What do recent developments mean for the Royal Family brand?
Oh dear. That’s the thing about making predictions. My advice is – don’t hang around long enough to be proved wrong.
Two years ago, I lauded Harry and Meghan for rejuvenating the monarchy with a fresh new face of cultural diversity whilst remaining true to Queen’s core promise of ‘duty.’ Harry and Meghan were going to be dutiful too and yet take on and champion fresh causes – disability and mental health. As a ‘woman of colour’ Meghan could also relate to the multicultural nature of the UK’s big cities. She could meet people who had had a bum deal growing up on Britain’s tough estates, look them in the eye and say “I know what it’s like” to be on the receiving end of casual and not-so-casual racism - because she does know. You could not say that of any other member of the royal family.
They were both really good at performing their public duties. When out and about, pressing the flesh, they did not have to feign enthusiasm. Hugging came easily. To use that almost exhausted word, they were ‘passionate’ about their causes. Unfortunately, in Britain, unlike the USA, wearing your heart on your sleeve provokes cynicism. Hence all the sneering remarks about “wokeness” and “virtue signalling”.
Now they want to detach themselves from the Royal Family. So, what went wrong? Harry is a warm and emotional man, but he does not have a thick skin. If you are on the receiving end of a monstering at the hands of Britain’s tabloid press, you need the hide of a rhinoceros. Harry is haunted by the death of his mother – and he thinks the press made her final years a misery. He hates the press and that’s no good because, in Britain, it is like saying you hate the weather. You can’t change the weather in Britain. It is frequently unpleasant like The Sun or The Daily Mail, whose business is to sell copies by pandering to our most basic and prurient instincts. No change there. That has been true for several decades. Throw in social media as well and you have a truly toxic public sphere.
Harry is still a young man – and idealistic too. So, he thinks he can change things if he shows enough determination. Young people do tend to think they can change the world (and we should give thanks for that – for the result is often progress).
What of Meghan? She was warned that the British tabloid media are a rough ride. They built her up after the ‘fairytale’ wedding and so she should have expected them to drag her down through an invented mix of half-truths and lies. My guess, however, is that nothing quite prepares anyone for the reality. She felt homesick – and abandoned by the rest of The Firm, who are not strong on offering sympathy.
So, the two of them felt embattled and want to find another way. But, in the pressure cooker of media scrutiny, they panicked and announced their plans prematurely without properly getting sign off from ‘management’ (aka The Queen and Prince Charles). Bad move but not disastrous. What happens next will require some imagination and flexibility from The Firm.
The big danger comes from a desire to be ‘financially independent’. They are both globally famous because they are members of the Royal Family (Meghan had some profile as an actor from the series Suits - but that did not propel her to global celebrity). This global fame was inherited not earned. The other celebs they mix with (Elton John and Serena Williams) have achieved their status through extraordinary talent and hard work. Not so Harry and Meghan.
Here lies the tension. They will need a lot of money to lead their lives- and the thing they have to trade to make this money is the Royal Brand. Once you go down this route ‘Royal’ becomes a transaction and not an act of duty to ordinary people (which is not directly paid for by the causes they support). And who pays you? The rich, the famous - and because it is difficult to avoid if you need funds, the dubious. You only have to think about Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, whose debts were paid by Jeffry Epstein, convicted paedophile, to see what can go wrong. Thus, the unwritten contract of duty to ordinary people and the lives of those who are less fortunate breaks down and they become a part of a highly commercialised global celebrity circuit. Even as I write, Netflix are probably in touch, offering millions for a mini-series about their lives. It might be a good career move for Meghan but it is a bad one for Harry.
So, what to do?
Where to live
By all means live in Canada part of the year but carbon offset those flights. And bear in mind that the question of where your loyalties lie will come up when your son goes to school.
Don’t forget duty
Perform your duties for the causes that you care and know about: in Meghan’s case the experiences of BAME people and in Harry’s case injured servicemen and mental health.
Focus on ordinary people
Always remember that for every vicious tabloid journalist there are thousands of people whose lives you have touched and made better. They like you and appreciate the way that you reached the parts other royals have not reached (and never will). Stick with this. It matters more than being seen with Elton or Serena.
And a note to The Firm – if Harry and Meghan still dedicate a significant number of days a year to duty they can be paid out of public funds and not become vulnerable to bad decisions making in the pursuit of income. They are lambs to the slaughter in the harsh, commercial world of brand exploitation. Don’t leave them exposed.
It will be a story to watch and one that will continue to sell newspapers. Final tip: stop reading the newspapers. The tabloid press is never going to be nice, especially now, and they will blame Meghan. Get someone else to do this for you and take advice on how to manage the press. Oh, and don’t sue them – it only gives them another story to write.
Julian Saunders was CEO, Red Cell (a WPP creative agency) and Head of Strategy, McCann-Erickson. firstname.lastname@example.org