Meghan and Harry Are Stuck in a Risky Mid-Pandemic Rebrand

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Meghan and Harry Are Stuck in a Risky Mid-Pandemic Rebrand

After a flurry of beautifully costumed final engagements, Harry and Meghan have officially left the Firm, and as of April 1, they are no longer “working royals.” They’ve said farewell to their Sussex Royal Instagram account, as they will no longer be using the brand, and they’re settling into their new home base in Los Angeles, where their new, Hollywood-adjacent advisors are based, just ahead of Meghan’s Disney+ premiere as narrator of the wildlife documentary Elephant. They’re poised for their next act—or at least they were, before the advent of covid-19.

When Harry and Meghan first announced their plans to break away from their official roles within the royal family, one of their stated reasons was a desire to make their own money; one of the most interesting questions is how they’re going to go about that. Clearly, they’ve got to make a living somehow: Their security costs alone are likely to be significant. But while details are still scant, there have been clues and signals about their new direction. For one thing, their social causes will likely remain a core aspect of their public identity: Their new chief of staff is Catherine St. Laurent, who previously worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the New York Times says she’ll run their new non-profit organization. But they are going to have to find ways to generate serious income, without appearing to cash in on their royal connections. They face the tricky task of replanting their brand from the specific soil of royalty—and in the middle of international upheaval, no less.

One of the most obvious possibilities is that they follow in the footsteps of the Obamas with some sort of production deal. There has been persistent talk of their working with Netflix; “Who wouldn’t be interested?” replied chief content officer Ted Sarandos when asked about the prospect of working with the couple. That’s not exactly an announcement of contracts signed, but Meghan’s glossy effort for Disney offers some clues about what such a deal with Netflix or another streaming platform might look like: polished but pitched at a mass audience. Of course, some British commentators are sneering at the move. TV presenter Lizzie Cundy called it embarrassing, “It’s not what we think our royals should do,” she said. “This is the Duchess of Sussex’s first gig after quitting the Royal Family and she’s going to be doing a documentary on elephants.” The Times of London complained that she was “swapping pomp and circumstance for schmaltz and cheesiness,” making it clear that her offense is to turn her back on the monarchy.

But Elephant is not that dramatic a departure from things the Windsors already do, even if Disney’s particular brand of aggressive family friendliness is new territory. The money is going to a charity, and the royal family also has a longstanding relationship with the monarch of nature documentaries, David Attenborough, who appeared with Elizabeth herself in The Queen’s Green Planet in 2017. (The Queen, in fact, also has a long relationship with elephants.) Even though Meghan is the one with the professional acting background, it’s very easy to imagine Harry taking on his own polished projects about eco-tourism, for instance. He was involved with his brother in both Our Queen at 90 and Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, and he’s already co-executive producing a series on mental health with Oprah. Even his father Charles appeared in a program called Royal Paintbox, showcasing art by royals over the centuries. It’s a logical leap, in other words.

There’s also the prospect of books. It’s probably too much to expect a truly dishy tell-all from either one of them. But there’s plenty of opportunity for the pair there, too: A source told US Weekly that Meghan wants to do another cookbook, following Together: Our Community Cookbook, her 2018 collaboration with Hubb Community Kitchen; there are also reports that she’s working on a children’s book. (Every celebrity seems to have a children’s book now.)

Trickier will be anything that veers outside of the classy environs of discreet books and high-end documentaries. US Weekly’s source said that Meghan is considering relaunching her lifestyle site, The Tig, and even potentially developing a kitchenware line. “Potentially” is doing a lot of work there, but in fact, there’s precedent to suggest that Meghan could pull off a lifestyle pivot, if she wanted.

There’s a long history of commercial appetite for royal associations

While the Windsors themselves are very careful not to be seen as cashing in on their position, there’s a long history of commercial appetite for royal associations. According to Royal Fever: The British Monarch in Consumer Culture, in the second half of the 19th century, the royal family was plastered all over the new products flooding the market as the result of the Industrial Revolution. Nationalistic imagery was a popular way to market British goods, and the Windsors are nothing if not nationalistic imagery. There were ads for Cadbury cocoa featuring Queen Victoria in a train carriage and even an ad for starch featuring the Princess of Wales in a flounced ballgown. Many product names were designed to give a whiff of the royal, even the most mundane items: “Empress brand condensed milk, Regina Queen of Soaps, King and Queen safety matches and Victoria window blind cord.”

Nowadays, the use of the term “royal” and anything else that suggests official sign-off is more tightly legally regulated, hence Harry and Meghan signing off from Sussex Royal. But brands like Fortnum and Mason still proudly display their royal warrants, a form of certification that they supply the Royal Household, and the royals themselves now have a couple of brands centered on food, including Charles’s Duchy Originals, sold at Waitrose, and the Windsor Farm Shop. Even though Harry and Meghan can’t officially market themselves as royal, if Meghan did decide to Tiegan herself, as long as she’s careful about tasteful positioning, she’d benefit from the halo effect—especially in America, where nobody cares about the particulars of whether they’re working royals or not.

But, of course, a global pandemic will complicate all of that.

Coronavirus has actually made Harry and Meghan’s break with the monarchy sharper than it would have been, otherwise. Harry was planning to attend both the London Marathon and the Invictus Games; the family very likely would have appeared on the balcony at Trooping the Color, the annual official celebration of the sovereign’s birthday. Instead, the couple are tucked up inside their new Los Angeles home for the foreseeable future. “Meghan lays down the law and forbids Harry from going back to UK to see coronavirus-infected Prince Charles,” the blared, as though we weren’t all being warned by every health authority in the world to stay the hell home if possible, including princes.

And, too, it seems they might lie lower than they might have. A source told the Sun that the couple would outline their plans online this week: “A post will explain everything. It’s very Harry and Meghan to announce their plans on Instagram.” But a Sussex spokesperson told Good Morning America that the couple will “spend the next few months focusing on their family and continuing to do what they can, safely and privately, to support and work with their pre-existing charitable commitments while developing their future non-profit organization,” adding that, “For now, there will be no additional information on their next steps.”

And so instead of rolling out their new lives with a flourish, the couple has launched out of the monarchy into a holding pattern. Only time will tell how their new brand fares in the wake of coronavirus. Maybe at the very least, the British tabloids will get a little perspective on what matters between now and then.

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