The Branding Of Dead Celebrities

When considering these examples, it is important to differentiate the types of dead celebrity licensing that a celebrity estate might engage in. As Cribbs explains, “ One is when a deceased icon is used in advertising while the other is when the icon is used on product.  They are both licensing, but advertising licensing is far more lucrative for an estate.”

Examples of brands that have licensed deceased celebrities for use in advertising include Fiat, Tiffany, Mercedes, McDonald’s, Unilever, Ford, Wells Fargo, etc.  Examples of brands that have licensed deceased celebrities for use on product include Levis that used Harvey Milk; NARS Cosmetics that licensed Andy Warhol images on products; Uniqlo that licensed Keith Haring, Jean-Michele Basquiat, and Warhol on products; and Aquascutum, which created a Humphrey Bogart branded trench coat).

Best Practices for Using Dead Celebrities As A Brand

Although a very popular branding approach, there are times when brands have faced backlash for profiting from a dead celebrity. The best approach is to ensure that any usage needs to be done with taste and sensitivity, particularly if a company is using a celebrity who is relatively recently deceased.

Faber notes a couple key examples where they had more to consider when using a deceased celebrity. The Luminary Group’s President Pete Enfield did a license with Topps trading cards where Topps acquired a Babe Ruth game used bat.  The bat was shaved down to allow for the pieces to be inserted into highly collectible, valuable cards that would be randomly inserted into packs.  

At the time, there was some criticism that a historical artifact was cut into pieces.  Over time, it became not only standard procedure for card companies to acquire historical items like this to create sought-after cards, but it also became clear that this was a great way for fans who might never acquire such a rare artifact to own a piece of history.  It also would have made Babe Ruth smile. The lesson here is that sometimes it takes time for the audience to get used to how a company uses a celebrity brand.

Faber also relates how they had the opportunity to license a still photo of Rosa Parks for a GMC pickup truck advertisement. The spot was not a typical truck ad, but rather was aiming to look back at many key events in the 20th Century. The spot included footage of Martin Luther King, Jr., President Nixon, the moon landing, Hurricane Katrina, and touching moments that illustrated the strength of the American spirit.  A New York Times’ op-ed piece criticized the use of Rosa Parks to sell trucks.  

The writer failed to explain that Martin Luther King Jr.’s estate also authorized the use. They deliberated for a long time about whether to approve the opportunity and did so only after careful reflection and due diligence. He states, “To be criticized by a writer who knew none of this, or at least omitted all of these critical details provided a reminder that no one can make everyone happy. Representing a deceased celebrity means understanding the needs and concerns of the rights owners, acting in a way that is consistent with the person’s legacy, and always aiming to reinforce his or her life’s work and legacy.”

Cribbs also describes a famous example where Dr. Martens used Kurt Cobain (and others) in a campaign, showing them wearing Docs and floating in heaven. There was outrage from every direction. Dr. Martens pulled the ad, issued a public apology, and fired the advertising agency that had created the ad.

It is also important to remember that the estate or designee that controls the rights to licensing for a particular celebrity has the final day in how the image, likeness, or brand symbol is used on a product. Keep this in mind when determining if you want to use a celebrity image in your marketing campaign or product visual.

Another best practice is to consider when to select a certain dead celebrity to use, weighing legendary icons versus run-of-the-mill celebrities. As Cribbs states, “When an icon’s legacy is fixed and stands for something symbolic, their value increases.  If you see a random celebrity used in an ad, you often think, ‘really? What does that have to do with anything?’  However, if you see an icon, you immediately know what they stand for (class, integrity, courage, etc.) and how that relates to the advertiser.”

It appears that there is just as much to consider when using a dead celebrity brand as there is with a live one. The lesson here is that the same branding rules apply with a few more factors to weigh to ensure that the use of such an icon delivers the emotional connection and values alignment that yields the intended revenue and brand engagement results.


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