What we can learn from the business of royalty

A small to medium-sized family-run business based in central London and led by the same person for more than 50 years is a treasure house of online best practice for businesses of all kinds.

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The British royal family likes to think of its itself as ‘the firm’. Its chief executive may be 80 years old, but if you look at the way it presents itself on the worldwide web, there are plenty of parallels with commercial operations. It has to talk to the press and to people looking for jobs, it has to build its brand and, if you stretch definitions a little, it also needs to talk to customers and investors. How well does it stand up?
The first thing to say is that the royal household well understands the importance of the medium. Its website is a slick production with a controlled, homogeneous feel – good for the brand.

Conventional values creatively applied

How a site works also underpins the brand. You would expect this one to be conventional, to work beautifully and to avoid gimmicks. Broadly it succeeds, with neat division into sections such as The Royal Family and History, each of which has its own theme colour. One element that jars, though, is the floating navigation bar. As you scroll down a page, the left-hand links move down in tandem, which has its uses but is just a little unclassy – a bit like putting a spoiler on a Rolls-Royce.
No such problems with the design. Purple, dominant on the home page, can be dangerous on screen – its strength tends to overwhelm everything else and it does not mix well with other colours. But this site shows what a good graphic designer can do. Purple is royal, so it must be used, and it works here because it is carefully blended with the few shades that do harmonise – lighter versions of the same (moving to pink), black, grey and white. The main picture of the Queen shows her wearing a black hat and a dress trimmed with purple; even her lipstick goes quite well.
The look and feel build the brand as well as on any company site. How that’s achieved should be examined particularly by any company burdened with ‘difficult’ corporate colours and inflexible brand guardians.

Functions inconsistently attended to

The corporate functions are linked from the bottom of each page. The British Monarchy Media Centre looks impressive and gives a good practical service to journalists. The royal diary is particularly sophisticated. Here you can find engagements for individual royals (choose from a dropdown menu) or in particular areas (click on a map). Eighty Facts about the Queen (and 50 about her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh) are useful fodder, as are the Royal Public Finances (turnover is £37m [€52m/$65m], so this is really a small and medium-sized enterprise (SME).
But the Media Centre is badly let down by poor detail – the sort journalists should notice. The most recent press release announcement says: “Photographs taken by Lord Snowdon and Jane Bown will be realeased to the media in advance of her actual birday in April”. Two spelling mistakes in 22 words would be enough to put someone’s job on the line in the conventional media: how on earth did the oh-so-careful Palace press office let them through?
Maybe because it does not have quite the concentration on the site it should. The Corrections sections is used to put right inaccuracies in the press – but there are just two, both from last summer. It is, of course, possible that the press has made only two mistakes in the past year. More likely, sadly, the press office set up the section then either forgot about it or decided it did not want to use it. Either way, further intimations of poor attention to detail.
The Recruitment section confirms that this is an SME – the Royal Household employees 1,200 people. It is, however, a model for ambitious companies wanting to portray themselves as good employers. The section home page is attractive and leads to brief but well-presented information about prospects and conditions. The People Profiles use a Question and Answer format to tell you what it is like to be Yeoman of the Cellar, while Vacancies lets you see what is on offer (you have just missed going for pastry chef), and download an application form. This is an appropriate level of technology for a relatively small organisation, and is well implemented.

Keeping one’s public happy

Most of the site is aimed at the public (the customers and, arguably, investors). It could be rudely described as brochureware, but it would be better and more polite to describe it as magazineware. As I wandered though sections such as The Monarchy Today and Art & Residences I found plenty to keep me happy, as a good magazine should. The Queen’s Working Day is enough to make me glad I am not a monarch, though I would quite like her cars, which are described in some detail.
The magazine has a good children’s section. Paint a corgi green (or purple), learn that Buckingham Palace has 78 bathrooms and decide for yourself whether Richard III really was a baddy. There is some serious stuff here, however simple the language.
This is definitely another bit of ‘best practice’ for companies – if you can make your website a good read, do. Thinking of it as a magazine is no bad start and, as an increasing number of business are realising, providing educational material can help in a number of subtle ways.
The site’s other job is an information resource. The history section is an attractive and extensive section that keeps the Scots as well the English happy, digging back way before the Norman Conquest. Illustrations are small but can be opened up in a larger window and exploit the lack of copyright problems (the Queen owns the pictures). There is plenty, too, on the royal palaces and collections, with links to luscious sites such as the Royal Collection.
There is no attempt at ‘reputation management’, but I am not sure this is the right place to put it. Overall, it seems to me, the royal site keeps its stakeholders quite happy and has some useful lessons for other firms – mainly relating to the look and feel. It is a shame the media section lets the side and site down with poor detail. That, as any commercial web person will tell you, is the quickest way to undermine your careful brandbuilding.
First published on ft.com 21.04.06

First published 26 April, 2006
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