The Meghan Effect: relevance can't be faked, but agility can be learned

Mark Borkowski is founder and head of Borkowski PR. You can find him on Twitter @MarkBorkowski

We all knew Meghan Markle was coming and that she was going to be news. But as Prince Harry’s new fiance admitted herself in that joyful interview, even she didn’t quite realise how huge. If ever a news story coincided with the zeitgeist and had a perfect symbol, Meghan is it.

Her official arrival was a stone landing in glassy water. The ripple effects are already being felt by the royal family and the media alike. This is profound disruption and brand owners and marketers should take note. The ultimate heritage brand has understood the need for marketing agility.

If ever you needed evidence that “disruption” is a thing and not just a marketing cliche, enter Meghan. She possesses that magical thing called “the It factor” and in doing so she personifies an overnight overthrowing of so much the royals have previously rejected. She’s American, a divorcee, a woman of mixed race, a Catholic (although she will be baptised into the Church of England) and a career woman. Meghan looked Hollywood-groomed because, as an accomplished actress, she is. For centuries, actresses have been British royals’ secret mistresses, not their wives.

Even William and Kate suddenly risk looking a little “old school”, although they have scarcely put a foot wrong. Kate is no longer the new fashionable thing. For William, like his father, the inexorable “wait” itself is his own brand relevance dilemma. Charles is 69 and he may not get the top job until he is 80. Good genes could be seen as the curse of the House of Windsor.

Meanwhile, the world’s ultimate heritage brand is being disrupted by the “Meghan Effect.”

The new lessons apply not only to those brands directly associated with Charles – The Prince’s Trust and Duchy Originals. Beyond the royals, the “Meghan Effect” throws a spotlight on Britain and British brands and which side of the relevance divide they stand. What do last week’s British values already so challenged by Brexit stand for after this week’s news?

It’s a shared dilemma for any heritage brand when a disruptor enters their marketplace. Suddenly it’s no longer acceptable just to be doing the doing in your own bubble. Heads-down competence is not good enough in the era of constant, merciless social media scrutiny, instant comparisons and technology-led imminent obsolescence.

How did every truck manufacturer feel when Elon Musk unveiled the futuristic Tesla last month, however much it was a stunt? Perhaps they scoffed as James Dyson’s rivals did when he unveiled his first vacuum cleaner, or most famously when Apple launched the iPhone. Success can lull any brand into a comfort zone. Remember Nokia chief executive Stephen Elop’s infamous remark announcing its once mighty mobile division’s sale to Microsoft: “We didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow we lost.”

Relevance can’t be faked but agility can be learned. In 2017 agility is not an option. Reputations are lost in a tweeted heartbeat. This week alone, one-time new media darling BuzzFeed lost its buzz, making 100 lay-offs and suddenly looking just as “old media” as Time Inc selling to Meredith. Matt Lauer and Garrison Kellor forfeited decades–held, lucrative jobs. Suddenly toxic, Aung Sung Suu Kyi was stripped of her “Freedom of Oxford” honour. Poisonous Katie Hopkins was dropped by Mail Online because of new legal pay-outs.

However, “Events dear boy, events” can work to your advantage too: the day after the Brexit bill emerged as an unpalatable reality, Theresa May got an unexpected popularity boost by simply being the target of an unfavourable Donald Trump tweet. Whether her team is agile enough to capitalise on it is another matter, but they should.

The worry for the rest of the royal “Firm” is exactly the same relevance dilemma that provides those lessons for brands. To be fair: post-army Harry has made a pretty good fist of it himself, notably the Invictus Games and campaigning on mental health issues alongside his brother William, demonstrating that they are their mother’s sons. Then along comes Meghan and ticks so many boxes other royals simply can’t.

Poor Charles. He has long believed in and advocated passionately for issues like environmentalism and organic produce. And yet, however worthy and deeply held his convictions, he has faced a lifelong struggle to be relevant: first, the tree-hugging; then the shade to Diana’s light; next, the disaster of the way he/they handled her death and then his association with the much-maligned Camilla.

Years of careful PR handling led by the indomitable Sally Osman have positioned him carefully as serious; a force for good. Suddenly, he is sidelined again. Others in the family have yet to even make that leap, notably Air Miles Andy, despite his trade ambassador role. Where is Edward? Anne? Suddenly, they are all in Meghan’s shade, as they were in Diana’s heyday. Charles and Camilla are anonymous this week.

Meghan’s positive publicity is no accident. There was the warning to the press to back off last year. Those dog-whistling “exotic” descriptors of the early reports on their romance now make the tabloids and tweeters using them, instantly old-fashioned, reactionary. Her indisputable relevance, has even forced some ardent republicans to publicly rein in their natural distaste.

To be clear there was a masterplan: being written out of Suits months ago; staging their first couple outing at the worthy Invictus Games; the soft Vanity Fair cover article; dropping her existing Canadian charity associations, notably World Vision. It’s “somehow” known she has looked into transporting her dogs, Guy and Bogart, one of whom is too old to emigrate. It’s all a social media gift.

These lessons for other brands only go so far: she was lucky in her timing, epitomising an antidote to the Weinstein-era behaviour. Brands will have to stand up to much tougher scrutiny than that pooled royal interview. The inherent level of interest in Meghan is off the charts. But the big lesson is that although relevance can’t be faked, you need to be agile enough to recognise it and make it work for you – even if you don’t own it yourself.

Mark Borkowski is the founder of Borkowski.do. He tweets @MarkBorkowski

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