U.K. CEOs Say Brexit Campaign Used Logos Without Asking

The Brexit Debate: What Happens if the U.K. Leaves the EU
  • Vote Leave leaflet sent to millions included brand emblems
  • Unilever, Airbus, GE complain to U.K. Electoral Commission

Major U.K. employers, including Unilever, Airbus Group SE and General Electric Co., complained to the Vote Leave campaign that their company logos were used in leaflets sent to millions of British voters that wrongly suggested they backed the U.K.’s exit from the European Union.

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Unilever Chief Executive Officer Paul Polman joined forces with Paul Kahn, president of Airbus Group U.K., and Mark Elborne, CEO of GE U.K. & Ireland, to write a letter to Vote Leave asking the campaign to stop using their logos. They sent a copy to the Electoral Commission and said they were considering legal action.

“We believe our companies have been used for propaganda purposes in order to imply our support for the exit from the European Union,” the executives wrote. “That is not our position; on the contrary we believe that -- for jobs and investment -- Britain is better off in Europe.”

The leaflets show several company emblems and say “major companies like Toyota, Nissan, Vauxhall, Honda, Unilever, GE and Airbus have all said they’ll stay in the U.K. whatever the result of the referendum.” Vote Leave did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Nissan, Toyota

Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. objected to Vote Leave’s use of their symbols.

“Permission to use our name and logo was not requested,” Nissan said Thursday in a statement. “We have requested that any further use of our intellectual property rights be discontinued -- a request that has been so far denied.”

Toyota reiterated its support for Britain remaining in the EU, while Nissan referred to its public statement from February when it said it “made the most sense for jobs, trade and costs for the U.K. to stay within Europe.”

Following the angry letter over the leaflets, Unilever underlined its support for staying in the EU by writing to employees to warn of possible adverse consequences if Britain votes to leave on June 23.

In a note to 100,000 employees and retirees, Polman said Europe “remains Unilever’s heartland,” adding that the company would be “negatively impacted if the U.K. were to leave the European Union.” The letter was co-signed by former CEOs Patrick Cescau and Niall FitzGerald and former chairman Michael Perry.

“Unilever owes much of its success over the last quarter of a century to the creation of a single European market of 500 million consumers,” the consumer goods giant, whose brands include Dove soap and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, said in its letter. The EU is “crucial to any European-based business, like Unilever, seeking to grow and prosper in a highly globalized marketplace.”

Brexit Support

After a flurry of polls this week showing a rise in support for Brexit, corporate leaders are speaking out more forcefully in favor of remaining in the EU.

Other major U.K. companies, including BT Group Plc, BAE Systems Plc, and Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc, have written to employees encouraging them to vote to remain in the EU. William Walsh, CEO of British Airways owner IAG SA, said he personally favors staying in the EU but he wouldn’t advise employees on how to vote. He said Brexit wouldn’t have a long-term impact on the company.

General Motors Co. also issued a statement warning that a U.K. exit would be “undesirable for our business and the sector as a whole.” The U.K. is GM’s fourth-largest market worldwide and its biggest in Europe and benefits “from the free movement of goods and people within the EU,” the company said.

A smaller number of companies have backed the “Leave” camp. Anthony Bamford, chairman of construction-equipment maker JC Bamford Excavators Ltd., wrote to employees last week backing Vote Leave.

Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, has publicly supported the campaign to keep the U.K. in the EU.

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