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Brand Britannia and the Marmite Monarchy

Charles III, new creative director of Brand Britannia.
Charles III, new creative director of Brand Britannia. (Photographer: WPA Pool/Getty Images Europe)

Assessing Britain’s monarchy as a brand might, to some, seem superficial — even sacrilegious. But not to the royals, who have seen themselves as a family business ever since George VI nicknamed them “The Firm.”

Setting aside the semiotic parallels between flags and logos, anthems and jingles, mottoes and taglines — the British monarchy is a global brand, and the Queen was its brand ambassador.

With the possible exception of Jesus Christ, Elizabeth II surely had the most reproduced likeness in human history. There are, for instance, 4.7 billion banknotes and 29 billion coins with the Queen’s profile currently circulating in the United Kingdom alone — a personal and institutional logotype that has existed for seven decades and, at its peak, extended across at least 33 other countries.

To understand how embedded the sovereign is within Brand Britannia, consider the changes being made to the country’s infrastructure. Some have been immediate (oaths of office; legal proceedings; the National Anthem); others will overlap for decades (post-box ciphers; passport wording; prayer books). But, in time, Charles III will be seamlessly woven into the fabric of the state, and “God Save the King” will cease to sound quite so Shakespearean.

If this all seems drearily constitutional, it’s worth remembering how much Elizabeth II did to modernize the royal brand. Spurred by a fading of deference and the demands of the media, the Queen (encouraged by Prince Philip) pioneered daring innovations to draw the sovereign closer to her subjects — from allowing her coronation to be televised to mixing with hoi polloi on royal “walkabouts.” In 1969, she even gave consent for a groundbreaking, year-long “fly on the wall” BBC documentary:

There were, of course, personal stumbles. The most poignant was in 1966, when the Queen delayed visiting Aberfan in the aftermath of the colliery spoil tip that killed 116 children and 28 adults. The most perilous was in 1997, when the Queen failed to respect the depth of public anguish following the death of Princess Diana.

By and large, though, such missteps — born not of callousness but caution — were forgiven. And in time the Queen’s confidence grew, reaching a co-branded climax when she appeared with James Bond to open the 2012 London Olympics, and then last June when she took tea with Paddington Bear.

That these brand collaborations — unthinkably infra dig even a decade earlier — were not just politically daring but genuinely charming illustrates how confidently the Queen guided and expanded the royal brand for 70 years and 214 days.

What then of our new Carolean Age?

From his earliest public statements as sovereign, King Charles III has clearly recognized that his (recently controversial) charitable and commercial activities will have to be reined in, as will his outspoken (if prospicient) opinions on ecology and urban planning.

More broadly Charles, and his heir William, seem to acknowledge that The Firm requires a McKinsey-esque downsizing, to establish a more streamlined monarchy free(r) from liggers, liabilities, distractions and embarrassments.

Even through a narrow branding lens that glosses over a litany of misdemeanors and moral failings, this may not be easy.

Over the decades individual royals have launched a range of passion projects and side hustles. Some of these are charitable, not least the Duke of Edinburgh Award established by Prince Phillip in 1956, or the Prince’s Trust founded by Prince Charles in 1976.

Others are more entrepreneurial. For example, in 1989, Sarah, Duchess of York published the first in a series of “Budgie the Little Helicopter” children’s books, which would later become an animated series. In 1990, Prince Charles founded the pioneering organic food company Duchy Originals which later partnered with Waitrose. In 1993, Prince Edward established a much derided television company Ardent Productions, which folded in 2009 with assets of just £40.27. And in 2014, Prince Andrew (“I am a serial entrepreneur”) launched Pitch@Palace — a  Shark-Tankian venture that was seldom far from controversy.

Such ventures raise a tricky question: How are the vestigial royals supposed to live (and fund) their lives? Too much private enterprise, and they are silver-spooned profiteers; too little and they are grace-and-favor parasites.

This dilemma is spotlighted most starkly by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who consciously uncoupled from the Crown in 2020 and (inspired by the Obamas) pivoted to content. After their original brand Sussex Royal was nixed by the Queen for its regal suffix, Harry and Meghan trademarked Archewell — a brand that combines an “impact-driven global nonprofit” with for-profit audio and visual productions, including Harry’s docu-series “Heart of Invictus,” and Meghan’s Spotify podcast, “Archetypes.”

Whether the media-hungry Montecito Monarchy matures into a rival court or fades into daytime obscurity remains to be seen. But if Harry and Meghan persist in mining their royalty for profit, Archewell may well prove the bland disruptor that the brand’s look and feel so clearly apes.

According to the royal commentator Stephen Bates, the modernization of the monarchy under Elizabeth II was guided by a “Marmite jar strategy” — which, like the yeast extract, prioritized gradual evolution over radical rebranding. (Splendidly, to celebrate Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee, Unilever returned the compliment with special-edition jars of “Ma’amite.”)

Following in the footsteps of any successful CEO is tricky; wearing the crown of a CEO who has deftly run “Monarchy PLC” for seven decades is something else — even after “the longest apprenticeship in history.”

Before the Queen’s death, Prince Charles was only the seventh most popular royal, according to YouGov data, and “liked” by just 42% of Britons. In the first few days of his reign, 63% thought Charles would “do a good job as king” — compared with 32% in May. But only 40% predicted he would “take the same approach to the job” as his mother, whose reign had an approval rating of 85%. Once mourning has faded and the honeymoon is over, we will quickly learn the extent to which the public’s affection for the monarchy relied not on the institution, but the Queen’s remarkable personal character.

And so, King Charles III would do well to keep a jar of Marmite handy. Not just for what it says about brand evolution, but for a canny tagline that may reflect the reality of our new Carolean Age: “You Either Love It Or Hate It.”

More on the Monarchy from Bloomberg Opinion:

• King Charles’s Belated Reign Can Still Be Fruitful: Martin Ivens

• The Revolutionary Monarchy of Elizabeth II: Adrian Wooldridge

• Farewell to Queen Elizabeth, a Monarch for the Ages: Editorial

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ben Schott is Bloomberg Opinion’s advertising and brands columnist.

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