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The Palace's Problem with the Sussexes' Royal Brand

Friday, February 21, 2020

Harry and Meghan at the UK Team Trials for the Invictus Games in Bath, UK, Apr. 6, 2018

This week featured some interesting updates on the Sussexes. Rebecca English published an exclusive in which she claims that the Queen has conclusively determined that the Sussexes cannot use the word “royal” in their branding. This seems like it should be an obvious extension of her decision to squash their hopes of creating a “progressive new role” within the institution, but, at the time that the Palace gave details about the Sandringham Summit, there was no decision or guidance given on the status of the Sussexes’ trademark and branding using “Sussex Royal.” I suspect that Harry and Meghan have been lobbying very hard to keep it, for many obvious reasons, but if Rebecca’s story is true, that effort has ended in defeat. She wrote:
The Mail understands that, amid what has been described as a 'complex' situation, the 'fine detail' is still being thrashed out.
However, it is understood the couple have accepted that, as part of their new working arrangements, they will not be able to use the Sussex Royal name as they had hoped.
Shortly after this story broke, a number of other royal reporters were able to share from Palace sources more details about the couple’s upcoming exit. Remember that the Palace made clear at the time of the Summit that Harry and Meghan would slowly transition out, with their complete departure not happening until the spring. So, although some fans were confused that the Sussexes still have engagements on the calendar, this was always the plan. Royal reporters are now telling us that the Palace has told them that March 31st is the final day, and the couple’s Buckingham Palace office will no longer be functioning on the 1st of April. Between then and now, the couple will undertake a number of engagements in the UK. 

There was some particularly interesting new news, though. The Palace also indicated that Harry will maintain his military ranks and his honorary positions for the duration of the “review period” (which, remember, is 12 months), and that although he will not fulfill any engagements in that capacity, he will not be replaced in his roles during the review period. 

Finally, it sounds like the Sussexes’ new foundation will launch later this spring, at which point the new branding will be revealed (the Palace did not confirm or deny that the two cannot use ‘royal’). 


What Does All This Mean?



Part of this new news is not surprising, because permitting the Sussexes to continue to use the royal label was really out of the question. The brand is part and parcel with royalty. The same reasons that compelled the Palace to take the hardline they did and deny Harry and Meghan royal status compels the Palace to also require that the two stop using "royal" in their branding. For me, the official line at the time of the Sandringham Summit (that they were doing everything in their power to "find a way" for Harry and Meghan) has always been a little bit of a head scratcher. I wonder what exactly was floated, because it seems an either/or choice. 

I don't think the Palace could have made any decision but this one, so perhaps the more interesting question is, why this delay in announcing the status of the couple’s brand? 

Although I have seen some fans try to soften what happened with Harry and Meghan's sudden departure, the reports were all but unambiguous. Harry and Meghan did not warn their family they were taking the drastic step that they did (whatever notice they provided—a few hours, a day—was not meaningful). When they announced, the Palace, the press, and the people were left reeling. The Sussexes' shock announcement sparked a dizzying period of meetings and, of course, the tough news for the Sussexes that their plan had a few hitches.

My first suspicion was that the Palace was trying to gauge public opinion on this topic. The Queen had to make a quick decision at the Sandringham Summit, and she made the right one—they couldn't stay royal—but it was a hard and probably not the one she emotionally wanted to make. There is a possibility that a second "have your cake and eat it, too" plan was floated. If the Sussexes kept "royal" in their branding, it would make the Queen's technical ruling effectively null. She may have decided to let the PR shop do some digging and test some polls. Obviously, the public reaction was not positive, and so if this was ever the strategy, it proved up that the Queen had taken the right course and they couldn't have it both ways. This option is remote. With this new news I think the situation comes into much clearer focus. 

The Palace appears to be trying to maintain and mothball as much of Harry and Meghan’s royal life as possible so the two can take it back up again with relative ease. 



Think about it from the BRF's side.  It was just two years ago that we were gearing up for a second spectacular royal wedding. Harry, who had gotten his mental health to a good place, had found the woman who could handle the strain of his public life and join him on that platform, and he was finally set to wed. There was no indication at that time that within two years he would mentally spiral as he has, or that the newly minted Duke and Duchess of Sussex would be relinquishing their royal roles. This was not only not the expectation, but it almost certainly isn’t the best course of action for Harry, and I suspect his family—his father and grandmother especially—know that with a deep visceral certainty. 

We already knew that the Palace was leaving the door open for the Sussexes, but I think this new news (particularly about leaving Harry’s military positions untouched during review) is a more intentional “review process” than we first realized. From the perspective of anyone trying to “mothball” the couple’s royal life, the big hitch is, of course, the branding. It’s not something that can hang in limbo. 

The Sussexes like their brand “Sussex Royal.” Rebranding is both embarrassing and duplicative in terms of cost and effort. If they return to the royal fold in a year, keeping Sussex Royal would be the ideal option. But, it can’t be left in limbo—they can’t conduct business in the interim without a brand and since they might not come back (and even if they do, this next year is off the leash, so to speak) they just can’t use it. They have to rebrand. I think when they launch their foundation in the next month or so, it will be with fresh branding that does not include royal—but maybe something that could transition nicely back into the royal fold? 

To conclude, the most interesting aspect of all this is probably what it hints at with respect to the internal thought-process. The long hesitation from the Palace, and this additional news that Harry’s military roles won’t be filled during the test period, make me wonder… Is the Palace very optimistic that the couple will return? Or are the Sussexes hedging their bets as strongly as possible? Because the real news this week is not so much any individual point—like the Sussexes can’t keep ‘royal’ in their branding—but rather how important this test period actually is. It isn’t an escape clause that has been casually included at the end of the Sandringham Summit agreement as an after-thought, it seems to be (or have become) the centerpiece—the focus.