After a little more than 30 years of educational and professional dedication, Cele Otnes—Gies College of Business Department Head for Business Administration and Anthony J. Petullo Professor—has a simple clarification she would like to express.
It’s easy for others to assume, Otnes said, that she is a British royal family watcher. After all, she co-wrote a book over the course of nine years called Royal Fever: The British Monarchy in Consumer Culture. She conducted field research throughout England on numerous occasions. She understands the realities of the Crown, the people involved, and what influence the monarchy still exerts on the world.
This level of expertise is also why ABC featured her in a documentary that will air on Aug. 22 and 23, called The Story of the Royals.
Still, Otnes insists, she’s not a royal watcher. She’s a “royal watcher-watcher.”
It’s the consumer experience—whose purchasing habits the royals influence—that is the focus of her book. It’s the complexity of the royal family’s brand that she speaks about to her students in class. It’s the reason the royals remain so compelling across many consumer venues—tourism, memorabilia, fashion, media—that she loves learning about.
Yes, Otnes knows an uncanny amount about the royal family. In advance of her television premiere, the following Q&A seeks to put her passion for this subject matter on display.
Delve into the world of British royalty and consumerism with Cele Otnes before millions more do so, later this week on ABC:
What originally sparked your interest in such a specialized area of research?
“I actually did my dissertation on gift giving in 1989, so almost 30 years ago, and now it’s hard to understand how different gift giving is, with social media and online purchasing. The topic is still very interesting to me, in part, because it’s hugely pervasive. And if you think about all the factors, it’s so interesting from the macro level, all the way down to even a cellular level. What does the pleasure center of our brain do when we get gifts? How does the fact that so many parents have just one child now affect gift giving?
Around the time I started working on the paper, I saw a TV anchor start a spiel about recently being married and having all of these extra people to buy gifts for.
And I thought, ‘Me, too!’ I had recently been married and then had 15 extra people to buy for. What is the deal with that? So I obviously thought that was an interesting topic, and I began reading all of these articles. They covered anxiety and families, as well as the roles we play in the gift giving space.”
In what ways did the royal family begin to enter into the equation, regarding your study of ritual behavior?
“In terms of the royal family, it’s really about cultural rituals. On the day when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were married, I had my own party where we ate lemon-elderberry cupcakes—the same flavors as in their wedding cake. We had people over around 10 a.m. to watch the taped wedding, had brunch, and wore props like tiaras and crowns.
The interesting thing is that in Britain, royal rituals or cultural rituals tap into a whole preexisting structure of ritual activity. The best example of this phenomenon are the street parties. Whenever there is a royal event, entire neighborhoods bring out picnic tables and even pianos to eat, sing, and dance.
So I became interested in rituals when I came to the realization that I like to study how we spend money on things that are really public and visible. These events are typically aesthetic and don’t last very long. And, of course, the royal family is such a great context, because, as a brand, it is so complex.”
What makes the royal family such a ‘complex’ brand?
“In the book we talk of the royal family as comprising five different brands.
- The family brand; clearly the royal family fits this mold. They even bolster this brand by staking a claim—which is sometimes considered very tenuous—about being of direct descent from William the Conqueror, when he became king in 1066.
- Then we have the human brand. I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, because of how fascinated we are with this construct of charisma. Individual members of the royal family contribute to this human brand based on their charismatic presence. For example, Princess Diana was considered one of the most charismatic members of the royal family. She reinvigorated that family with glamour and youth. Even her emotional and passionate manner was so different from the more reserved family traits associated with the family.
- Next is the global brand. The fact remains that at one point in time, one-fourth of the world was controlled by the British Empire. There was a saying then that ‘The sun never sets on the British Empire,’ because, wherever people were in the world, somewhere the sun was up, and one could find a portrait of the Queen hanging over a mantle.
- The fourth type of brand is the luxury brand. People always ask me why if Kate Middleton shows off something like a baby blanket, that brand’s website crashes and the item is sold out in an hour. That’s because she can have whatever she wants, and if she’s bought that brand and it is available to the public for, say, 30 pounds, they’ll buy it, too.
- Finally, there is the heritage brand, which actually distinguishes the royal family from many other brands that also contain the four mentioned above. If you think about the Kardashians, they qualify for the first four types of brand listed. But they do not have this tie to a national heritage that dates back to 1066.”
Was there a moment where you realized, amidst all the work you were doing, there was something bigger possible? There was a book you could write?
“I was in a souvenir store in London. I was with my family on vacation—not conducting research—right after the spring semester 2004. I had a mug in my hand with the Queen’s face on it, and I thought, ‘I want this. I really want to buy this.’
Then I thought, ‘Why? Why do I want to buy this?’
For me, that moment was when I looked around me and it seemed like all of this memorabilia just seemed to stretch into eternity. I felt like I was surrounded by all of this stuff, and I couldn’t get away from it if I even wanted to. I wondered what this was all about. What is all of this stuff? What is the deal with royal consumption?”
As you approach the airing of this documentary on ABC that you were a part of, what were your impressions from filming?
“This is actually their second documentary on the royal family. They did a story on Princess Diana last year. The people involved are being extremely thorough, in regards to the same topic I researched. They won’t delve as far into the consumerism angle as I did, but, of course, you can’t get away from it.
They are looking at what undergirds people’s fascination with the royal family. They’re going back further in time, and, to tell you the truth, it’s hard to botch the story of the royal family. It’s just so inherently interesting.
For their research, they went to England many times. They even asked, before we shot the interview, where they should go in England. At that point, I was like, ‘OK, get out your pen!’ They went to a lot of the places I recommended.”