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New book explores global reach of British royal family brand

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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IMAGE: Cele Otnes, Investors in Business Education Professor in the College of Business at the University of Illinois, is the co-author of the recently published book "Royal Fever: The British Monarchy... view more

Credit: Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- God save the queen? According to a new book co-written by a University of Illinois expert in consumer culture, she's doing just fine, thank you very much.

Cele Otnes, Investors in Business Education Professor in the College of Business, is the co-author of the recently published book "Royal Fever: The British Monarchy in Consumer Culture." It explores how and why consumers around the world engage with (and sometimes immerse themselves in) the British royal family brand, which, according to one estimate, is worth about $87 billion and generates upward of $1.77 billion annually for the British economy.

"The book delves into the monarchy's power as a brand whose narrative has existed for more than a thousand years, and how that brand shapes consumer behavior and retains its economic and cultural significance in the 21st century," said Otnes, also a professor of advertising and business administration at Illinois.

The book, co-written by Pauline C. Maclaran, a professor of marketing and consumer research at Royal Holloway, University of London, was nine years in the making.

"We started our fieldwork in 2005 when Charles and Camilla got married, and then nothing really too exciting happened for the next few years," Otnes said. "And then, of course, William and Kate got married, Queen Elizabeth II had her jubilee celebration, and the two royal babies were born."

During that time, the authors visited numerous royal-related sites and conducted formal and informal interviews with dozens of people engaged in royal consumption, co-creation and production, including authors, educators and employees of hotels, newspapers, magazines, museums, retail shops, restaurants and tourist sites.

"In terms of archival research, we read extensively about the intersection of the monarchy and consumer culture in works by historians, journalists, biographers and other popular and academic authors," she said.

Otnes, who studies how marketing and advertising shapes consumption, said the British royal family represents a complex type of a brand.

"If you look at the literature on branding, researchers typically put stakes in the ground that argue for the importance of recognizing a specific kind of brand," she said. "For example, the first thing that comes to mind is that the royal family is a prestige brand. But they're also a family brand, a global brand and a luxury brand. So this brand is multifaceted, and it's really important to understand how different aspects of the brand feed into each and both contradict and complement each other."

It's also a brand that is very democratic, Otnes said.

"There are numerous points of entry to the royal family brand. You can buy a cheap coffee mug or take a very expensive tour of royal sites throughout Britain," she said. "So there's a wide berth to accommodate a range of consumers. And if you're a brand that wants to similarly accommodate a wide swath of consumers, you should think about democratic points of entry. If you have a lot of facets to your brand, you should identify those facets and look at how the culture supports them."

As the middle classes around the world continue to grow, "everyone seeks to emulate luxury, and the British royal family embodies luxury," Otnes said.

"The queen is the only person allowed by Rolls Royce to swap the hood ornament the brand provides for her own personal ornament of St. George slaying the dragon," she said. "Since 2000, the number of people in the royal family's internal public relations firm has tripled, to almost 30 people, with each royal couple or group having its own staff. They definitely understand the power of the public image."

In fact, the more the authors studied the royal family, "the more we realized that the royals understood branding and consumer culture way before anyone else," Otnes said.

"As one example, Elizabeth I created an entire persona for herself as 'Gloriana, the Virgin Queen,'" she said. "She never married and never had children because she knew as soon as she did, her husband would assume the throne - and she didn't want to give up power. So she painted herself - literally, with pale white makeup - as this virgin queen who gave herself to her people. There was a lot of branding going on way before the mechanisms of consumer culture were even in place. Branding was a court activity before it was a consumer activity."

For Otnes, the British royal family also is a case study in "brand resilience."

"For ultimate brand stability, you need something steady," she said. "But if you want people to stay engaged, you also have to have excitement and the element of unpredictability. There have been ups and downs in the royal family brand, to be sure. So, the question becomes, how do you stay current and contemporary even though you have a lot of intrinsic and extrinsic factors that can undermine those goals?"

Well, one way is to capitalize on the fact that the queen is not afraid to make fun of herself.

"The Brits, in general, prize humor as a cultural export," Otnes said. "So the fact that the queen has allowed herself to be made fun of by her people - and they aren't locked up in the Tower of London over it - has made a huge difference. It generates affection for the royal family. In other countries with royalty, you can go to prison for making fun of the monarchy. This has a very interesting effect on the marketplace and would explain why there are so many royal tchotchkes in England as opposed to, say, Thailand, where royalty is a much more sacred topic, and solemnity is enforced by the law. Even in a less-strict country like Norway, you would be hard-pressed to find a royal souvenir. There's not a marketplace for goofy mugs or silly T-shirts the way there is in Britain."

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The University of California Press published the book.

Editor's notes: To contact Cele Otnes, call 217-265-0799; email cotnes@illinois.edu. The book "Royal Fever: The British Monarchy in Consumer Culture" is available online.

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