As product placement goes, it’s both entrancing and confusing – Prince George marking his eighth birthday in front of a Land Rover, wearing a John Lewis shirt. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the Land Rover that has garnered the attention, following Prince Philips’s love of the marque extending to the self-designed custom-built Land Rover Defender that carried his coffin during his funeral in April. Which some people would have thought a bit odd, but never mind.
While John Lewis does have a Royal Warrant from the Queen, Land Rover is one of only 14 companies to boast the complete set from the only Royals entitled to bestow such a blessing – the Queen (614 issued), Prince Charles (173 doled out) and Prince Philip (just 35 – which all expire in two years’ time). Land Rover’s fellow triple Warrant champs include the obvious Barbour, the outdoor clothing maker; the not unexpected Hatchards bookselling chain; the intriguing Unitech Complete Computing and the more-information-than-I-needed Blossom and Browne’s dry cleaners.
(Harrods, you may recall, lost its triple Royal Warrant in 2000 – technically, according to the Palace, due to the “significant decline in the trading relationship” between the Duke of Edinburgh and the store. Mohamed al Fayed accusing Prince Philip of masterminding the 1997 Paris car crash that killed Princess Diana and his son Dodi apparently had nothing to do with it.)
What with the whole bespoke Land Rover hearse business, it’s clear that Prince Philip was devoted to the Land Rover to the end – which is curious as the existence of the vehicle is essentially the result of a blag. In the 1930s, Rover – run by brothers Spencer and Maurice Wilks – sold saloon cars for bank managers and solicitors. “Seemly, not flash and the best thing you could get south of a Bentley,” explains Giles Chapman, author of Land Rover, Gripping Photos of the 4×4 Pioneer.
Prince Philip’s modified Land Rover that carried his coffin
Post-war rationing favoured mass exporters – 50 per cent of sales had to be overseas for car makers to qualify for an allocation of scarce post-war steel – so Rover’s low key Solihull factory stood idle until Maurice had a eureka moment. He’d been using an Army-surplus Jeep to mend fences and catch sheep on his Anglesey farm and realised that if he could rip off the 80-inch wheelbase and 4×4 drive, then build a basic machine out of aluminium, he could dodge the rationing rules and offer farmers a cross between a tractor and a car. Indeed, says Chapman, the early prototypes had a tractor-style central seat and the first model had the steering wheel in the middle of the dashboard.
“Maurice shamelessly used the Jeep as inspiration – with solid axles and leaf springs front and back, which was perfect for mud and country roads but murder on the M1,” Chapman explains. The company donated the 100th vehicle to King George VI, which proved a branding sweet spot for Wilks and Windsors alike, and the beginning of an enduring love affair. The “go anywhere” working car “for the farmer, the countryman and general industrial use” gave off a classless vibe that suited the whole monarch-of-the-people look which felt appropriate in 1950s austerity Britain and the first Royal Warrant followed in 1951.
Members of the Royal family, including the Queen standing with Henry Somerset, 10th Duke of Beaufort, beside a Land Rover Series IIA station wagon with Princess Anne, Prince Philip and Prince Andrew
The Queen and Prince Philip ramped up the relationship considerably, taking a customised Land Rover on their six-month tour of Australia in 1954. Since then, the Queen herself is believed to have owned around 30 of the vehicles.
“She’s got farm managers to run her estates, obviously, but the Land Rover is perfect for Balmoral and Windsor,” says Chapman. “The Queen took a course in fixing trucks during the war so is handy with a spanner. She could fix her own car with basic tools, which not something you’ll see today.”
Basic tools were all you need to keep an old Land Rover running, which was a big part of their appeal. And when Rover management saw the Jeep Wagoneer – essentially a more comfortable Jeep – in the suburban US in 1963, they decided to launch their own version, taking the Land Rover utility vehicle and launching the Range Rover Sports Utility Vehicle. The Windsors were very early customers.
The Queen driving her Land Rover – she was trained to fix trucks during the war
The first Range Rover, it’s worth pointing out to today’s Chelsea school-run set, was still pretty much a working vehicle. The suspension may have had coiled springs but had plastic seats, wind-down windows and no carpet – all designed so you could clean it out with a hose after your dogs had made a mess in the back. It may not have been designed specifically for the Queen, but you can see the appeal.
And while the appeal of the Land Rover to the Royals is one thing, it’s a relationship that cuts the other way too. Photographs such as this week’s birthday image of Prince George provide the kind of advertising that money can’t buy. Land Rover is essentially the Royal Warrant to end all Royal Warrants – but what is a Warrant worth?
In 2018, brand valuation consultancy Brand Finance estimated that some companies earn up to five per cent of their revenue as a result of the Royal Warrant. More recently, however, digital marketing agency iCrossing UK asked more than 3,500 people for their thoughts on the Royal Warrant and found 87 per cent of them had ‘no idea’ what it was. The agency also found that 30 per cent of those people had bought something due to an influencer’s post on social media, suggesting a Warrant is slightly less useful than a decent hashtag.
“This brings up the question of how important the Royal Warrant is to consumers today and whether brands should even seek to be awarded a Royal Warrant of Appointment if no one knows what it is,” says Jill Alger, digital strategist at iCrossing.
Prince George sits on the bonnet of a Land Rover Defender in this photograph taken by his mother, The Duchess of Cambridge, to mark his eighth birthday
Credit: HRH The Duchess of Cambridge
This, argues Rory Sutherland, vice chairman of adland giant Ogilvy, is short-term thinking. A Royal Warrant helps overseas sales – no American can buy a product with a presidential seal of approval, he points out, but its true value lies in something entirely antithetical to influencer culture. For a company to earn a Warrant, its products have to be in regular use by the specific senior Royal for at least five years out of the preceding seven.
“It’s something that is slow to be approved and slow to be withdrawn – like a special Amazon rating showing that a business will behave more ethically and be averse to what Karl Marx called the ‘icy water of egotistical calculation,’” he explains. “There is a moral and ethical dimension to the selection – the Royal family were decisive in demoralising fur wearing in the UK, for instance, and Jaguar Land Rover is pushing its electric cars very hard. True, the Royal influence is not as powerful as it was in the Edwardian era, where the King leaving the bottom button of his waistcoat undone set the national trend, but there’s a heuristic that if the Queen buys something it must at least be alright.”
For Land Rover, of course, this is all theoretical. In 1990, the classic no-frills Land Rover was relaunched as the Land Rover Defender (to distinguish it from the marque’s sister models, Discovery and Freelander), but in January 2016 the final car rolled off the production line at Solihull after 68 years – a victim of tougher emissions and safety laws.
In 2020, the replacement Defender was launched to stunned reviews – all the magic of the stripped-down rough rider that Her Majesty could fix with a spanner was gone. It had finally morphed into a status symbol machine beloved of footballers’ wives and wealthy west Londoners, a million miles from its roots. No wonder Prince Philip decided to make his own.
So sturdy were the original banged-together hard-working 4x4s that some 75 per cent of the originals are believed to have survived, including the first model donated to George VI, which was found buried under some junk in a garage in Ballater, Aberdeenshire. Prince Charles saw the car there in 2007 on a tour of local businesses but seemed perfectly content to leave the thing there.
Perhaps that’s probably the future for both Land Rovers and Royal Warrants alike, argues Alger. “Considering the diminishing awareness of this age-old marketing mechanism, we’re likely to see the Royal family demonstrate their brand advocacy in more contemporary ways,” she argues. “The Warrant could be seen as one of the earliest forms of influencer marketing. It’s built on the same principle – audience affinity and brand advocacy. We’re more likely to buy a product when we see it modelled on someone we relate to or aspire to be like. As seen with Prince George posing with a Land Rover, for instance.”