This isn’t a post about Brexit. Promise. It’s about how B2B companies are preparing to market themselves and communicate across Europe post-Brexit, with emphasis on the “post”.
For two and a half years, Brexit planning by larger companies in sectors like financial services and tech has concentrated on how to trade after Brexit in line with new regulatory regimes, ensuring that clients can be served across the UK and the EU27 without disruption. Immense effort has gone into that exercise, with new offices opened, subsidiaries created, staff being transferred and so on.
Whether we end up with the current deal, or a “managed no-deal”, or something else, the strong likelihood is still that Brexit will happen on 29th March. Everything after that is “post-Brexit”. How well prepared are B2B companies to promote their services and tell their stories in that entirely new situation, both in the UK and in the EU27?
My experience is that less thinking has gone into that so far, perhaps because there had been an expectation of clarity about Brexit by this time. Yes, the vast public affairs work by firms has been about preparing for how to legally trade after Brexit. But the communications and marketing planning seems often to have been more about the present - “what do we say about Brexit, if anything, if asked?”. No doubt a lot of external client communications planning is in place, but it seems largely around explaining to current customers how they will be served after March 29th.
What might be overlooked is that Brexit, whatever its exact form, will see the birth, or rather the unveiling, of a huge economic relationship: the UK-EU27 relationship. Along with USA-China, USA-Canada and US-Europe, UK-EU will be one of the biggest business relationships or trade corridors in the world. That requires new, compelling messaging and marketing from most firms trading in the UK and EU27.
For B2B companies in fields like financial services or financial technology, I offer some broad observations about this challenge. Mainly I’m thinking of companies with an HQ in the UK, or with a European HQ in the UK.
- Understanding “Brussels”, in terms of policy and attitudes to business and technology, becomes more, not less, important after Brexit. If it’s your biggest market but you’re not “in the room”, then you need to know more to compete. Understanding individual countries, especially Germany and France, is also vital – the EU27 are not a homogenous block.
- “EMEA” is still a useful concept but inevitably changes a bit. Now the “EMEA” region has a really big economy outside the EU27. Marketing strategies that see EMEA purely through a UK lens will seem outmoded.
- It will be harder to demonstrate that you have a truly EMEA strategy if your people and your marketing assets are very largely in the UK. Not just in terms of regulation, but in terms of market understanding and a story that genuinely reflects the EU27 in its diversity. For US B2B companies in particular, who have often expanded successfully in Europe with good products but without a highly localized story, this will be a challenge. The big consultancies will be quick off the mark with white papers and research, but there will be a scramble by many others to position themselves and get out relevant post-Brexit content.
- European media – meaning EU27 media – will become more important. Simply relying on “pan-European media” won’t be enough. London bureaux of European outlets will be beefed up – indeed many London foreign correspondents have already written books on Brexit in German, French, Dutch, Italian. But companies will also need to get out to specialist beat reporters in Europe’s major financial centres (which won’t just mean Frankfurt and Paris). Probably US media outlets, without abandoning London, will seek to have more editorial staff in the EU27.
- The month and week of Brexit itself will see innumerable opportunities for companies to talk about their plans and experiences. From Retail Week to The Guardian, not to mention Bank und Markt and Les Echos, there will be a plethora of features and bylines for companies and commentators with something to say.
- After that, there will be new regular columns, new media beats, quite possibly some new publications - all about how Brexit is working practically for businesses, both those based in London and those in the EU27.
- Trade promotion bodies and government and city agencies across Europe are already actively marketing their local strengths. This will continue, but I suspect with increasing focus on mutual benefit rather than a zero-sum game of finance sector jobs. The story will be about growing the EU-UK trade relationship.
- All that said, firms selling in the EU27 need to realise that post-Brexit, the post-Brexit story itself is only one topic among many European business and economic issues. EU27 issues, such as the EU Capital Markets Union initiative, will come to the fore again in the media, having been overshadowed by Brexit. In financial services above all (but also tech), Brexit is going to be a spur for the EU to raise its game in terms of innovation and market growth.
- Finally - the English language, ironically, has overwhelmed French as the working language of the EU in the last decade. That won’t change. But the need for marketing materials and communications in multiple languages, and with the right localized content, is only going to increase.