“If I’d asked people what they wanted; I’d have made a faster horse.”
David Cameron must be wishing he’d heeded Henry Ford’s maxim. Having told the people what they should want, he got the wrong answer.
The reverberations from the Brexit vote are rippling out in all directions. Stock markets have gone into Zebedee mode, the Conservative party is deciding between naughty Boris and Head Girl Teresa, and Labour is riven by a level of internecine bickering that would impress Trotsky. The authority of pro-in public brands like the IMF, Bank of England, many business leaders – and obviously the EU itself – has been undermined.
So how has it come to this, and how can these ‘authority’ brands recover the poise and leadership that are central to their brands?
There has always been a sense of the historic about the EU project. In attempting to rise above national identities and change how the continent is governed, the EU has always felt it has a destiny. Unfortunately for the project, it has been following the same expansion pattern as the nations that came before it: an ambitious initial vision, with the development of an elite cadre suffused with belief, rapid expansion; but then tipping into arrogance, overreach, rigidity – and finally fracture.
So far so familiar; from the Romans, to Charlemagne, to the British Empire. But the extra element in this drama is the death of expertise. It’s this cultural change that made the difference between the UK voting ‘In’ or ‘Out’.
The UK’s traditionally deferential, hierarchical system was eroding long before the EU was conceived. It’s been fading ever since Wilfred Owen’s ‘Lions led by Lambs’ condemnation of aristocratic leadership in WW1, and the subsequent Lloyd George ‘people’s budget’ that diminished the Lords.
Both driven and enabled by rising incomes and education, a meritocratic and talent based culture has grown to replace it. Given a big push in the Thatcher era, what mattered was what you knew. The traditional British pride in amateurs was replaced by a horde of MBA wielding professional experts. It touched every sort of brand, from the City to manufacturing, from football to baking. Authority was derived from arcane, objective, expert knowledge, not position.
Recognised gurus – such as Jack Welsh and Alan Greenspan – guided public and business life. A new consensus appeared to have been reached, with these benevolent behemoths leading us all together to the sunny uplands of prosperity. The ascendancy of a new ‘Expert Authority’ brands seemed complete.
But then we had the GFC, and their authority dropped faster than the FTSE. Suddenly the consensus was punctured, and the brand equity of the experts went with a whoosh. Their credibility was shattered, and a sense of ‘them and us’ grew. Unfortunately they didn’t notice that our faith had evaporated. They thought things had gone back to ‘experts know best’ when stability returned (thanks to them, naturally).
When the EU vote came, these brands chose an extremely negative ‘experts know best’ campaign that looked down on the voter’s concerns. But the combined might of the UK’s Expert Authority brands in academia, economics, the PM, big business and banks, failed to chivy the UK into voting ‘In’. For large numbers of voters, they simply didn’t have the authority anymore.
Instead, what returned from the intellectual grave was voting by class, income and location; and a wholesale rejection of anything, any of the Expert Authority brands has to say.
Tired of being lectured by their supposed ‘betters’, the ‘out’ vote was a visceral roar of pain and rejection from the 52%.
So what should those managing the Expert Authority brands do next?
This is one area where many everyday business brands are well ahead of the experts. These brands have never presumed authority; they’ve had to keep proving it. If you say driving will be thrilling, then the car had better live up to that expectation. Authority is founded on expertise that delivers realistic, grounded results.
Brands have to inspire and influence. They should make people want to join, not scare them about being left out. All brands now need to comfortable with conversation, not presentation – social media has made brand building and advocate building one and the same. Authority brands need to articulate a positive vision.
So the Expert Authority brands need to change their tone, their message, and their proof points. They have to be less patrician, and more persuasive. They need a new style of leadership. I suggest that subtle, nudging ‘leadership by partnership’ is the right tone. It’s worked for The Queen – maybe the new authority brands could learn something from the old.