The Branding Of Dead Celebrities



When it comes to celebrities, their brand value appears to go up once they have passed. Take Elvis, for example. He has been dead 40 years. While seeming to be somewhat irrelevant to the current generations, Elvis is still “The King” by remaining on the list of the highest-paid celebrities in the world.

It Pays To Be Famous And Dead

According to the 2016 Forbes’ list of highest-earning dead celebrities, Elvis made $27 million while David Bowie made $10.5 million, John Lennon achieved $12 million, and Prince garnered $25 million. Of course, many others continue to rake in the money long after they have passed. Eight years after his death, Michael Jackson has earned approximately $825 million in that time.

Although it is just one piece of the licensing pie, which totaled $262.9 billion in terms of global licensed goods and services sales in 2016, the licensing of names and images of dead celebrities is big business. “Delebrities” were all over the 2017 Licensing Expo held May 23-25 in Las Vegas. John Wayne and Bela Lugosi even had their own booths on the show floor. Additionally, companies like CMG Worldwide, ABG, Live Nation, Beanstalk (the only major trademark company to have a division specifically devoted to deceased icons), and Epic Rights offer the rights to a wide variety of “delebrities” for licensing programs.

The Fascination With Dead Celebrities

People love celebrities regardless of whether they are alive or dead. However, there is almost a greater fascination with those that have passed in terms of what they represented. According to Marty Brochstein, SVP, International Licensing Industry Merchandisers Association, it is the iconic nature of celebrities that drives the ongoing fascination.

Brochstein notes, “In many cases, deceased celebrities connect people to some earlier time in their life, recalling a meaningful song or great concert, a memorable film or persona, or a vivid historical era or athletic achievement. Licensing is tied to the emotion that the celebrity brand evokes in a group of consumers. The more finely drawn the celebrity’s image is like James Dean as a rebel, Marilyn Monroe as a symbol of tragic glamor, Elvis as the King, and Michael Jackson as the King of Pop, the likelier that it can translated into products.”

Martin Cribbs, Vice President, Brand Management for Beanstalk,  a global brand extension licensing agency.adds, “Dead celebrities are often nostalgic for people and that nostalgia plays at our heartstrings, elicit memories, and emotions.  They’re often symbolic – their legacy stands for something – and it’s easy for consumers to grasp that subliminal, but clear-cut, messaging.”

Referring to them as “timeliness icons” versus “dead celebrities,” Tamra Knepfer, Senior Vice President, Branded Entertainment Network, a company that connects global brands to consumers through the power of popular entertainment explains that these famous people lie on in the hearts and souls of their fans that continue to resonate long after they have passed. “Beyond continuing to consume their music or other art forms, when utilizing icons as brands and tapping into the qualities that make them so special with thoughtful marketing partnerships and merchandise licensing, their equity can be very valuable.  As a marketer, icons are often simply well-known brands that do not require ongoing marketing support to stay popular and relevant to consumers.”

A Wealth Of Licensing Opportunities

From T-shirts and calendars to restaurants and high-tech, it is difficult to find a category that has not tapped into the equity of an icon to build its brand. Knepfer explains, “Recently, we licensed Albert Einstein with Salesforce who is using “Einstein” as a name for their AI platform, including a cartoon drawing of Einstein himself.  White Diamonds by Elizabeth Taylor continues to be a popular perfume while Michael Jackson’s show in Las Vegas, which included a hologram performance of Michael himself, proved that there is in fact life after death for many celebrities.”

Jonathan Faber, Founder, Luminary Group, LLC, a full–service licensing, consulting, and intellectual property management company adds, “We license Babe Ruth and Vince Lombardi often with our partners at MLB, the New York Yankees, and the NFL and Green Bay Packers, including stadium signage, promotions, etc.  Copasetic has a line of Babe Ruth apparel under their Roots of Fight brand that are selling great while Under Armour has a Jesse Owens shoe and apparel line.”

More often than not, brands license the name of an icon to capture their essence or what they represented.  They might use the content they created, such as art or music.  Some long-running celebrity-based licensing programs began when the celebrity was still alive and extend post-mortem. Jerry Garcia from The Grateful Dead had a line of neckties while golfing great Arnold Palmer has had umbrella logo that has been used on apparel and on his eponymous lemonade/iced tea concoction.  

However, a few celebrity faces have been the focus of product merchandising. For example, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley have been used on all types of products, including apparel, wall art, giftware and collectibles. House of Marley has been used for products, such as consumer electronics, coffee and apparel.


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