The Scottish Referendum of 2014 will be remembered as being an ill-tempered affair that almost split a nation. On a more positive note, it also gave rise to what I believe to be a first – a mass involvement piece of political experiential marketing.
Rory Stewart, an independently-minded Conservative MP, came up with an idea that enabled pro-Union voters to physically express their desire for the continuation of the Union.
Hands Across the Border was the name given to the project. The idea was simple – to build a stone cairn on the English-Scottish border as a testament to the Union.
The cairn was named ‘Auld Acquaintance’.
Individuals, families and travellers from all across the world were invited to visit the field near Gretna, at the westernmost point of Scotland’s border with England, and add their stones until the cairn reached 9ft in height.
It now stands as a permanent reminder to the world’s most successful political union.
As Stewart himself says “If you dig into the cairn you will find layer upon layer of stone, carved, painted, engraved all the way down to the ground. It is an extraordinary 100,000-line poem to Britain.”
Stones were brought from all over the United Kingdom, and from as far away as Burma, Texas and Western Australia.
There is an estimated 130,000 stones in the structure. That, by any brand’s standards, is audience participation on a grand scale.
The Hands Across the Border website not only hosted photographs of people placing their stones, it was also home to poetry and recordings of people saying what the Union meant to them. And of course, with the hashtag #HandsAcrosstheBorder the inevitable selfies were posted far and wide on Twitter and Instagram.
As a PR tool the cairn was hugely successful. It grew and changed as the campaigning went on. Musicians played within its walls and schoolchildren shuffled in for poetry readings. It had an undeniable air of positivity about it.
And of course, it was ripe for celebrity endorsement.
And on the day after the Referendum, when the Scots voted a resolute No, there was a flag-raising ceremony that was reminiscent of the Stars & Stripes being raised on Iwo Jima.
As a piece of political brand theatre, Hands Across The Border stood head and shoulders above any other activity organised by either the SNP or the Unionists.
It has grace, and it has dignity. Two characteristics that are all too often missing from the political arena.
But most important of all, it had an idea behind it. A big idea. One that touched hearts and minds.
Will this be a one off, or will the politicians and their spinmeisters learn the lessons and surprise us all at the next election?
We’ll find out soon enough.