A crown in need of a rebrand

King Juan Carlos turned 75 on Saturday, but the celebrations were muted A year of scandals has seen the popularity of the monarchy reach an all-time low

Natalia Junquera
The annual military ceremony, held on Sunday, was attended by Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia (l), King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía (second from left), and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (center, with beard and glasses).
The annual military ceremony, held on Sunday, was attended by Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia (l), King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía (second from left), and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (center, with beard and glasses).J. L. (EFE)

Over the last year, several members of the Royal Household have publically mentioned a 2006 article published in the Journal of Brand Management, which explores monarchies through a corporate branding lens. Based on extensive field interviews of individuals with knowledge and experience in "managing the Monarchy as a brand," including senior members of the Swedish Royal Court and the Swedish Royal Family, the research paper also draws from literature regarding monarchies across a range of disciplines beyond management. The authors' conclusion is that the monarchy, as an institution, is very much like a corporate brand, including amenability to being managed in a manner analogous to that for a corporate brand, albeit with a more illustrious heritage.

In short, they conclude, monarchies depend on the support of the electorate and the political system - if they lose either, they are lost. To avoid this, kings and queens need to be constantly asking themselves the question, "How well are we doing?" in just the same way as any other brand would.

The willingness of Prince Felipe, the heir to the throne, to mention the study gives a clear indication of the Spanish monarchy's recognition that it must rebrand itself, change its strategy, and that instead of merely evolving over time, it must now implement what one source in the Royal Household has called "a revolution."

As in other royal families around Europe, the children of King Juan Carlos have married commoners, a decision that made them seem more normal: Princess Cristina married a former handball player; her sister divorced her financier husband; and Prince Felipe married a divorced journalist.

Monarchies are lost without the support of the electorate and the political system

In the summer of 2011, veteran diplomat Rafael Spottorno, who had been the king's personal secretary between 1992 and 2003, took over as head of the Royal Household. He was joined by journalist Javier Ayuso as press officer. They have worked to continue the policy of keeping the royal family out of the gossip press, and have strived to get more coverage of the king and Prince Felipe in the economy, international and politics sections of the media.

But events overtook them: firstly the crisis, then closer to home, the fraud and money-laundering charges against Iñaki Urdangarin, the king's son-in-law. Then came the king's accident while on an elephant-hunting trip in Botswana. The king and his advisors were now on the back foot, and had to come up with more than just a few long-term goals, as they had done a decade earlier when, in the run-up to Prince Felipe's wedding, they started grooming the heir apparent for his future role as head of state. "That was easy, because he's so intelligent," says one former employee of the Royal Household. "Everybody is impressed by him - in fact he is now more popular than the king himself."

Prince Felipe (l) and the king (c) stop to chat with Catalan regional premier Artur Mas (r).
Prince Felipe (l) and the king (c) stop to chat with Catalan regional premier Artur Mas (r).ZIPI (EFE)

In a matter of weeks, the monarchy's support among the public fell sharply, particularly among young people born after the death of Franco, and who are not impressed by stories of the role the king played during the failed military coup of 1981 or in helping steer Spain from dictatorship to democracy.

Catalans, Basques, and leftists criticize king's comments


King Juan Carlos's comments during his television interview on Friday night about "the intransigence that accompanies extremist policies" prompted sharp criticism from Catalan and Basque nationalist politicians, while the United Left described the televised appearance as a "missed opportunity."

The monarch spoke of the importance of unity in the wake of independence campaigns in Catalonia, saying: "Those who hold extreme views lead us to separatist politics, which are not good for us. At this time, it is better for Spain to be united, all of us together."

The governing Popular Party (PP) praised the king's message of unity, while the main opposition Socialists made no official comment. The PP's spokesman in the Catalan regional parliament, Enric Millo, said that the king sent out a message of unity that was "conciliatory and necessary" in the rare television interview. Millo highlighted what he said was the need for unity "at this difficult time." He added that he believed the king's comments "are in line with those of the majority of Catalans and Spaniards," and that most Catalans, in his view, believe that independence for the region would weaken it, and Spain.

The regional government in Catalonia has said that it intends to hold a referendum on separation from Spain next year.

The center-right Convergence and Union (CiU) bloc, which runs Catalonia, made no comment on the king's interview. Alfred Bosch, the spokesman for the leftwing Catalan Republican Party (ERC) in Congress, accused the king of "condemning" Catalonia's efforts to achieve independence despite not being elected or having to answer to anybody. "We are not going to give up our campaign just because a head of state says so," said Bosch, pointing out that he wants to see a peaceful and democratic transition toward independence.

Bosch suggested to King Juan Carlos that he follow the example of Queen Elizabeth II, who has kept silent on the referendum to be held in Scotland in 2014 on independence. "He should stop worrying about these things and be more concerned about putting his own house in order," said Bosch.

Laia Ortiz, of pro-referendum Initiative for Catalonia, released a statement saying that the king had "wrongly diagnosed" the situation in the country. She described the interview as a "joke that shows that the crown is on the way out."

In reference to the country's Constitution, which guarantees the unity of Spain, she added: "The king always talks about unity and shutting others up, but he doesn't understand that the constitutional agreement is finished."

She said it was unfortunate that the king "talks about conflict and breakup," instead of discussing government policies to break up the welfare state. "This was a superficial interview, scandalous, and part of a week in which state television has celebrated the figure of the king, without ever questioning his role."

Speaking on behalf of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), Senator Iñaki Anasagsti - who last year proposed the idea of creating a Catalan-Basque-Navarrese monarchy around Domingo de Habsburgo-Borbón, the Habsburg-Bourbon Carlist claimant to the Spanish throne - said: "The king talks about separatists, not about separators, nor about the reasons for the decline in relations between different regions," adding that the interview was "full of generalizations and obvious comments that told us nothing new. The questions were clearly prepared, as were the answers."

The United Left leader, Gaspar Llamazares, described the interview as a "missed opportunity," saying that instead of shedding more light on the workings of the Royal Household, "the refusal to pose delicate questions cast more doubt on it." He went on to say that "the worst thing is that aside from being a missed opportunity, it was erroneous, because the moderator was clearly speaking from a political standpoint. We have had one blunder after another this last year, and this was yet another."

The first warning signs came in October 2011, when the annual opinion poll by the government-funded Center for Sociological Studies (CIS) showed that over the preceding decade, support for the monarchy had fallen sharply. In 1998, 72 percent of Spaniards preferred a monarchy over a republic, with only 11 percent in favor of doing away with the crown.

By 2010, that difference was 57 percent and 35 percent respectively; this year, it has slipped further, to 53 percent and 37 percent. The king fared much worse than Prince Felipe, while a survey by the Real Elcano think-tank shows that Queen Sofía is regarded as a better ambassador for Spain than her husband or son.

Aware that his family is now under greater scrutiny than ever before, the king offered to publish - albeit in no great detail - how the Royal Household spends the 8.1 million euros it is allotted by the state annually, as well as taking a seven-percent pay cut. The king is paid 292,752 euros a year, and Prince Felipe 141,376 euros. But in April 2012, after several months of trying to repair the damage caused by the extensive coverage of the corruption case involving Urdangarin - which involved excluding his son-in-law and daughter from official events, as well as saying that "justice must be applied to all" in his 2011 Christmas speech - came the hunting accident.

"Botswana was a turning point," say sources in the Royal Household. Given that the public was unaware that he had been in Africa hunting elephants, the initial response was to try to cover up the accident, but it was decided that the affair would eventually leak out, making matters worse. Capturing the public mood, the media's criticism of the king was unprecedented, as was the monarch's response. He appeared on television to apologize, attempting to reach out to his subjects, saying: "I am very sorry, I made a mistake, and it won't happen again."

King Juan Carlos was clearly shaken by the repercussions of the hunting accident. At the private meetings that he regularly holds with business leaders, politicians, journalists, and others to gauge the public's mood, he asked about the affair. Nine months on, the feeling is that the apology worked. "It made him more human," says Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo. Once again, the Royal Household seemed to lose the initiative, and was being forced into reacting to events rather than leading them. "I cried when I saw the king asking to be forgiven. It made me very angry: he's the king!" says one former employee of the Zarzuela royal palace.

The police investigation into Urdangarin amid a worsening economic crisis had already put the spotlight on the monarchy, and the public was angry that the king could go hunting at such a time - although his fondness for shooting animals was well known - and broke the taboo of discussing his private life. The media was awash with discussion about his "friendships," and there was talk about his succession. Prince Felipe stepped into the breach, attending more and more official acts, including meetings with the military. Soon, both King Juan Carlos and Prince Felipe were to take on a bigger role in trying to secure contracts for Spanish industry around the world.

The pair have since become economic ambassadors for Spain, roving the globe to open new markets in India, Brazil and Russia. The king plans to visit China this year. Arturo Fernández, the deputy president of the CEOE business confederation, who accompanied the king on his trip to India in October along with other business leaders, says: "He is our best ambassador; whenever he comes along, we sign contracts. It's been a difficult year for him, and for everybody, with a lot of problems, but he has made a tremendous effort, despite his health problems: his hip gave him hell."

At times during the trip to India, Juan Carlos was clearly suffering from the pain his hip was causing him, having decided, against the advice of his doctor, to delay a third operation. The king hates to discuss his health, telling a group of journalists last year: "You love to stick the knife in." But the question has prompted a growing number of commentators to wonder if it isn't time he stood down. He raised the matter during a television interview with veteran journalist Jesús Hermida on Friday, on the eve of his 75th birthday: "I am in good form, with plenty of energy, and above all, the desire to continue."

I would like to be remembered as the king who has united Spaniards"

No mention was made either of the corruption scandal that has engulfed Urdangarin, husband of the king's youngest daughter, who was in court last February accused of embezzling public funds.

But the king used the interview as an opportunity to remind Spaniards of his role in smoothing Spain's transition to democracy after the 1975 death of dictator General Francisco Franco.

"I would like to be remembered as the king who has united Spaniards; that with him democracy and the monarchy have been recovered," he said.

And he added that he had no intention of abdicating and handing the throne over to his son Crown Prince Felipe, 45 although he said his heir was "very well prepared to reign."

According to the polls carried out by the Royal Household from time to time - to see how its products are doing in the market, just as any other brand would, and which are never published - the institution has recovered from the Botswana hunting accident. But it has suffered long-term, perhaps permanent damage from the Urdangarin scandal. "We lost a lot of ground there. That has been the most damaging thing to have ever happened. We are working very hard to try to overcome it. When things calm down, people will see the advantages of the monarchy, which after all, costs us 18 cents each a year and that at a time of crisis can have a huge influence, such as building the high-speed rail link in Saudi Arabia between Mecca and Medina, where [former French President] Sarkozy played his best hand but lost to the king."

Finally, there is the role that the king plays in providing the country with a sense of identity at a time of mounting tension between the regions. King Juan Carlos brought the matter up during his interview last week, saying that this is one of his biggest concerns.

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