Many of you reading this will still be feeling loss, sadness and even slight disbelief: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has died.
The country stopped to mourn and to reflect for ten days. Events were paused or cancelled. Broadcasters and media owners suspended advertising and Royal Warrant holders, such as Burberry and Selfridges, closed their doors. Many hundreds of thousands of people queued to see the Queen’s coffin lying in state and an estimated audience in the many hundreds of millions watched her state funeral.
Some commentators have admitted their surprise at the strength of reaction to the death of the Queen. Royalist or not, we have seen this sentiment more widely, in our social media feeds and in conversations among our friends and families.
What lies behind this has lessons for us all – and for brands and brand owners. At a time when brands, more than ever, need to compete with own-label and where tech moves at the speed of light, making long-term “ownership” of a functional benefit near-impossible, the Queen’s approach to her role has lessons.
And remember the roles of the monarch and the monarchy are by no means a given. They exist through popular demand. Surviving ebbs and flows in popularity, representing something at the same time invaluable yet intangible; current but timeless. No-one achieved this better than The Queen.
As president of the Royal Horticultural Society I had the honour of meeting Her Majesty on several occasions.
The most memorable times were her visit in May to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, where I sat beside her on a buggy for 45 minutes chatting, and last year visiting her at Windsor Castle to present her with the Duke of Edinburgh Rose to mark HRH The Duke of Edinburgh’s 100th birthday.
On both occasions, we spoke for some time. I was particularly struck by her curiosity and her interest in what was happening in horticulture – whether it was the boom in gardening during Covid lockdowns or understanding why the RHS has added container gardens, house plants and balcony gardens to the Chelsea Flower Show.
Great brands are curious about trends and their consumers’ changing attitudes and habits, wanting to learn how to serve them better. The Queen seemed instinctively to do this.
I am not suggesting that Her Majesty was running a brand campaign. However, inherently she knew how to consistently live her life through her values with remarkable impact.
As a marketer, I draw three lessons from the Queen’s life over the past 96 years:
We are judged by our actions, not our words. Even more than that, we are judged by our motives and values, which are clear as day.
The Queen exemplified this. Her speech on her 21st birthday promised a lifetime of service and duty. These were extraordinary words at such a young age. And evidenced every day, right up to within two days of her passing, as she accepted the resignation of one prime minister, then welcomed his successor.
Her constant service was not in doubt. But it would have been possible to do this in a manner that was superior or suggested that we should be grateful.
What was truly remarkable is that the Queen was visibly “in service” to her nation, and this motive was what built deep respect and affection.
Apply those to the strongest brands and you can see that they do the same. They are clear what their identity and purpose is; they never stoop to cheap opportunism; they evolve in a manner that makes them always relevant but somehow the same at heart.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, once said: “Your brand is what other people say about you when you are not in the room.”
From the recent commentaries and tributes that we have heard, I think we would all agree that HM The Queen’s brand was – and still is – very robust.
You have to play the long game to endure. This lesson is for brand owners, but transfers implicitly to the brand itself. It means taking a long-term view; being cautious about fads and avoiding sudden moves and U-turns in position; having constancy in the brand steward; and being very clear about the brand’s purpose.
It’s not surprising that Les Binet and Peter Field’s work, analysing the data from the IPA’s Effectiveness Awards entries, shows that the brands whose communications work best are those that spend the bulk (60% or more) of their funds on building and reinforcing their long-term core brand equity.
The sign of success is, partly, a brand’s ability to be tactical, amusing, to reward its consumers with wit and observation.
The Queen did this brilliantly, on several occasions. One was the skit at the opening of the 2012 London Olympics, another was the wonderful film for her Platinum Jubilee celebrations, taking tea with Paddington Bear.
Who can look at photographs of her now, carrying her ubiquitous black handbag, without imagining a marmalade sandwich in it?
Both of these could have backfired badly, but instead they deepened our affection for her. Why? Because they were witty. They were brilliantly executed and because they strengthened the Queen as someone who did not take herself too seriously, but was a part of our nation’s fabric and in service to it.
Beyond values, brands need recognisable, ownable, visual assets. Again, Her Majesty showed the way with her unmistakable style, dressing to be seen from a distance by choosing to wear brightly-coloured coats, hats and gloves.
However, it is the unique image of her crowned profile that we see on stamps and bank notes that is iconic, world famous and instantly recognised. There are other red, white and blue-flagged nations, but only one Queen.
Her Majesty owned the name globally more than any other person owns a name.
She was very much at the top of the “celebrity brands”.
The Queen was not just an iconic figure but also a global household name and one of the most successful brands of the world.
As Emmanuel Macron, the French president, said after her death: “To you, she was your Queen. To us, she was The Queen.” Her unique and powerful brand image has lent style and appeal to many famous British brands from Barbour to Fortnum & Mason.
However, Her Majesty was the ultimate brand ambassador for Great Britain with her remarkable soft power.
The Queen and all things royal have helped develop and enhance the UK’s brand positioning.
Now the Elizabethan era is over. The final years of her reign coincided with a period of increasing volatility – three prime ministers in four years, the pandemic, Brexit and then the cost of living and energy crisis – yet Her Majesty continued to bring us a sense of stability and simple reminders of constancy.
For that alone, we should say: thank you, Ma’am.
Keith Weed is president of the UK's Royal Horticultural Society and a and a former president of the Advertising Association. He's a board director of WPP and Sainsbury’s and is a former chief marketing and communications officer of Unilever.