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Divisive donation

20 August 2018 | Lloyd Hughes

There’s nothing more divisive than a referendum campaign, as we’ve been experiencing in the UK in recent years. Usually comprised of a simple yes or no vote, they’re designed to polarise. You’re either for something or against it.

In the UK, the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 was the forerunner, and served to underline how partisan people can get in looking to achieve the result they want. The aggression and downright nastiness from some (on both sides) was horrendous, with online bullying and abuse rife. Indeed, 4 years later, it’s still apparent on Twitter and Facebook even with the result seemingly ‘settled’.

With the Brexit vote coming into play though, this nastiness has spread throughout the UK.

At a very basic level, Brexiteers were (and still are) labelled as thick, racist and uneducated. Remainers were (and still are) labelled as the sneering, liberal elite with no respect or understanding for the working classes. Abuse has flown, and continues to flow, thick and fast on both sides.

What I find particularly interesting about the EU referendum though is that it spans the party divides. Conservatives are seen as more likely to support a leave vote (although not necessarily), while Labour are pretty much a mixed bag. Only the Lib Dems (of the three major UK parties) are firmly pro remain. There’s been much publicised interparty warfare in regard to which side to support, with some MPs backing leave, while others back remain.

Jeremy Corbyn has been ambiguous about his stance on Britain’s position in the EU. With much of Eastern Europe right-leaning, many observers believe he’d be campaigning for Brexit if he wasn’t leader of the Labour party, hamstrung by the fact that many of his supporters are the young – a group who voted overwhelmingly for remain. If he did pin his political colours to the mast, he’d risk alienating a core section of his support with the potential for them to back the Lib Dems – the one party pushing for a second referendum. On the flip side, many of the traditional Labour voting working classes opted out of the EU, so declaring himself pro-remain could send those voters into the arms of UKIP. All of which, means it’s a tricky political path to tread.

One person though who, over the weekend, hasn’t been shy of pinning their political colours to the mask is Julian Dunkerton – co-founder of Superdry clothing. Reportedly worth more than £400m, it’s fair to say he has a bob or two floating about.

It emerged in the news yesterday that he’d donated £1m to the People’s Vote Campaign – a political movement that is pushing for a referendum on Britain’s final exit deal with the EU. Note, they’re not calling it a second referendum on whether or not we stay in the EU, but a vote on whether to accept or reject the final terms. However, with one of those voting options bound to be ‘remain within the EU’, it’s effectively a re-run of the Brexit vote, but with more options (and probably weakening the Brexit vote if the option to leave is given multiple variants).

Julian Dunkerton, by donating to the People’s Vote Campaign has very much declared his political affiliation. And this, as we’ve mentioned before in blogs, is often a risky business if you upset a large proportion of your customer base.

On the one hand, inevitably, Dunkerton’s donation has been applauded by remainers, but decried by those who voted leave. For anyone so closely aligned with a company to declare their political allegiance, especially a company so consumer facing, is bound to have its perils.

Superdry has a mixed customer base (in starting off it was aimed at teenagers, most of whom have aged with the brand). Is it likely to have enough of an effect for people to opt out of buying from it?

Although Dunkerton is no longer actively involved in the running of Superdry he still has a large number of shares, so a boycott would undoubtedly hit him in the pocket. But is the online viciousness associated with the referendum likely to translate to a direct impact on sales?

Generally speaking, it’s not necessarily a bad thing taking a political stance. In the past Dunkerton has donated shares to the Blue Marine Foundation, something everyone can get behind and appreciate. Taking a side in a polarising referendum (the result of which has already been determined) though is definitely much more of a gamble.

I always admire people who are willing to take a stand for their beliefs, and Julian Dunkerton has undoubtedly put his money where his mouth is. So, in that regard, I applaud him for having the proverbial minerals to do so. Whether his donation is good or bad for the business remains to be seen (and may indeed have no effect at all). Either way though, the Superdry brand has been generating headlines, however whether it’s good or bad PR is very much in the eye of the beholder.