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Unified campaign around fear is what led to Brexit

UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage poses in front of a new campaign poster in Clacton-on-Sea, eastern England on June 21, 2016.
Justin Tallis | AFP | Getty Images
UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage poses in front of a new campaign poster in Clacton-on-Sea, eastern England on June 21, 2016.

If you listen to marketing experts, the United Kingdom's decision to exit the European Union has one primary cause: The Brexit side ran a better advertising campaign, centered around citizens' love for their country.

"It was a very simple message that was very well repeated," said Ian Millner, co-founder and CEO of agency Iris Worldwide. "There was nothing rational about it. It was speaking to a heart and soul of a growing number of people in the U.K. that don't feel listened to."

Millner, who is based in London, said most successful ads are centered around emotion, specifically what people feel and how the product will affect their day-to-day lives. Brexit took that concept, and united its messaging around the fears of mainstream voters. It focused on concerns like providing for families and getting adequate benefits, like health care.

The remain side, however, took a different approach. Each party campaigning for Great Britain to stay brought up several points, highlighting historical analysis or economic theories. Experts believe the strategy went over voter's heads. (The British government estimated in 2013 that 47 percent of 17- to-30 year-old citizens had enrolled in a higher education degree program at some point in their lives.)

"I don't think the average Joe understands it," said Marian Salzman, CEO of Havas PR. "What he cares about is whether his pay packet is going to be the same every week. Is he going to be able to provide for his kids? He knows he's been waiting in long lines at the NHS," she said, referring the U.K.'s National Health Service.

Experts also pointed out that remain didn't leverage social media. According to a survey by YouGov of 4,772 adults, 75 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds said they voted to remain in the EU. Brexit heavily leaned older.

"Contrary views need to work exponentially harder to overcome the message of fear," said Joseph Anthony, CEO of Hero Group. "The pro-staying in the EU side needed to have more of a consolidated strategy, probably needed to find a way to come together and have a unified front in how they were going to reach young people."

Iris' Millner said remain campaigners were relatively silent on social media, perhaps believing that their opinions didn't matter. He added those who did show support online tended to be wealthier and more successful, like celebrities and politicians. Brexit supporters online, on the other hand, were more grass roots, relying on average citizens to share their views with friends and family, he said.

"(Remain) felt like someone more successful telling them what to do," Millner said. "It rather solidifies their resolve, and questions the facts or the issues. It's no debate at all: This was rooted very much in the divide between classes that now exists."