Tradition beats back the future as William marries his ‘American’ princess

kate middleton arms 300x231 Tradition beats back the future as William marries his American princess

Kate Middleton's new coat of arms

Tomorrow’s wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton dominates the airwaves around the world, and even Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kantor has an HBR blog post offering business insights thereto, including that it is an example of the coming of the “experience economy,” where people pay for the chance to participate at particular times, and expenditures on goods and services come in bundles tied to particular events. She councils how the “soft stuff” and “joy factor” can offer big audiences and revenues; romance and ritual matter…“sentiment sells.”

Fair enough. To this, permit me to add a thought or two about how the fact of the royal wedding can improve out judgment of future business environments and opportunities.

First, in the race to the future, leaders should never underestimate the power of traditionalism and continuity –particularly in changing times. Business leaders may be tempted to view the latest gizmo or the new lifestyle choice as the future. But this would be thinking poorly about tomorrow. Yes, new things get adopted all the time, and real and rapid change happens, but at the same time the broad market also has a vast, seemingly unquenchable, appetite for tradition.

The point is, the two are closely correlated. The faster society and technology moves the more people cling to apparent past certainties and traditions.

If you’d looked at the future of the British monarchy anytime through the turbulent, democratizing 20th century you might have be tempted to say it must soon be phased out, given the estimated $65m-a-year cost to the taxpayer (not including the spiraling cost of security.) You would think that the public would tire of upper-class toffs prancing around from polo matches to garden parties, wearing Chloe and drinking Krug at their expense.


But, in fact, no. The British monarchy is as popular as ever. There is some truth in the view that royalty is good for UK tourism. But mostly the monarchy survives because the public wants vestiges of the past as it peers at the changing future and the steady erosion of tradition and other fixed points from middle class lives.

A handsome military prince, a girl in white, a horse-drawn carriage, a bishop, a cathedral … is a psychological balm for most of us, even if we are, or more exactly because we are, viewing it all streamed on an iPad.

In industry foresight, we call this a “counter-trend.”

Another counter trend at work here is marriage itself. The figures are clear that people are marrying later, if at all, and staying married for a shorter time. William and Kate represent a minority: the number of weddings that are a first-time marriage for both parties is down to 150,000 a year, 35% what it was in 1940. That’s the trend. So the royal couple and their public ritual affirms publicly what most ordinary people are denying or denied privately.

The point not to be missed is the middle-class compromises most people are making drives counter-trend nostalgia for what once was, and marketing campaigns or business units, if not entire companies, can be built thereon – not only on traditionalist revivalism specifically, but on any strong counter-trend.

American Dream

Finally, the wedding of Prince William to “commoner” Catherine Middleton shows us how, despite all its apparent protestations, the UK is yet still Americanizing faster than one might think, and not just in splurging on cheap Chinese imports or putting university education on a pay-to-play basis.

Kate is very much an “American” princess, in the sense of being from a self-made family. Her mother was a flight attendant, her father too, before becoming a flight dispatcher for BA. (Rumor, hotly denied, is that Prince William’s friends used to snigger “doors-to-manual” among themselves on Kate’s arrival, in reference to her parents’ profession.)

But then “the American dream” could and did happen: The Middletons hit it rich with an online party supplies company (Party Pieces), were able to send Catherine to the right schools, and the rest is history.

 Tradition beats back the future as William marries his American princess