Barbers, Brexit and Brands

Penny Harris of Butterfield Harris – a bespoke brand, communications and innovation consultancy – ponders the issue of Brexit knock–ons for brand values and positioning.


Sitting in a small town barber’s shop the other day while my nine-year-old son was shorn of his locks, my stomach knotted as the topic of conversation between the scissor-wielding stylists turned to Brexit. Voicing their views, they seemed confident that the handful of waiting customers would be in complete agreement with everything they had to say.

Nobody looked up or nodded along. But equally, nobody joined in.

I found myself examining the 40-something dads, the over-muscled 20-something, and the two elderly gents tucked in a corner. I wanted to slot them neatly one side of the Brexit fence or the other..

The experience got me thinking about the early days of my marketing career. During after-work drinks my colleagues and I would sit and forensically dissect our fellow drinkers’ lifestyles, attitudes and personalities based on the handful of items they might casually place on the table before sitting down. Key fobs, wallets, cigarette brand, pens, phones (if they had one in those days), their choice of beer – all were used as clues to build what were no doubt sometimes fanciful stories and pictures of these unknowing drinkers.

But I like to think that, more often than not, we were close to the truth.

Because, consciously or subconsciously, we all use brands to signal to others our sense of self, our values and how we wish to be perceived. The display of those brands has arguably become more subtle and sophisticated since my table-top bar game, but we still use brands as a kind of code for other, particularly like-minded, people to decipher. And perhaps endorse.

So now that Britain’s heart beats with not one, but two different pulses – for politicians and marketers alike to try and keep their fingers on – what trends might we see developing as ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’ set out to signal their very different allegiances?

On the one hand we might recognise the appeal of brands that authentically stand for, or display traditional British values or nostalgia for an idealised past (take a look at the latest Walkers ads for example). We might see more brands stressing British craftsmanship, or that their provenance is uniquely British. Perhaps such brands will celebrate unashamedly quirky British traits, or seek to capture the ‘British Bulldog’ spirit of standing strong in the face of adversity.

The other pulse might beat faster for brands that signal their global connectivity, or that remind us of our shared human qualities regardless of the colour of our passport. More broadly, perhaps we will recognise brands that prompt discovery and exploration, or that celebrate diverse cultures. Maybe these will be brands that make us feel part of something bigger, or that link us with like-minded communities all over the world. Despite their recent travails, take a look at the recent Facebook ads for a good example of this approach.

The quandary for brand owners is whether they set out to understand and consciously develop the ‘signaling equities’ of their brands, maybe even taking an overtly political stance like fashion brand Jigsaw with its pro-immigration ads.  Or whether they steer a determinedly neutral course that runs the risk of mediocrity, or even hijack by one side or the other.

It’s probably not difficult to decode which pulse my heart beats with, but if you have seen the recent HSBC global citizen ads, you’ll understand why using my bank card at the barbers has become a statement in itself.