Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Louis X IV and Mickey Mouse: Branding Brothers

I just got back from an interesting trip to Paris, which encompassed the Palace of Versailles (a treat for me) and Disneyland (a treat for my daughter). Visiting both sites within 24 hours, I couldn't help but be struck by the similarities. It's almost as though Louis XIV had been employed as Brand Consultant by Disney - not because the two places look the same (they don't), but because the masterminds behind both clearly Knew Their Stuff.

Let's take Versailles for example. The humble visitor approaches up a wide avenue towards the palace, which rears up before her like The Mothership. It's an awe inspiring sight, huge, gilded and gleaming. Supposing you were seeking an audience with the King himself, or that you had been invited to a levee. Before getting within spitting distance of the Monarch you would be required to pass through chamber after chamber each adorned with artworks bearing testimony to the Greatness of Louis.

Once we had passed the fifth portrait of the Sun King, my husband was heard to mutter "I think it's fair to say this guy had ego issues!". We have Louis on horse back, Louis represented in myth, Louis as Alexander the Great, Louis' marriage blessed by the gods. Each room is more splendid and more gilded than the one before - and that's before you reach the glittering grandeur of the Hall of Mirrors, a breath-stealing sparkling royal wonderland overlooking regal gardens. Only once you have made it through these areas do you reach the King's Chamber (unless he had decided to receive you in the throne room).

The Gardens at Versailles were designed along similar lines. World famous and designed by Andre le Notre between 1662 - 1700, they were the finest example of Garden à la francaise to be found anywhere, as well as being the largest gardens in Europe. The gardens were laid out on an east-west axis which followed the course of the sun: the sun rose over the Court of Honor, lit the Marble Court, crossed the Chateau and lit the bedroom of the King, and set at the end of the Grand Canal, reflected in the mirrors of the Hall of Mirrors.

"The views and perspectives, to and from the palace, continued to inifinity. The king ruled over nature, recreating in the garden not only his domination of his territories, but over the court and his subjects."
Lucia Impelluso, Jardins, potagers et labyrinthes, pg. 64

Like my husband said, the guy had issues.

Architecture, landscaping, art and ornamentation were designed to tell one story: that of Louis XIV as absolute monarch and supreme power. His court resided with him at Versailles, to ensure that he had them under his control. No one was about to be allowed to up and start up their own faction, they were subsumed into the absolutism of Versailles.

Just like Mickey Mouse. Okay, so I'm not trying to say that Mickey Mouse is an absolute monarch.

However, there are parallels. Disney is instantly recognisable world-wide and its brand is incredibly strong. Those brand values are captured in Disneyland and the visitor is left in no doubt as to the power and reach of the Disney message. You want magic? Come to the world authority on the magical world of childhood.

Once you pass through the golden gates into Disneyland, the visitor is faced with a long avenue lined with all things Disney. This leads out into a central courtyard (the centre point for dance and spectacle, loved by Disney and Louis XIV alike) and the visitor is hit by the sight of Sleeping Beauty's enchanted castle, full scale and spectacular, dominating the skyline. That's a castle which is familiar to anyone who watches Disney films: it's the logo and title sequence for Walt Disney Pictures. Like the Parthenon in Athens, or the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Castle is the point around which the visitor can orientate herself and from its foundations the different zones (Adventureland, Fantasyland etc) spread.

The magical message is built into every aspect of the place: from restaurants to shops, to rides and entertainments. It's difficult not to be enthralled and impressed: my toddler was enchanted.

Promotion, PR and Branding are a full scale industry these days - Louis IVX didn't have the benefit of working with Saatchi and Saatchi but his strategy was undeniably effective and consolidated his position for the 54 years of his reign.

His tools as a self publicist were similar to those available today. He used spectacle: in 1653 he danced as the Sun King in the Ballet royal de la nuit, establishing not only the definitive icon but also the practice of his autocracy. The image is captured in paintings from the 1650s such as the one included here.

Visual imagery was significant, both in communicating symbolism and in the veneration with which it was treated. In Louis' absence, a portrait of him took his place in the throne room of Versailles and it was an offence to turn one's back on the portrait even as much as it was an offence to turn once's back on the King.

The association of Louis and Alexander the Great was made through art and the King's long relationship with artist Charles LeBrun was profitable to both of them. LeBrun helped to create the King's lasting image and autocratic sun king and shaped the Palace of Versailles, the King paid his wages and gave him a preeminent position.

Alexander is not the only figure from the classical world to feature strongly. Apollo too is featured throughout Versailles, as a sculpted centerpiece to the Gardens and on murals and paintings throughout the Palace. The Apollo Room is itself a tribute to the magnificence of Louis XIV. The ceiling shows Apollo awakening France and Magnificence by rising from the waves in his Sun Chariot: a fitting emblem for the Sun King.

Louis' image adorned coins and was the subject of poetry, theatre and satire. His written words were controlled just as carefully: many of his letters were ghost-written by authorised secretaries, including his love-letters (demonstrating the usefulness of delegation!).

Louis' public image did not come about by a happy accident, it was the result of long planning and intense concentration not only by Louis XIV himself, but also by his advisors. Louis XIV was packaged and marketed using ideology and propaganda and manipulating public opinion with a professionalism more than equal to anything which exists today.

The legacy of his cult of celebrity echoes down through the ages, in a popular fascination with high profile figures in our generation and those in the intervening years. The association of environment and brand, once the preserve of royalty (Brighton Pavilion and the Prince Regent) are now more frequently the creation of multinational corporations who wish to make a statement about themselves.

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