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5 Branding Lessons from The Crown

posted by Prof. dr. Rudy K. Moenaert on 17/12/2019

Looking for a great television series during the holidays? My suggestion – enjoy your Xmas champagne with The Crown (Netflix)! That particular series, together with the fantasy of Game of Thrones (ignoring the last season) and the thrills of Casa de Papel (can’t wait for the next season), has given me the greatest delight on the flat screen recently. It also offers timeless lessons on branding:

1. The Monarchy brands, therefore it is. Politically speaking, a monarchy refers to a set of rules that organizes our society. A king or queen is the ceremonial head of state until he or she dies or abdicates. No headhunter is involved in appointing the successor. A simple birthright does the job. Sounds boring, right?

Well, holding amazingly little power, the British monarchy endures as a promise to the British citizens, and the international stakeholders, of how the British society will behave. Its branding has much to do with this. Buckingham Palace (asset), the crown itself (symbol), and the Royal Family (persons) are features of the brand called The Monarchy. The British citizens behave just like customers in the supermarket and chunk complexity into belief. “I brand, therefore I am,” is the supply-side marketing version of Descartes’ famous “Cogito ergo sum.”

2. People build strong brands.  The delusion still prevails that advertising builds strong brands. For sure, also the British monarchy exploits the power of modern age communications. Recently, the Royal Family announced on its webpage and on LinkedIn (!) it was looking for a Head of Digital Engagement. If you you aspire to this job, I am sorry to inform you that Buckingham is nog longer accepting applications. The £50.000 salary suggests that this prestigious job holds little real power anyhow.

Notwithstanding the importance of marketing communications, it is first and foremost the Queen herself who has built the monarchy into a strong and trusted brand. Admittedly, she is also brand. On the throne for more than 67 years now, Queen Elizabeth II has worked with fourteen prime ministers, including Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron. Upon her coronation, a garguantuan task awaited her, best summarized by Winston Churchill in his address to the House of Commons (1952): “A fair and youthful figure – princess, wife and mother – is the heir to all our traditions and glories never greater than in her father’s days, and to all our perplexities and dangers never greater in peacetime than now. She is also heir to all our united strength and loyalty.

3. The power of consistency. Her recipe? Consistent dullness! Watch some of the interviews with Claire Foy (who portrayed Elizabeth II in her younger years) and Olivia Colman (the middle-aged Queen). The actresses’ exuberant laughter contrasts sharply with the diplomatic smiles of the queen, as if the actresses are well-aware they have just escaped a very bizar comedy.

The Queen’s dullness is not a weakness, it is a lifestyle crafted to perfection, a 67 year crusade to make people trust the monarchy. Brexit brings hoo-ha and Boris Johnson, the Queen brings predictable reliability. This consistency fuels trust. It does not come cheap. The Royal Family costs the British taxpayer £ 67 mln annually. In return, the Queen undertakes some 140 official national and international engagements annually. You want to be a king or a queen? Face the brutal reality - it is a life most of us would not want to live it even if we were capable of doing so.

4. Events reveal your true identity. In The Crown, Prince Philip observes that “There have always been the dazzling Windsors and the dull ones. But alongside that dull, dutiful, reliable, heroic strait runs another. The dazzling, the brilliant, the individualistic - and the dangerous. For every Edward VII you get a Queen Victoria, for every Elizabeth you get a Margaret”. Dazzle, brilliance and individualism wreck consistency. History has the uncanny habit of repeating itself, and the recent generations have proven this applies to the Monarchy as well. For every William you get a Harry, for every Charles you get an Andrew.

Prince Andrew’s recent television interview has hurt the monarchy and killed his personal brand. His testimonial was a mishmash of ideosyncracies, archaic language, and above all a total lack of empathy for the victim. A few days after the interview, Prince Andrew officially relinquished his public duties.

“Events, dear boy, events” former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (1957 – 1963) replied when a journalist asked him what frightened him most. Indeed, a brand shows its true identity when confronted with profound events. Authenticity reveals itself under pressure. Don’t claim an image your identity cannot handle. If your true self is a a real douchebag, it will be a painful awakening. Prince Andrew knows now, as do we.  

5. A brand is also a promise from the past. The tabloids already enjoyed reporting on Prince Andrew’s fun adventures with Koo Stark and his marriage to Sarah Ferguson. The storyline on his connection to the notorious Jeffrey Epstein is much darker. Virginia Roberts Giuffre, a former sex slave of Jeffrey Epstein, claims that Prince Andrew danced and had sex with her, when she was only 17 years of age.
It is fair to say that Prince Andrew is a rather unimportant Buckingham sidekick. However, even as a back office pawn, he remains a touchpoint of the monarchy with the audience. There is no undoing of Prince Andrew’s past. His legacy holds a negative promise and hurts the monarchy.

Queen Elizabeth II may look upon her historical track record as a heritage. There were poor moments and ill judgments, but the glare prevails. She did not do anything special, she just behaved consistently dull. As The Crown shows so very well, that in itself is a remarkable achievement. It is the result of both a unique nature and an enduring nurture.