Brexit, Trump, and the dumbed down brand

If you’re a brand builder, your goal is to build a simple brand – not a dumbed down brand.

The rationale is easy to grasp. A brand is designed to simplify complex concepts. But in the real world, oversimplification isn’t always smart.

This applies directly to ‘brands’ being built on the geopolitical stage.

Britain voted with a simple  Yes / No referendum to abandon membership in the EU, a partnership that had a multidimensional, complex impact on the lives of ordinary citizens – an impact that is just now coming to light.

By the same token, Donald Trump has demonstrated his willingness to show experts the door, bringing in inexperienced ‘fresh’ talent to replace them. The effect, if you look at his government’s legislative record, has been dismal.

How did we get here? Why are we suddenly allergic to complexity? And how can tools like communication help us embrace nuance? Ben Cattaneo, a Canadian risk expert living in London, joined me in a podcast for a lively conversation on the subject. You can hear our chat by clicking on the podcast below, or skipping ahead to the conversation highlights.

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Big ideas on the dumbed down brand

There is a very strong economic argument that Brexit is a very bad idea. Half the UK’s exports go to the EU. After Brexit, it’s like saying “We’re going to get rid of our best customer, and go cold-calling instead.” What’s more, existing trading relationships with Europe will be encumbered by new complexities like WTO rules and tariffs.

As Einstein said, the goal is to make everything as simple as possible – but not too simple.

There are more complications. Scotland recently held a very tense referendum and voted to stay in the UK. Now Scotland has voted to stay in the EU – contrary to England’s Brexit vote. What this means is that Scotland may have grounds for another referendum, and the UK could be split. Next stop: Balkanization of the UK, as unions disintegrate.

Parts of the UK that had high levels of immigration voted to stay in the EU, and the parts that didn’t have high levels of immigration voted to leave. It came down to the ‘leave’ camp getting out to vote. The arrogance of the ‘stay’ group led to overconfidence and lower turnout. In addition to this critical gaffe, the ‘leave’ campaign had a significantly easier pitch. When a politician has been in power for a length of time, it’s often far easier to motivate voters to ‘get them out’. The anti-vote is easier to drive.

In the UK, the dumbed down idea was to regain past glory. As captivating as the idea was, it was in an unwinnable fight with reality.

Cattaneo gets the sense that the ‘leave’ campaign played on the English yearning for past glory. Bringing back the past was very much a driving force. But that past has been idealized –  does the UK really want to go back to the age of coal?

It’s true the EU is under some strain, and not just because of Brexit. There’s talk that maybe the EU won’t be around in 10 years. It doesn’t want to have France or Netherlands leave. So it’s going to do what it can to punish the UK for leaving.

The EU is more than a trade agreement. It’s about the free movement of labour. At Starbucks in London, you’re served by young people from Italy or Poland. London is the sixth largest French-speaking city in the world. What happens to these people – people who are making a valuable contribution to the British economy?

For Boris Johnson, stirring up the ‘leave’ vote was all about making a run for Prime Minister. In the end, it turned into a Game of Thrones, and he didn’t get his wish.

Is it possible to even have a referendum on a question as complex as EU membership? This is an issue that is hypercomplex on so many fronts, it’s difficult to imagine the average voter being able to give an opinion that is balanced and thought through. What we’re voting on here are sound bites.

Michael Gove, one of the leaders of the ‘leave’ camp, famously said that we’ve had enough of experts.

No expert has a problem with simplification. But a dumbed down brand rejects experts.

In a world driven by sound bites and attention-grabbing, experts have a hard time being heard. For a start, they don’t make great predictors. Their predictions are nuanced and complex. They don’t provide the same degree of certainty that a prediction by Boris Johnson would.

Is there any hope for simpler communication? You have to develop the ability to tell a compelling story with substance. You have to develop critical thinking skills to parse the sound bites from the substance.

A lesson from – Amazon’s mission is to make things simple for people. But people have different visions of simplicity. Whether that’s easier ordering, easier delivery, etc. You can apply that thinking to viable referendums. Can you break hypercomplex questions into a number of micro-questions, like the Swiss do? That way, people can get a better grasp of the issues, and make a better-informed decision.

Quotable quotes from the dumbed down brand interview

“There’s a quote in the Economist this week to the effect that Brexit is a faith-based exercise. And that’s what it feels like. Because nobody has defined what Britain outside the EU is going to look like, what it’s going to be as a nation. In fact, what we’re seeing is that people who voted Leave are hoping to bring back the old Empire.”

“I’m seeing the rise of jingoistic BS. We’re going to bring the empire back, the EU needs us more than we need them.”

“Trading with Jamaica? Trading with Australia? Does that make more sense than trading with France and Germany?”

“During our soul-searching, we started to ask ourselves what the heck we could trade with the world. Jam and biscuits? The reality is, London is a financial centre, and that demands strong relationships – relationships that the EU provided.”

“A large population of people from across the EU work here, and pay taxes. They’re predominantly young people. The people from the UK who are living elsewhere – particularly in Spain – are pensioners. If they come home, our economy will suffer. We’ll lose good, productive taxpayers, and gain people who are retired, and have disproportionately higher needs for things like healthcare.”

“We have representative democracy because we elect people to inform themselves and make decisions on complex issues. I don’t think a referendum like this, based on oversimplified sound bites, makes sense.”

“People like Trump offer certainty. ‘Only I can fix it.’ This is very seductive. Good experts are not soothsayers, or seductive. But they actually know how the world works.”

“People pay money for predictions. They don’t pay for nuance. The EU is all about nuance, and complexity. You can understand why people weren’t attracted to that and voted against it.”

“We can spend forever figuring out where this is all going to go. We don’t know.”

“We all have the ability to ask questions, and use logic. We all have the ability to tell a compelling story. We all have the ability to tell the difference between substance and soundbite. This is what we need to simplify communication.”

Notable mentions




Boris Johnson

Game of Thrones

Michael Gove

Futurebabble, by Dan Gardiner

Donald Trump

Greek and Portuguese austerity crisis

All Things Risk

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