Britain’s stunning vote to leave the EU yields this basic message: No matter how diverse and interrelated society has become, people still want to belong to something familiar. They like having their own country, their own language, their same ol' flag.
I won’t delve into the psychology of this phenomenon. Disparage it as atavistic tribalism if you wish. Tie it to dark fears of ancestors prowling the earth in tiny bands beset by famine and beasts. Whatever its roots, the instinct to cluster together in familiar settings calms the blood and squirts out waves of whatever hormones turn human lips into a smile.
Brand marketers beware. June 24—last night's British Independence Day—has three lessons:
1 Little is big.
There is something to be said for small and knowable. Gigantic, faraway companies run according to sophisticated metrics may not be the best magnets of consumer love. Mom ‘n pop, start your store! You may have a competitive edge.
2 Localness is universal.
A global company that acquires a local competitor—e.g. financial giants gobbling up regional banks—should think twice before obliterating the local name and culture. Everyone hates “the big banks.” People might cut bankers some slack if they still looked and acted like Marine Midland or Republic National Bank of New York or Credit Commercial de France, all of which were ground into the ghastly monolith called HSBC.
3 Force is feeble.
Forcing customers to do things often fails. The EU bureaucracy's imposition of rules, regulations and mass immigration sparked a populist revolt. The annals of marketing are filled with examples of Coke, Netflix and other big brands telling customers to change their habits… and then having to back-track and apologize.
But the real lesson of Brexit comes from brand marketing to international politics: “Listen to your customers”—a tiresome platitude of marketing! The EU bureaucrats and Britain’s political elite did not heed this lesson. They dictated to their British customers, and last night those customers told them to go to bloody hell.