College of Business: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Research with a Royal Twist


Long live “The Queen” – and our fascination with royalty.

Cele Otnes, a professor of marketing in the College of Business at the University of Illinois, isn’t surprised that “The Queen” is an Oscar nominee for this year’s best picture. She is researching and writing a book on the British Royal Family as a “brand” and says Americans can’t get enough of the Royals. The film portrays Queen Elizabeth II and Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair in the week following Princess Dianna’s death.

“Americans are fascinated with royalty,” Otnes said, “namely because Americans will never have it. We don’t have the rituals and pomp associated with royalty, and we are fascinated with all the majesty that goes along with it. It fits into our appreciation of luxury as a cultural value – although it will never be accessible to us culturally.”

Understanding the monarchy as a “corporate heritage brand” is a relatively new idea among academicians. Furthermore, researchers have largely ignored the intersection of heritage brands and consumption, Otnes says. Her research examines the various roles that collectors of British Royal Family brand memorabilia have in shaping brand meaning for other consumers.

Otnes’s research has taken her to the UK several times since 2004, interviewing collectors of memorabilia, reporters and consumers with a keen interest in the Royals.
Otnes says her research subjects do more than just collect knickknacks, but are really helping to shape the brand as a group of influencers she calls a brand tribe. One woman in particular is the subject of close investigation as a tribe member, and has taken on a role as the British Royal Family ambassador. Through a museum in her home packed floor to ceiling with over 7,000 Royal souvenirs and collectibles, she is helping to maintain and nurture the brand and is often sought out by international press. Among the tribes, she is affectionately known as “Britain’s Loyalist Royalist.”

British Royal Family tribes have shown an adaptability and fluidity with the media, Otnes reports.  In a recent book chapter, she describes how key members of the tribe rally around to help put on a good show for German TV cameras reporting on the Queen’s 80th birthday:

“Wearing a gigantic, carnivalesque, red, white and blue hat, Dan passes union jack flags and hats around to everyone around the table.  As they finish their first rendition of Britain’s national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” Victor spontaneously adds “three cheers for the Queen,” and receives an enthusiastic response. This is then incorporated in the next takes.”
British royalty has interested Americans from the revolution era of George III through Edward VIII's 1936 abdication to marry an American divorcee. When actress and Philadelphia socialite Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956, America briefly joined the royal club until she died in a 1982 automobile accident.
“Our obsession with royalty began when it first really became accessible,” Otnes explains. “In the 1960’s Queen Elizabeth made the decision to invite the public to view the inside of Buckingham Palace.  Until then, commoners had never had a glimpse of the castle let alone the Royals’ lives.  It’s also the heritage of a significant number of people in America, about 100 million.”

UIUC College of Business