Irrespective of your particular political persuasion and view of the arguments, the winning side used emotion more effectively. They understood the audience’s underlying fears and desires and used language that matched their psychology.

And this is despite the backdrop of rational counter-arguments. From the EU, from banks, industry experts, politicians and so on. The audience could be in no doubt that the rational arguments fell on deaf ears. In that way, Gove was right – no-one wanted to listen to "experts".

They were already feeling the issue – and not receiving information in the same way as the sender.

So why did the majority of our population turn their backs on sound economic arguments and vote with visceral emotion? What lessons can we, and brands in particular, learn from the success of the Leave campaign?

For fear of stating the obvious, we all need to remember that audiences – our customers – buy on feeling, not features. By taking the time to really listen – to "deep listen" – to customers, we can hear what they want to buy, not just what we want to sell.

And what they want to buy is, in many cases, an emotional and ideal sense of themselves in relation to the rest of the world. Brands as emotional stimuli, eliciting a predictable perceptual and behavioural response.

When the Leave camp said "immigration" it triggered a fear response in many of the audience’s minds. This is a fundamental psychological driver that trumps economic gain.

This is really no different from Volvo. When Volvo says "safety" many audience groups are triggered to feel notions of nurture, protection and familial responsibility. So what car will you buy when you have children? Again, this trumps economic considerations.

The car is worth the premium because it puts the emotional genie back into the bottle. It makes us feel that we are effective caregivers. It makes us feel a psychological benefit. We self-actualise as a consequence of the marketing message.

The message literally changes us and confirms us in the way we want to see ourselves and be seen by others.

But how many of us, as marketers and brand guardians, can say we really take the time to hear what our audiences or customers are feeling, behind what they are saying? How many of us really utilize "narratology" to tell our stories in ways that trigger planned and measurable emotional responses from our audiences?

And how many of us take the time to test this psychological "stimulus response" under clinical conditions before we jump into marketing? We talk a good game in the persuasion industry – but do we really deliver? Perhaps Brexit is a timely lesson to us all.

The Remain campaign benefited from some of the most highly regarded marketing experts in the world. But they lost. And perhaps they lost for this simple reason: they didn’t listen deeply enough. And if they did, they didn’t respond in kind, with a language designed to appeal to the emotional, rather than the rational. With a psychological pattern-match.

In 2008, Obama moved a nation towards "hope" by manifesting "change". This was his brand anchor. It unified all his touch points and converted them into relevant talk points. It pattern-matched the emotional cognitive bias as well as the rational need. He made change feel good, not threatening.

Because the audience understood change to be a positive emotional trigger, they were more open to all other subsequent rational arguments.

Political history has demonstrated the power that words have to move people en masse and effect radical change. As Simon Sinek so eloquently pointed out, Martin Luther King had a dream not a plan.

So how brands harness the power of words to create emotional value, not noise, is key.

There are many others talking about the need for "why?" at the heart of brands. But I wonder if it isn’t the need for an emotional "because". Ellen Langer, the American professor of psychology, has done much work in this area. The human brain is conditioned to respond automatically when there is a "because".

To cut-through our cluttered world with a clear verbal identity. To reassure the audience using verbal shorthand that their decision has a "why" at its heart.

The Leave side in this campaign successfully manifested a "because". And the "because" was emotionally charged. An emotional promise and feeling of liberation (Make Thursday Our Independence Day!). The Remain camp’s "because" was rational, anchored to notions of trade.

That is perhaps what won the debate this past week – emotion – and it is certainly worth considering as we find new ways to increase the efficacy of our brand marketing.

Alex Van Gestel is the chief executive officer at Verbalisation