Could Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Build the World’s Most Valuable Brand?

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have 10 million Instagram followers, a trademark application and soon, more freedom. What will they do with it?

a trio of harry and meghan photos
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are stepping back from their royal duties and forging their own path. Getty Images
Headshot of Diana Pearl

When Meghan Markle—now known as the Duchess of Sussex—stepped out for a day of engagements in Cardiff, Wales during her engagement to Prince Harry in January 2018, she wore a pair of black skinny jeans from the little-known Welsh brand Hiut Denim.

Once one of the several bloggers who tracked the soon-to-be Duchess’s style were able to identify the jeans as Hiut, the information rapidly spread across the internet. Media outlets everywhere were linking to the $243 pair of denim, and interest in the brand skyrocketed. Within months, Hiut had a three-month waiting list, as well as the funds to move to a larger factory and hire more employees. It was a particularly incredible feat when you consider the brand’s founding purpose: to bring back denim manufacturing to the small Welsh town of Cardigan, which saw hundreds of residents lose their jobs when the village’s Dewhirst factory closed in 2002.

“I think in any company’s life, you have defining moments,” Hiut co-founder David Hieatt told People a few months after Meghan’s appearance. “That was definitely one of them. The phone almost hasn’t stopped ringing since, it’s incredible.”

Hiut’s success story is hardly an anomaly. When Meghan stepped out carrying a handbag from Edinburgh-based designer Strathberry, the brand sold out of the style within 11 minutes. And Givenchy’s Clare Waight Keller, Meghan’s wedding dress designer, won U.K.’s Fashion Award for Womenswear Designer of the Year just six months after the big day. Sometimes, the effect is so powerful, it can be crippling for a brand to deal with such a large wave of attention and demand at once (see Issa London and L.K. Bennett’s woes as an example.)

Since her engagement to Prince Harry was announced, Meghan Markle has not taken on a single paid brand endorsement, nor does she accept gifts. But she’s still proved herself to be a valuable asset for brands.

Meghan Markle in Cardiff, Wales in January 2018

“She touches it, it turns to gold,” said Christine Ross, who runs the website Meghan’s Mirror, which reports on the Duchess’s style. “The ‘Meghan effect’ really has held true time and time again. Brands see an enormous influx in website traffic and sales each time Meghan steps out supporting their product line.”

Putting it more directly: Meghan (along with her sister-in-law the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton), is one of the most powerful brand ambassadors that money can’t buy.

That is about to change. Not even two weeks into the New Year, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex made an announcement that is sure to dominate the news cycle throughout the rest of 2020: They’re stepping back as “senior members” of Britain’s royal family, and hope to become “financially independent.”

What exactly this announcement means is a topic that’s been up for debate among even the most seasoned of royal watchers and correspondents. Harry and Meghan said they want to “carve out a progressive new role” with the institution of the royal family, and not be “reliant on public funds in their lives,” as Queen Elizabeth put it in a statement released earlier this week, which essentially means eschewing taxpayer money to fund their lives and work, including their staff.

harry and meghan in their wedding outfits
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at their wedding in 2018

This expressed desire has prompted speculation over what exactly Harry and Meghan’s future will look like. If this new role will see the Sussexes stepping away from being full-time ambassadors of the crown, will it also remove the restrictions that had previously been placed on them when it comes to earning an outside income? Though the particulars are still being debated, if Harry and Meghan are no longer full-time working royals, they’ll likely have the ability to take on work for other companies. And if they’re financially independent, taking on such work will likely be necessary.

It’s a particularly interesting question considering the fact that when it comes to being an asset for brands, Harry and (especially) Meghan have already proven their value. Their influence is massive and spans the globe: Nearly 2 billion people tuned into watch their 2018 wedding. Their Instagram account, @SussexRoyal, racked up a million followers in less than 24 hours after its launch in April 2019; today, it has over 10 million.

They’ve already proven to be desirable to some of the biggest brands in the world: Harry is working on a series about mental health with Oprah Winfrey for Apple TV+, while Meghan made headlines this week for an upcoming voiceover gig with Disney. (In conjunction with the Disney work, their company will be making a sizable donation to an elephant conservation charity.)

“It’s evolving the business model, so to speak,” said Rana Brightman, group director of strategy at global branding company Siegel+Gale. “It’s a different paradigm for how you can be royal, but also relatable and relevant in today’s world.”

Meghan Markle carries a Strathberry bag in Edinburgh

@dianapearl_ Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.