Brand wars at the palace?
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex seem determined to put distance between themselves and the Royal Family, and questions are being raised about how they could survive financially. Once again, analogies with business have been drawn, especially how this breakaway branch of the “firm” could develop its own “brand”.
Brands are at the core of modern business, so what would it mean for the Sussexes to develop their own as a means of financial survival? Before we can answer that question, we need to unpack what makes up a brand. The earliest and most basic purpose is to provide reassurance of consistency. More recently this functional requirement has been superseded by an emotional dimension - brands appeal because we like them and they provide an emotional appeal to us. So in the market for beer, an early brand such as Bass emphasised purity with no salt added, but today the appeal of brands such as Fosters is more about amusement and engagement as a point of difference. What does this mean for the royals?
Historically, royal families have been bastions of consistency and reliability. Strong family values provided a point of stability in countries which might otherwise be quite unstable. Any dirty washing was not carried out in public and royal families who violated its rules ended up in trouble. More than one king in history has had their head chopped off as a result.
Sometimes the “quality control” of a royal brand goes AWOL. In the UK, King Edward VIII violated its values and had to leave the “firm”. Diana, Princess of Wales caused problems by not sticking to protocols for the brand. But more recently, the Royal Family has recognised that engagement and diversity may appeal to an increasingly diverse population.
A big challenge for the royal brand is that its functional elements can be quite easily controlled internally, but the emotional elements are constructed in the minds of the audience. What one audience may construct as a hero may be another’s villain. Brands with emotional appeal are assessed in the court of popular judgement. When you use social media to build a brand, you are dealing with a double-edged sword – likes can quickly become dislikes.
Large, complex organisations have long realised that branding seldom relies on one single monolithic brand. They may have one umbrella brand, with several sub-brands which hang together, in a fusion of competition and complementarity. The Royal Family has sub-brands, as the households of the senior royals develop their own distinct identities. In any good commercial organisation, the CEO would make sure that relations between these sub-brands are complementary, and they don’t end up wasting energy attacking each other, especially in the eyes of customers. The “firm” has been good at doing this, so it raises concerns when two of the sub-brands appear to be heading in different directions - the Sussex brand and the Cambridge brand.
Commercial organisations sometimes find themselves in a position where it makes sense to offload a sub-brand. Maybe the sub-brand no longer fits their business, or they can get a better value by selling it to somebody who is better placed to develop it. So if the Sussex brand does become detached from the royal brand, this will not be without business precedent. The new owners of sub-brands may develop them further, using their skills and free of the constraints of their previous parent. Other times the new owner of a sub-brand may soon discover why their previous owner sold them - no amount of hope or hype by a new owner can turn around a failing brand. So where does the Sussex sub-brand stand?
The best prospect for sub-brands under new control occurs where the brand already possesses something inherently valuable - a trademark, a patent or a very longstanding and loyal customer base. It also needs a management team that can continually update the brand as its challenges and opportunities change. What does the Sussex brand have that could make it endure?
Harry and Meghan have celebrity value in their own right, and celebrities can have great brand value. Attempts have been made to estimate the value of an individual’s brand, for example by calculating how much value they add to products which they endorse. But when you are dealing with emotional aspects of a celebrity brand, this value can disappear quickly. Prince Andrew as a brand might have had considerable value years ago, but now many would consider it a liability. A few false moves amplified by social media, and the Sussex brand could be toast.
Many spin-off brands may be kept alive by a link with the parent brand, or with other significant brands. In fact, royal families have a long history of “affiliate branding”. Years ago, royal patronage might have been given by the king in return for supplying armies. More recently, one of the most fabulous endorsements that a brand can aspire to is a royal warrant - “By appointment to Her Majesty the Queen”. Businesses realise that having a co-branding link with the Royal Family adds enormous value. The Sussex link to the Royal brand may be just as valuable as it is to a jam maker or biscuit manufacturer.
Will the Sussex brand survive and prosper? There is no reason why it shouldn’t, but it will demand the skills associated with brand management, especially in an age where it is likely to be significantly controlled by the audience, rather than the brand manager. Carefully managing relationships with other brands may be crucial. But one thing the best brand manager will find difficult is to control the actions of celebrities themselves - one false step, accentuated by social media, and the brand could be dead. Managing a live brand such as the House of Sussex will be much more difficult than managing the Queen’s favourite brand of jam.