Is it time for a Brexit rebrand? - Hugh Lightbody

Businesses have been de-sensitised to the word Brexit, says Lightbody. Picture: TOLGA AKMEN/GETTY IMAGES
Businesses have been de-sensitised to the word Brexit, says Lightbody. Picture: TOLGA AKMEN/GETTY IMAGES
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When it comes to tackling the Brexit conundrum as a business, the best form of defence is a good offence, writes Business Gateway chief officer Hugh Lightbody.

You would be hard pushed not to have heard about Brexit over the last three years. In fact, “Brexit” was uttered 507 million times over 92 million conversations daily in the UK, according to Channel 4 research earlier this year.

In Scotland over the past month, according to Google Trends, Brexit has been searched up to four times more often than current headline grabbers like Great British Bake Off, Lewis Capaldi or Greta Thunberg.

Despite this continuous wave of noise, a new survey of 896 scale-up and growth businesses supported by Business Gateway, highlights that more than half (51 per cent) of respondents do not think they are prepared for Brexit. Perhaps even more concerning, although 74 per cent of businesses felt that Brexit would have a negative impact on their business, more than half (52 per cent) have failed to prepare at all.

With what many believe to be the single biggest political event of a generation potentially days away – an event which will have an impact one way or another for all businesses – it is concerning to see evidence of significant lack of preparation amongst Scottish small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Such a level of unpreparedness reflected across the wider SME map would pose a big challenge to business activity. In fact, 43 per cent of our respondents felt that they didn’t need to prepare at all.

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It appears that the new challenge for government and for support organisations such as Business Gateway is to break through this inertia and re-energise the conversation and momentum around Brexit.

Support is There

Not a simple task. Looking back at our survey, 64 per cent of respondents felt that regular updates about risks and opportunities would help them to prepare for Brexit, while 51 per cent felt that online tools and information would be useful. But such support is already out there.

Prepare for Brexit offers free advice delivered in partnership by Scotland’s enterprise and skills agencies. Just last week, the Scottish Government published a thorough overview of the impacts and recommended actions in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Meanwhile the UK government is spending up to £100 million on the UK’s largest ever public information campaign. Clearly something is not getting through.

Anecdotally, we know that the term “Brexit” has become a turn-off for some business owners, and this is reflected by our stark survey results, which show that although many businesses do not see Brexit as a positive force, they have not acted upon these concerns. Arguably the overuse of the word Brexit by politicians, pundits and the media alike has rendered the word meaningless.

Brexit rebrand

In May this year, The Guardian pledged to change its language on the environment to more accurately describe the global environmental crises. For example, instead of “climate change” the publication is now referring to “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and in place of the traditional “global warming” it will use “global heating”.

Meanwhile, leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg issued a style guide to his staff, including a list of banned words such as “hopefully” and “unacceptable” - it certainly speaks to the power and meaning of language.

So, is it time for a Brexit re-brand? EU Exit, BrexLate, Brexodus? Whatever the term, deal or no deal, ultimately the outcome will have a lasting impact on all Scottish businesses.
Time is ticking for businesses taking the wait-and-see option. They need to think about what impact leaving the EU will have on their sector and their business. Seek advice. No matter the size of your business there are essential steps that you need to take to build your resilience before the UK leaves the EU.

As I’ve said before, business confidence wavers under the uncertainty and dire warnings of chaos and disruption, but the message is clear: hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Yes, it is a challenging time for Scotland’s businesses – uncertainty exists all around us – but it’s also a period of opportunity. Be prepared!

- Hugh Lightbody, chief officer at Business Gateway National Unit, Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.