A fairytale union of brand and heritage

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Easily the best branding story of the past few weeks is the announcement of a special edition BMW being sold in limited numbers to celebrate the Royal Wedding. The car, available in Regal Red, Bridal White or Imperial Blue, is upholstered in Windsor White Dakota leather and comes with a commemorative “Will” emblem on the side.

Alas, the Royal BMW was a hugely successful April Fool’s joke but it’s not hard to see why much of the British media were fooled into running the story. Many of the actual products launched to celebrate the royal wedding are far stranger and much more tangential than the BMW “Will”. LG, for example, has launched a limited edition mobile phone customised with the Union Jack and the initials of the happy couple on the back. The Castle Rock brewery in Nottingham has launched its “Kiss Me Kate” special brew in honour of the future Queen. And not to be outdone, the hot money is on Abbey 3D becoming Apple’s best selling app over the next seven days given that it offers “stunning” images of Westminster Abbey and has been officially approved by the Royal Couple.

With so many promotions taking place it’s easy to lose track of the brand actually at the centre of the upcoming nuptials the House of Windsor. And what a brand it is. More than once throughout its history it has played an almost perfect game in maintaining its equity.

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Windsor is a brand that traces its origins back to Northern Germany and a Prince called Dietrich von Wettin who ruled that region back in the 9th Century. Strangely the current royal family are reticent in drawing attention to their origins. And the Germanic roots proved particularly problematic in 1917 when anti-German sentiment stoked by losses incurred in the Great War led to open calls for King George V or to give him his full name, Albert Frederick Arthur George Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to be deposed.

George V kept his head (both literally and metaphorically) by carrying out one of the first and arguably most successful rebranding exercises of all time. Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was dropped as the royal surname and the name Windsor, cleverly derived from the most English of the family’s residences was immediately adopted instead. Minor royals were also rebranded as part of the process. The Duke of Teck, a close relation of George’s wife, became the very English sounding Adolphus Cambridge while Prince Louis von Battenburg became Lord Mountbatten. It was a masterful act of rebranding and one that immediately quelled the angry masses.

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George V was not finished there. Those members of the royal family who sided with the Kaiser and Germany, such as the Duke of Cumberland, were cut off completely from the new House of Windsor. It was a ruthless decision, but one that was crucial to the new positioning of the royal family as the enemies, rather than relatives, of German aristocracy. It was also a superb example of brand consolidation which, 70 years later would be adopted by Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Reckitt Benckiser. In times of crisis (either from an unhappy public or equally dangerous supermarket chains) it’s best to focus one’s resources on a limited number of strong sub-brands that can survive the storm.

By far the most impressive achievement of the Windsor brand has been its constant revitalisation from generation to generation. Like any ancient luxury brand, the House of Windsor faces the eternal challenge of being true to its original heritage while proving modern and contemporary. For this reason, a royal wedding is an enormously useful strategic device. Look back across the years and the story of Charles and Di, Andrew and Fergie, Elizabeth and Phillip and now William and Kate is exactly the same. A new generation. A new partner. The excitement of a wedding. The tradition of the past and the hope for the future.

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In a few days’ time we will watch more than a royal wedding, we will witness the perfect brand revitalisation. And the brand tracking data suggests the strategy keeps working. For almost 20 years MORI has asked a representative sample the same question Do you favour a republic or a monarchy? And the results have remained remarkably consistent. Around one in five British citizens want a republic, but the other four-fifths do not.

And perhaps that is the House of Windsor’s biggest achievement. It has defied the centuries and remained steadfastly popular despite the fact that its category royalty long ago lost its appeal or authority in most other countries. Many great British brands of cutlery, furniture and pottery disappeared not because they failed but because their categories effectively disappeared from underneath them. And yet here is an anachronistic institution one which still possesses constitutional power, which favours the male over the female heir irrespective of birthright, which bars anyone but a Protestant from taking the throne as popular today as it was two centuries ago. Now that is what I call good branding.

Mark Ritson is an associate professor of marketing, an award winning columnist, and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands

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