How far could the Sussex Royal brand go?

Now that an exit plan looks like it has been hammered out between The Firm and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the question many people are asking is just how much do the married couple and their Sussex Royal brand stand to gain in terms of that much vaunted “financial independence”? Where could the Sussex Royal brand go?

In establishing their website and the range of trademarks they have filed for, the couple have intimated that they may look to use the brand across a range of sectors. There has been significant speculation on the nature of that income: a charitable foundation along the lines of the Obamas; speaking; books; a film or two; and most recently, Netflix … But while all of these initiatives make sense, I thought it would be interesting to assess just how extendable the Sussex Royal brand might be as a commercial enabler. What are the strengths that the Duke and Duchess can work with through their new brand – and where might they be hampered?

Fortunately, I have a model to investigate exactly that.

LASSO is a model for successful brand expansion

Three years ago, Pete Canalichio and I set out to develop a framework for brands that were looking to expand. Both of us were intrigued to know why some brands were able to successfully grow within and beyond the sector they started in while others struggled or even declined when they attempted to expand their presence into new markets. Given that the Sussex’s are potentially looking for a brand that will work across diverse markets, it seems appropriate to check the brand’s potential against our framework.

Our LASSO model came about as a result of numerous interviews with senior executives at brands that had successfully expanded globally. These ranged from digital products to entertainment to beverages to media.

Along the way we discovered that while some forms of brand expansion, particularly  licensing, are misunderstood and even looked down upon by many marketers as “merch-ing”, market adjacencies can play a significant role in enabling growth. But we also learned that when organisations attempted to broaden their brand through diversification to rescue a business in decline or, more importantly, if they attempted to license the brand into areas that fans didn’t see as connected in any way with what they believed the brand stood for, then problems quickly arose.

The most critical element for any brand looking to shift into new markets is the “brand expansion point” – the basis from which the brand expands. If that single organising idea is real, distinctive and exciting, the brand can leverage that to take what it offers into a wide range of places. If it lacks strength, or if the basis for expansion is wrong, then the brand may find it much more difficult to introduce branded experiences that consumers welcome as a natural and intriguing extension of the brand they feel they know.

The five elements of the LASSO model

As we broke down the key elements that helped decide whether a brand was elastic enough to thrive in current, adjacent and even non-core markets, Pete and I identified five factors that helped predict brand expandability. Together these formed the acronym LASSO:

Lateral/literal examines the flexibility that a brand has to move away from its core business into adjacent and even divergent markets. This often has to do with the idea that the brand owns in the minds of fans. For example, the Ferrari brand was able to expand from cars into rollercoasters because the brand expansion point for Ferrari – speed – translated well.

Addictive looks at the degree to which the brand invites and receives intense and frequent interaction. Addictive brands provide their fans with ongoing rewards that consumers pursue with gusto. There are many different expressions of this of course – from loyalty programs through to technology that people have come to regard as indispensable. The level and intensity of interaction is important because brands that people come back to time and time again are more likely to attract consumers to the ‘next’ thing they are doing.

The third element of our brand expansion model, Storied, examines the degree to which the brand can call on its narrative to engage consumers. If Addictive is about encouraging actions, the Storied element adds structure, belief and mythology to the brand. This not only adds credibility, it also heightens curiosity and therefore ‘stickability’. When people are engaged with a story and/or something with deep history, they are keen to stay on the journey. Often the Storied and Addictive elements work together – combining the next ‘must-have’ (action) with an ongoing storyline (context).

Scalable is the fourth element. The brands that are able to expand most effectively, not surprisingly, are those that can engage widely. In other words, they have both the interest and the means to move beyond where they are based to engage a multi-national, multi-cultural audience. To do this, they need to have strong, globally recognisable branding, they need powerful and effective channels through which to distribute and they need to hit the market at a time when the appetite for what they represent is strong enough to incite and retain huge demand.

Most importantly, the brand has to feel right in every area it expands into. Critical mass depends on having a brand with such clearly defined qualities that it acquires  multiple audiences for multiple activities in multiple countries. Think Lego. Not only does the brand have a powerful brand expansion point – “play” is an idea that every human understands – but the brand appeals to young and old, in many different forms, across so many countries.

The final element is Ownable. You cannot expand a brand or an idea that is not yours to expand. At one level this is about obvious things like intellectual property, but at another, it’s about what your stakeholders and customers believe you own. In other words, if a brand is trying to take or keep ownership of an idea that no-one recognises as belonging to the brand, it will absolutely struggle to maintain credibility and traction. Equally, if the brand is challenged over what it owns, and either legally or ethically, comes to be seen as having no right to own the idea it lays claim to, then it may have problems in the longer term.

Applying the LASSO model to Sussex Royal

To help understand how powerful the Sussex Royal brand may prove to be, I’ve applied the five LASSO factors to what I know, or believe. Everything that follows comes with an overall  disclaimer. Normally, if I was undertaking an assessment like this, I would be asking for a whole bunch of facts and research to quantify each of the five factors we’re about to examine. Right now, I only have media reports to go on, so the analysis is based on impressions. Even that assessment raises a lot of questions.

How much latitude does the brand have?

In terms of its capacity to move laterally, clearly the Sussex’s believe they have a brand that has strong lateral qualities. According to the Guardian they’ve applied for trademarks in six classes across Australia, Canada, the EU and US. “Six classes were listed in the applications, covering printed matter such as magazines and greeting cards, clothing ranging from footwear to pyjamas, charitable fundraising and management, as well as education and social care services including the organising and conducting of emotional support groups”, but the article goes on to point out that, “Others have speculated that future enterprises could include book deals or a charity-based clothing line, perhaps with an emphasis on sustainability or environmental causes that the couple have taken to heart. Another suggestion is that future ventures combining commercial opportunities with their charitable projects could include Prince Harry’s Apple TV+ project with Oprah, spotlighting mental health.” This would point to a more literal interpretation of what the founders are already known for.

On face value, the brand is as lateral as the founders’ interests, experience, skills and qualifications – which means it is directly linked to ideas and business opportunities that the couple are either involved with now or see themselves being involved with in the future. This gives it significant scope for expansion providing of course the reputation of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex continues to align with those activities and providing they have the energy and the financial resources to maintain a strong presence across as many of the sectors as they choose to enter. They wouldn’t have to enter these sectors all at once of  course. Instead they could choose to do so in different countries over a period of time.

The key issue to watch here is potential. It’s all very well identifying sectors that the brand could play in, but if those sectors are highly competitive and/or have low margins, then the returns for participating in them may not be that lucrative.

In terms of what they are aligned to, and with a high-profile case against the media pending, it’s worth observing that the Sussex’s  reputation may not be protected as it was when they were part of The Firm. In the case of this pending legal action, the couple may find themselves drawn into an attritional war of claim and counterclaim that could sap their energy, attention and finances and generate headlines that they cannot control about who they are and/or what they stand for. There is certainly nothing to suggest that the media will be any less interested in them or leave them alone – if anything the media could pursue their stories more aggressively and without the protect of the Royal arrangements that now exist in the UK.

That in turn may or may not change how they are perceived if the matter does indeed go to trial and constrict who wants to be associated with them. It may work the other way of course – galvanising support and strengthening people’s resolve to support what the Sussex’s are endorsing, in much the same way that people supported Princess Diana at what they perceived to be her time of need.

The broader vulnerability here is that any brand that is only as strong as its founders must constantly fight to protect its reputation against nay-sayers and doubters. My assessment is that the Duke and Duchess will need to move quickly and decisively to build a brand that is bigger than them – in the sense that the brand will need to stand for an idea that others want to champion – because otherwise the demands (and the vulnerabilities) from all angles could be massive. In short, they are going to need a post-Royal value proposition that validates what they are doing beyond just wanting to not be senior Royals anymore. And it will need to extend into sectors that will reward them.

So in terms of assessing their lateral expandability, I think they’re about a 3/5. They can extend their brand into a number of related categories but it remains to be seen whether they have the Fit and Leverage to successfully expand into new and unrelated categories with strong growth characteristics.

Sussex Royal appears highly addictive

Right now, the Sussex Royal brand would appear to be highly addictive. The couple have a robust social media presence and everything they endorse or are associated with quickly gains the interest and support of their followers.

Stacy Jones is quoted in this article as saying that Meghan and Harry received over 90,000 mentions in the media in 60 days, reaching well over 300bn media impressions. Her prediction is that the brand has the potential to be a multi-billion-dollar entity, right up there with the likes of the Clooneys, Beyonce and Jay Z and Bill and Melinda Gates.

On the face of it, this following is very impressive. But there are two important questions to ask here before assuming that such numbers will automatically transit to the Sussex Royal brand. First, how many of those people reading were engaged in the scandal or concerned about the Royal Family rather than just the Sussex’s? And secondly, how does that digital readership break down in terms of people who were just curious and those who would be prepared to support the brand financially? In other words, what’s the conversion rate? How susceptible is it to change over a period of time? And what would those readers be prepared (or able) to spend?

There’s an assumption, all too easily made, that because a brand is popular, it must grow from that base. That’s an untested presumption for this brand, because the Sussex’s have never tried to sell anything as a brand up until now. They have gathered a following – a very impressive following – but profile doesn’t always translate to profit. And support may look solid – but it can dissipate as quickly as it forms.

Certainly, by potentially offering a full range of ways to access the brand – from inexpensive stationery lines through to exclusive speaking engagements – and complementing those with coverage and endorsement across a full range of media channels, the Duke and Duchess could offer a continuing stream of ways to access and support the brand across a range of price points. That’s a good thing. It will help ensure that the brand doesn’t get locked into channels and/or appearances that are elite and that make people feel excluded. It will enable them to reach people with offerings that stretch from free-to-read through to thousands of dollars to attend.

However, given the couple’s stated reluctance to engage with the media, they may or may not receive the attention they want in a way that they could have counted on once. Talking to grass-roots media may help them feel more accessible but it won’t preclude the mainstream media from covering their every move in ways that they see fit and that continue to generate readers, scandal and advertising audiences. As I said, I doubt whether media interest is going to decrease – so, another challenge will be whether the Duke and Duchess are even  prepared to engage with the media they currently see as the enemy to the degree that other stakeholders may want them to. For example, how would they respond to media requests for a book or film they were involved with?

Is there a risk too of crisis fatigue? That, if the headlines continue to roll out, interest in the Sussex’s and their brand wanes as people feel overloaded. It could go the other way of course. I guess we’ll see.

For people who want a quieter life though, balancing profile and privacy is always going to be a challenge. In a world of distractions, holding the attention of many, and monetising that in ways that are in alignment with the Sussex Royal brand, will be difficult. Too much coverage or the wrong types of appearances or deals and they could easily be perceived to have sold out. That might lose them the exclusivity that currently gives them kudos and desirability. Too little coverage and there’s a chance that everyone moves on, they are eclipsed by others (including The Firm itself) or that they can’t get the traction they expected and/or that others expected of them.

The big unknown here of course is the impact of no longer being HRH. To what extent are the couple followed for their own right and to what extent are they celebrities because of the family they are part of? Will there be a fall-off in the months and years ahead, and how rapidly could that happen? While many have made the comparison between the Obamas and the Sussex’s, the fact is that the Obamas didn’t leave the offices of the President and the First Lady while they were still in office. Bill Clinton survived impeachment to carve out a very lucrative speaking career – so this could go either way. It will depend how it’s managed.

Writing in The Telegraph, Matthew Lynn is not fully convinced that success is a gimme. There are many examples of celebrities who have managed to turn their fame into money, he says, but there are also plenty of examples of famous people who have failed to do so and sobering examples of celebrity brands that did well for a while before crashing to Earth.

“If it is done right, it can be an incredibly powerful set-up. The celebrity brings fame, aspiration, and a ton of free publicity, and if they can match that up with a well-designed product, great distribution, and wrap it all up in a value-for-money package, then a star brand can be a lucrative proposition … [But] Just because you are famous, it doesn’t automatically mean you can turn that into ringing cash tills.”

Lynn cites three potential barriers:

  1. The real value of the brand once the couple are outside the Royal Family
  2. The serious business savvy needed to make success happen – and keep it going
  3. Sales and headline money do not equate with profit. “The stars that make it work are commercially savvy first, and famous second, not the other way around.”

I think it will ultimately come down to the Sussex’s ability to organise, publicise and ‘commercialise’ what they have to offer in ways that make sense as a package to their fans. Perhaps their greatest asset in this regard appears to be their networks. Between them, Meghan and Harry seem to have enough connections with the great, the good and the famous to ensure they are powerfully and regularly endorsed, and, handled well, that should only add to their addictiveness. They can be seen in a range of places with a range of people doing a range of things, and that could well serve to make them more intriguing and therefore addictive. Again – that depth and breadth of network may or may not last now that they are no longer officially royal.

For that reason, I would give them a high score when it comes to potential addictive expandability – probably a 4/5 – but with conditions. They have a brand which, if handled properly, could allow them to expand into new areas and engage new audiences. With the right advice, they should be able to build an accessible business with multiple revenue points that continues to surprise and delight. But that assumes they can attract and hold the talent needed to make this happen, and that those people will act in the best long-term interests of the Sussex’s. And it assumes they have enough talking points to keep people deeply engaged, and that they have access to channels that can keep people informed to the degree needed.

Is the Sussex Royal brand story strong enough?

The Storied element of the Sussex Royal brand may be less powerful than the Sussex’s might have hoped because there is no official royal endorsement for what they are doing. As non-working royals, all the access to the royal traditions and heritage that could have informed their identity and value are pretty much no longer there. They retain a lingering prestige of course but they will not be representing the Queen in any capacity nor will they be touring the Commonwealth or undertaking any level of royal duties.

That will mean that the Sussex’s will need to forge a new story that somehow invokes the roles they had without depending on it. Critical to getting this story right will be aligning the Meghan and Harry, that fans think they know, with the people and the brand that they will need to be going forward. There’s some continuity there of course in that they may continue to be associated with respected and well-known charities, but for those associations to be anything more than credentials, the Sussex Royal brand will need to lay out a narrative for itself that links with their ‘go to market’ strategy.

One of the most important aspects they will need to think about, for example, is what does Sussex Royal 2.0 look like? Right now, they have celebrity on their side and they are in the start-up stage of the story, but it won’t be long before the narrative will need a new point of interest to keep it engaging. Unless they plan holistically for how the brand will evolve over time, they could find themselves without the big picture perspectives needed to critically assess and co-ordinate long-term associations and opportunities. For example, what’s the connection between Invictus and Disney?

The strength that established brands can draw on when they expand into new markets is that they have this deep story they can scoop from and refer back to. It’s much harder to do that when the story you grew up with, in the case of Harry, is no longer one that you can publicly access.

In terms of their storied expandability, right now I estimate the brand is about a 2/5. They’re starting to extend their story into various channels but it is early days and their strategy for doing that needs some work. That will change quickly of course if they team up with a master storyteller like Netflix or Disney. I checked this with Pete, and his view is that they could be a 3/5 here if they align their story with their “why”. He also believes that the richness of Harry’s and Meghan’s individual stories is important.

Sussex Royal is a brand that could scale easily and quickly. Or not.

Given the trademarks that they have applied for, the Sussex’s clearly see the potential for a brand that has significant scalability. Their assessment must be that they will have a potential presence in these markets or, at the very least, that they need to preclude others from adopting their identity in those markets. This seems reasonable. One can assume, given their work over the last two years, that the couple see a role for themselves beyond North America and the UK. In that sense, the brand has the potential to engage a multi-national, multi-cultural audience. Certainly the expressions of interest from Disney and Netflix point to scalability not being an issue in terms of reach.

The question then becomes do they have the skills to take themselves global, how they will fund that expansion and who, if anyone, has veto over any deals they may want to do? Any global roll-out could take up a number of forms – from physical appearances to e-commerce potentially. The questions for me revolve around their license to operate. The couple have agreed to uphold the values of the Queen. Just what those values are, and where they impose themselves, remains to be seen.

How independent will they be allowed to be? Who will resource the staff, security, marketing teams and everything else needed to fund the brand going forward and what will they ask and expect in return? What restrictions, if any, are there around who the couple can and cannot partner with (that we may not be privy to)?

While there has been speculation about fashion and high street brand endorsement, it’s hard to imagine the Sussex’s being paid to spruik the range of products that David Beckham has worked for over the years, for example, or to become commercial influencers, without looking like they are “for sale”. Fergie got involved with Weight Watchers. Could Harry also become a product or brand ambassador, and retain credibility?

It’s almost inevitable too that any deals they do, and indeed many of the actions they take, will be scrutinised intently by activists and others to ensure they are staying true to the ethical basis that they have said is central to who they are. Travel, the supply chains of any goods they are associated with, the human rights records of any countries they sell in or travel to – these factors and so many more will test the Sussex’s commitment at every turn. They’ve already had one high-profile run-in with environmentalists over their air travel. That’s just the start. And it will only become more complex and nuanced as the brand grows and the Sussex’s find themselves involved in more and more activities.

As per earlier, this all seems to come back to the idea that they will stand for, and therefore who will fit with that and be prepared to back it financially (and ethically) on an ongoing basis. It’s not impossible of course – both the Obamas and the Clintons have established successful foundations. But no-one’s done it for two ex-royals living in Canada (at least for a while), so it remains to be seen how that will go.

At this point, the brand has a very low scaleability because although they have a very healthy social media following, there is no commercial model in place that I’m aware of, so there is literally nothing to scale. That too could change quickly if the right distribution channel took them on, but again, the terms and length of such an engagement will be very important. A one-off voice over for Disney for example is not going to be enough to keep them globally established. With the right advice, they could be a 5/5 in this space – a portfolio of brands spread across multiple sectors under many different arrangements. Right now though, I can’t score this.

The more vexed issue of ownership

This leads us into the last, and potentially the most difficult aspect of the framework. What do the Sussex’s own? Every brand must be able to lay claim to something substantial and distinctive in order to prosper. On the one hand, the Sussex’s have established a social media site and a domain name and have filed for a trademark. There are already rumours that the Palace may be less than co-operative over the commercial use of their titles.

While I am no intellectual property expert, it strikes me that the difficulty in the Sussex Royal brand is twofold: first of all, the first part of the name was given to them by the Queen (who they no longer represent); and secondly, they are no longer officially royal. So, while a name is just a name, and potentially securable as such, the implications of that name and the associations that come with it are much more delicate matters. It all comes back to the identity that the Sussex’s hold, and have the right to express, beyond the confines of royal life. This is uncharted water.

In terms of ownable expansion potential, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are probably a 1/5 at this point. They can act within what we know them for and for what they have been known, but their rights to their intellectual property have yet to be agreed and it remains to be seen how much ownership they will have of their commercial model. Having said that, they are also “Meghan and Harry” of course, which they own outright and which is beyond any confines of trademark. But I’m going to err on the side of caution for the moment in thinking that the Sussex Royal branding is an important part of their plans.

What is Sussex Royal?

Sussex Royal is an idea with potential, a logotype, a social media presence, a website and a lot that still needs to be worked through. At the moment that potential is completely defined by its two owners, the network they can access and public interest in who they have been. The big questions are how successfully can they translate that intrigue into an expandable brand, and how far and for what period of time can they expect to grow?

So is Sussex Royal an identifier or a brand? If it is an identifier, it is a way for people to recognise the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. When commentators have talked about the future earnings of the Sussex Royal brand, they have talked mostly about what Meghan and Harry could earn individually and collectively, and they have talked about the market rate for people of their fame and standing.

Arguably, a true brand is about much more than that. It’s about the added value that takes a premium brand like theirs beyond what the market would otherwise pay and gives it an enhanced presence and meaning because of that. To achieve that standing, the brand must reach beyond its two founders to stand for something that others want to buy into, both literally and figuratively. Amazon, for example, has its own standing alongside that of its founder. Or closer to home, the Duke and Duchess have only to look at what Prince Charles has been able to do with the Prince’s Trust (a brand that is trusted and successful in its own right, gathers widespread support and complements his life as a working royal).

Summarising the strengths of the Sussex Royal brand

If Sussex Royal wants to expand beyond the natural boundaries of what its owners can do separately and together, I think there are going to be issues. It strikes me that the brand has the latitude to push into a number of areas, and that it has the basis to be addictive enough to keep people’s attention but it will need a brand expansion point that is bigger than their names, and a story that is pertinent to our times and the activities of Sussex Royal. It will need a funding model that aligns with that effortlessly and that enables the brand to grow as it needs to. And it will need to gain (or earn) the credibility to represent whatever Sussex Royal will be in the world. That’s if it survives as Sussex Royal as a brand name at all.

It probably doesn’t need all those things to afford the Sussex’s a very comfortable life and to give them the financial independence they seek. So it will be interesting to compare in the months and years ahead how far the Duke and Duchess of Sussex want to go, who they choose to work with and the difference that they decide they want to make through the work they do. The alternative might be that Sussex Royal essentially becomes the production house for a book deal, some television appearances and acting and speaking gigs – potentially with some big numbers attached to them, but maybe not the level of brand that some have mooted recently.

Stacy Jones, who I referred to earlier, has indicated that the Sussex Royal brand will need to do a number of things to achieve its potential:

  • They will at some point need to realign with the royal family in some way because this is the golden goose for them in terms of their brand’s success;
  • They will need to be careful to avoid associating themselves with anything that compromises their kudos, and that includes tell-all book deals or negative interviews that cast a bad light on the Royal Family;
  • They will probably need to align themselves with established charities that are powerful brands in their own right. These will need to complement what the Sussex Royal brand stands for;
  • They will need to avoid the temptation to chase ‘quick money’; and
  • They will need to continue to feel relatable at the same time as they unfold a story that works across generations.

As I said, a lot of people have been very quick to identify Sussex Royal as a massive brand in the making but if you add up the scores I’ve given them so far, I think they’re around half way towards having a powerful and expandable brand on four key aspects (10/20) – with conditions, and one very large unknown. I would assess the ability of this brand to expand going forward as looking good but with some critical elements still to be confirmed. I’ll continue to keep this story (and the scores) updated as we learn more.

What’s your assessment?

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