European City of Brussels

With less than 24hrs until polls open, there’s very little else to discuss other than the EU referendum. Our view – from this far-flung corner of the UK – is that a vote to leave the EU would make the UK a less prosperous and vibrant place to live and do business. We like the fact that small businesses can seamlessly work with clients across Europe. We also welcome alternative perspectives, new ideas, multi-cultural diversity and a work ethic that forces us to consider our own. Perhaps most significantly though, we believe we’re stronger together – free-flow of knowledge, skills, expertise … even our responsibility to each other.

Many of Britain’s largest companies have now publicly declared whether they are ‘in’ or ‘out’, whilst many of those who have remained neutral have faced criticism for not having a view.

Most definitely ‘in’ is Sir Richard Branson, who has registered his own campaign with the Electoral Commission, indicating a spend of over £10,000 – a significant commitment to communicating on this issue.

The Virgin brand has a reputation for being bold and innovative and treating staff with respect. The company have invested time and money into getting their communications about the referendum absolutely spot-on. Their key messages are around creating the best possible UK for future generations and urging Virgin’s 50,000 staff across the UK to vote to stay in … absolutely re-enforcing all we already know about the Virgin brand.

Economics aside, taking the decision to publicly voice a view on something so important takes guts – the longterm impact of where businesses ‘hang their hat’ may not be known but you can bet that any backtracking or inconsistencies down the line will have a significant impact on customer confidence and brand reputation. 

Business leaders who have voiced their views know the risks but also understand the importance to their brand credibility of having a clear and consistent stance. Responsible employers feel compelled to communicate with the people that work for them – helping them to understand how the result of the referendum could influence their lives. This week we have seen many bosses writing open letters, imploring staff to vote a particular way for the benefit of the business – attempting to give people practical information on the impact of the outcome.

That said, being incorrectly aligned with the wrong ‘side’ is potentially damaging for a brand  – hence this week Nissan have started legal action against Vote Leave for wrongly including their logo on campaign materials. The company, which has publicly been pro-EU since February was furious to be so grossly misrepresented. Instigating legal proceedings has protected the integrity of their brand.

In contrast, there are many large UK companies operating in Europe that have to date remained neutral – usually citing: “it is for the people to decide”. Keeping a low-profile because you’re worried about polarising customers or splitting your boardroom might seem like good cause to keep quiet but frankly, if you operate across Europe, not having a public opinion just doesn’t seem right.

Looking at the bigger picture, perhaps not having an opinion is more damaging to a brand. Honesty and consistency are so important to customers and it just doesn’t feel right that big businesses, who are operating at a significant level across Europe can’t offer the benefit of their experience or worse still, won’t publicly give their opinion. 

Companies operating in Europe, must have a pretty good idea about whether remaining in the EU is economically beneficial. Saying nothing leaves a big hole and many unanswered questions … Do they care about their European operations? Do they have the knowledge and leadership to understand the economic impact of leaving the EU? Is the company saying nothing because internally they can’t agree on a stance? Can’t they offer some clarity or viewpoint around such a significant issue that affects us all?!

Successful brands thrive on opportunities to engage with their audience. They’re able to do this in a strategic and co-ordinated way because they’re already very clear about who they are, what they do and why they do it. When you have this absolute clarity around your business, finding your corporate ‘voice’ and expressing a view becomes second nature. Communicating on the issues that count, no matter how complex or politically sensitive, should be straightforward.