King Charles III sits on a throne with a crown resting nearby.
King Charles III has the opportunity to be “an ambassador for goodwill,” according to Vann Graves, executive director of the Brandcenter at VCU. (Copyright House of Lords 2022 / Photography by Annabel Moeller)

Fit for a (new) king? Charles can move the British monarchy forward, VCU Brandcenter leader says

But Vann Graves, Ed.D., says royalty must confront history to influence modern perceptions.

Share this story

For the first time in more than 70 years, the monarchy of the United Kingdom has a new leader.

King Charles III ascended to the throne with the passing of Queen Elizabeth II in September. While his reign will undoubtedly be much shorter than his mother’s, he has much to do. Though the king’s power is largely ceremonial, Charles represents the royal institution, which goes back more than 1,000 years. Already blemished by personal scandal and blatant ties to racism and slavery, the institution’s reputation — or brand, if you will — cannot withstand more hits. 

“The monarchy is a commodity in many ways that has a brand. And it's one that's been leveraged,” said Vann Graves, Ed.D., executive director of the Brandcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University. “The reputation, it's a part of British culture, it's a part of British history. It's a part of the British experience or the English experience.

“Some people confuse a logo or trademark or visual identity with the brand. Those are part of the brand experience. But when I look at a brand, I really believe a brand is the feeling that you have about a product, a service, a company. Marketers and advertisers can't really control what a brand is, but they can influence it, and really shape and engage your perceptions of it.”

As the May 6 coronation of Charles nears, Graves spoke with VCU News about the new king’s opportunity to bring the monarchy’s brand into the 21st century.

As king, what is Charles’ role in maintaining the monarchy’s brand?

I think he's got a dual role. Some of it is he's the head of the corporation — the CMO [chief marketing officer] — and also the lead brand ambassador. He's the spokesperson, who is meant to represent what the monarchy is and should be, and keep the monarchy's brand in a positive light.

His mother, Queen Elizabeth II, was a different brand ambassador because she had a very long legacy, and so the expectations for the queen were much more reserved and conservative because that was always her legacy and always a part of her persona. As the brand ambassador, she didn't address a lot of controversy that King Charles may need to — historical controversy at that.

During World War II, she was looked to as the leader of the country, as that brand ambassador. But over time, [her image] got shtook much later in her life around Princess Diana and even later with Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.

So I think the responsibilities may be different. King Charles, as now the brand ambassador, will have to deal with some of the legacy of that history that has never been addressed. And that has been shrouded in elitism, but also hid much of the colonialism and racism which came [to light] in 2020.

I think he would, if he really wants to uphold or keep the legacy and the brand in good standing, he's going to have to address that. I think it will be hard for him to punt it to Prince William.

At age 74, can Charles be expected to breathe new life into this brand?

Yes. I think at 74 he has the perfect opportunity to tee the future up for his sons by taking some of the heat off of this pressure cooker. There's a legacy of slavery that was sanctioned by a royal charter in 1663 and has touched every corner of the world.

Unlike the United States, which has chosen not to apologize fully for those things, here's an opportunity because Charles is not really the head of state but a symbol, an ambassador. And he could be more so than ever an ambassador for goodwill, just to truly apologize, and then do those actions that could support that.

[For instance], the British Museum still has many artifacts from the Benin Bronzes [from the former Kingdom of Benin]. They haven't been returned. The Great Star of Africa, which is the diamond [set in the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross] in the Crown Jewels. You have the Second Star of Africa [set in the Imperial State Crown], too. So two of the largest diamonds.

Words are fine, but the actions are forever. There is no way to turn back time on the atrocities that have happened, but they have an opportunity to help the world move forward, to be leaders in this. They led the problem ­— they have the opportunity to lead the solution. These are just actions that could be taken that aren't, again, matters of state per se but are matters of culture. And when you're talking about brand, brand is about culture and its impact on people, culture and perception.

The monarchy is under a lot of scrutiny right now, including a special investigation on its ties to slavery and the slave trade (for which VCU's Brooke Newman is lead researcher). As one of the oldest institutions in the world, how can it bring its image into the 21st century?

There are some pop-culture opportunities that I think would be helpful. I'm assuming that there are rules around what goes on with what “the Firm” does and what the monarchs have done historically. But an opportunity to break through is if Charles hopped on a plane to have lunch with his son and daughter-in-law and played with his grandchildren in an authentic, realistic, unposed way. You don't need cameras, but people will know.

The issues that came out around the duchess reek of the history of colonialism and racism. And as the patriarch of the family, he has an opportunity to restore that — but also again, to help to build the next generation of the brand.

What would you like to add?

There is still a lot of power in the monarchy as far as its brand. I think there's a value that's leveraged, especially internally, and I think there's a level of romanticism that much of the world still has about the monarchy, in spite of its history.

However, I think it's important that they address that history because the younger generations care about the history, care about legacy and care about fixing the ills of the past to ensure a positive future.