It is unlikely King Charles III will try to imitate the Queen’s brand of leadership, but any changes must be done with delicacy
As millions mourn the loss of the Queen, and Charles steps up to fulfil his destiny as King, it is hard not to compare mother with son and wonder how he will fare in holding together the brand that has made the British royals the most famous family in the world.
The Royal Family is a global brand that, in losing the Queen, has lost its CEO, the ‘face’ of the brand.
King Charles is now as important to the brand as Elon Musk is to Tesla, and as important as Steve Jobs was to Apple. The aristocracy as a brand is nothing new. Aristocrats were the first celebrities – and celebrities themselves are brands, bundles of meaning and associations that can add value to (and in some cases detract value from) whatever they are associated with.
In the case of the Royal Family, the brand is made up of the individual members, essentially celebrities and one of the most important attributes of the brand, and the objects that surround them: the residences, the carriages they use, even the Queen’s corgis. All these elements combine to give us an idea of what the royal family means to us in our minds.
The Queen won extraordinary respect and love for the manner in which she handled her role and there is an enormous amount of goodwill being afforded to King Charles right now. Much more so than if you were to imagine a new CEO taking over Tesla or Air New Zealand, or when Tim Cook had to take over from Steve Jobs in 2011.
But can this last? Well, that depends to a large degree on the media. The media creates the Royal Family brand to a certain extent by colouring the images the public receive and controlling the narrative. You only have to compare the memes of Kate vs Meghan, to see how much influence the media has over public perception.
If the media want to create a narrative of Charles living up to the standard set by his mother and carving out a new type of leadership based on sustainability, then that is what we will see. On the other hand, if they want to focus on every misstep he makes to create a narrative of how he is not as good as the Queen, then that is what will be presented. For example, the seemingly trivial focus on the tribulations he has had with pens as of late.
How to take control? The first step would be for King Charles to have direct access to the public and for him and his team to use their own communication channel to bypass the influence of the media as much as possible, or at the very least to enable the Royal Family to drive their own narrative or contradict the negative aspects of what the media wish to portray. Imagine, for example if the Royal Family were to post a light-hearted parody of how disobedient pens were dealt with by the Royal guard. Of course, they should wait until after the funeral rituals have ended and the occasion to be solemn has passed.
The second step would be to forge alliances within the media, offering exclusive access to certain journalists who are advocates of the brand. An up-close-and-personal interview with King Charles III and Queen Consort Camilla talking about his hopes and aspirations for the UK, Commonwealth and the rest of the free world, could propel his brand to even further global relevance.
The third step would be to start touring Commonwealth countries and pressing the flesh – following a process not dissimilar to the branding and marketing process for politicians during an election campaign.
There is no doubt that, as Prince of Wales, Charles’ brand was overshadowed by that of Princess Diana and, more recently, by their two sons. However, there is a real opportunity for King Charles to carve his own brand and make his own changes that will differentiate it from that created by the Queen. His long-standing commitment to sustainability would, for example, be a topical and authentic position for him to occupy.
And it is OK for a brand to change – but it must be done with delicacy. The most successful and long-lasting brands reinvent themselves just enough to remain relevant, but not so much as to lose their sense of heritage and authenticity. It is a really difficult balance to strike: change too much and your brand comes across as fickle, accused of ‘selling out’ or pandering to the masses, but stay too ‘true to yourself’ and you end up being seen as a conservative old dinosaur.
It is early days but the response from King Charles so far has been appropriate and genuine so there can be little question over his authenticity. And while it is unlikely he will try to imitate the Queen’s brand of leadership, any changes he brings are within an environment so extraordinarily steeped in heritage that it would almost be impossible to lose. He might just have to ease up on the temperamental responses to broken pens though.
But in the end, the success of the Royal Family brand is down to the appeal they have to the people as it is, essentially, a symbolic entity funded by a willingness to keep them around. The masses of people lining up to pay their respects to the Queen, both in life and death, and the similar devotion we see to William and Kate suggests a strong public appetite for their utility as cultural ambassadors for the UK and the Commonwealth. It also suggests a brand veneration strong enough to adapt to changes that lie ahead.