Brexit through the gift shop

woman tough

Theresa May says she wants a Hard Brexit.

The Irish Taoiseach, on the other hand, doesn’t want a Hard Border. But he can’t bring himself to say what he does want, which, logically, is a s*ft border.

He can’t say it because in the hard-knock world of politics and business, who’d be s*ft enough to admit they want the s*ft option?

To some, being described as ‘soft’ is the ultimate insult.

Chris, our Founder, used to work with an art director, who thought like that. Being ‘soft’ didn’t just mean you were physically vulnerable, it meant your mind was so unmade up, it could be shoved and shaped by anyone. Chris’s art director was given a brief to launch a new sub-brand of butter, one that was spreadable direct from the fridge. It was called ‘soft butter’. The art director, who was highly skilled and highly-awarded, was so conflicted about the proposition that he couldn’t find his way out of imagery showing things like floppy 6” nails, no longer fit for purpose.

A Hard Brexit sounds good. A Hard Brexit sounds like – feels like – we’re leaving the EU the way the White Hat cowboy leaves the saloon. The hard heels of his boots striking the hard-wooden floor, the work-hardened palm of his outstretched, rigid arm pushing back open those flimsy swing doors. Yep, a Hard Brexit sounds like we’re leaving the EU the way we came in: standing tall, all eyes on us – not tip-toeing out softly. And definitely not limply. Not dead.

With Hard Brexit, metaphor is at work and leaders love metaphors. While making life simpler for the rest of us, metaphors build a miasma of meaning while allowing ‘justifiable deniability’ later on down the line.

But there’s something else at work with the Hard Brexit metaphor. And it’s a lot more sly.

It’s the Brexit part of the metaphor.


In his 2004 book “Don’t think of an elephant: Know your Values and Frame the Debate” American linguist and political commentator George Lakoff proposed that our minds make sense of the abstract parts of our reality (love, loss, politics) by constantly referring to a small number of recurring metaphors, each of which are based on more concrete pieces of reality.  For example, the abstract notion of consciousness is viewed through the concrete metaphor of vertical movement, consciousness being ‘raised’ or ‘lowered’. And we can mentally accommodate the abstract notion of time once we start referring to something more concrete like relative positions (‘forward in time’).

In a recent interview, Lakoff (whose views are not swallowed whole – another metaphor – by other linguists) draws attention to Brexit’s use of the ‘exit’ metaphor:  Britain isn’t actually physically leaving somewhere. Instead, we are being encouraged to make sense of something complex and abstract like the legal, cultural and political connotations of leaving a Federalised superstate by referencing something concrete and everyday which is familiar to all of us, namely walking out of somewhere.

We all recognise and understand the metaphor of ‘exiting’: we walk into a coffee shop, get the coffee, leave the way we came in. The implication is that we stand outside the coffee-shop, post-exit just as we did before, though with a coffee in our hand.

But it won’t be true of Britain’s exit from the EU: we will not stand outside of the EU in the same state of mind as we were when we went in. We are a different nation in a different time. We will find ourselves standing outside Europe, having pushed through the swing doors with head held high, but finding ourselves suddenly just as confused as we are when we leave a train station through the wrong exit.

Anyone who thought they were turning the clock back by voting for Brexit will be disappointed.

Beware the metaphor. And as negotiations begin, one hope is that perhaps with sufficient hard bargaining, we might just be able to Brexit through the gift shop.

If you want to talk about how your brand can use metaphors for leverage, email Chris.