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  Long Live the King   Long Live the King  John Karolefski  
         
 
Long Live the King This summer, a re-mixed version of an obscure Elvis tune, A Little Less Conversation, was released worldwide. Incredibly, it climbed to number one on the singles charts in the United Kingdom and the US. Half a dozen Elvis songs are on the soundtrack of Disney’s new movie Lilo & Stitch. Next month RCA will release Elvis: 30 #1 Hits, the first-ever collection of 30 Presley number-one singles on one CD.

Elvis – a cultural icon and arguably the most influential celebrity brand in history – has not quite left the building. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

“Elvis has not really died,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University. “There are so many impersonators that Elvis is still out there in various stages of his career. He’s part of the American folk culture. He was an extraordinary, charismatic and brilliant musician. He left a body of work that’s really good. Those songs have been perpetually in play since they were recorded. He’s never really gone away.”

 
Frank Coffey, co-author of the Elvis Encyclopedia, writes: “Today, Elvis is everywhere. His records and CDs continue to sell, his face has appeared on a stamp, and you can more easily find Elvis paraphernalia than you can gift items on the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower combined…. The Elvis phenomenon isn’t waning, it’s growing with every passing year.”

Indeed, although he sold over one billion records, music is only part of the phenomenon. The shrewd marketing of Elvis for more than two decades has kept him close to the public consciousness. The King became bigger in death than in life.

Elvis Presley Enterprises has negotiated over 100 licenses with companies ranging from Hasbro to Anheuser-Busch. His movies – campy as they may seem now – are consistently re-run on television. Then there is Graceland, the Presley estate in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

Graceland has become a Mecca for the one million fans who arrive from around the world throughout the year. This pilgrimage is especially heavy during Elvis Week, the days leading up to the anniversary of his death. The global media coverage will be especially intense this year as thousands of fans gather in Memphis for the 25th anniversary.

In the beginning, Elvis didn’t seem destined for international fame. He was born in a run-down shack in Tupelo, Mississippi, and grew up poor in Memphis. But he could sing and play the guitar some. As a young man, he was forging a new style of music. Recording sessions at Sun Studios produced songs that got some radio time, and the public response was instantaneous and overwhelming. Before long, the whole country knew who Elvis Presley was.

“Elvis found a place in our hearts and minds by exposing popular, white American culture to something it had never seen or heard before. He took African-American rhythm and blues, mixed it with mainstream Western music, and presented a whole new style and identity that was radical enough to be different and mainstream enough to make it onto the radio,” said Peter Montoya, author of The Brand Called You and publisher of Personal Branding magazine.

 
“On one hand, Elvis had a hard enough edge and good enough looks to attract women and young people. On the other hand, he was just non-threatening enough to gain widespread popularity,” Montoya said.

Perhaps Jennifer Burgess, director of marketing and communications for Elvis Presley Enterprises in Memphis, put it best: “Elvis was the safe rebel.”

Elvis became a leading agent of change in pop culture in the second half of the 20th century. Those who have studied his life say that he was everyman with a guitar and attitude. He burst on the scene and shook up the country. When he was finished, nothing was ever the same.

“As an American icon and as a brand, he’s really in a class by himself,” explained Thompson. “He spans so many different parts of American culture. He starts out as a grass roots rock and roller. He goes mainstream and becomes the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Then he goes off and does this stretch of movies in Hollywood. He lives long enough to go from being the rebellious rock and roller to the fat Elvis playing Vegas.

“Elvis in sequins was, to some extent, what had happened to the great optimism of the Utopian, post-war American world. When he dies in the stagflation era, he was representing that as much as he had represented the optimistic first decade after the war.”

Elvis analysts say the brand stands for everything and everyman. It is that all-encompassing appeal to so many different kinds of people that is the key to the success and longevity of the brand.

“There’s a wide range of symbolism,” said Paul Mullins, who teaches a course on popular culture at Indiana and Purdue University. “Elvis can stand for everything from God to Devil. That’s what good brands do. They have a symbolic ambiguity. People can find different meanings in the same symbolism.”

Montoya added, “It sounds cliché, but Elvis was – and is – the King. He was so radically different when he came onto the scene that he invented his own brand position. Within that identity, as an icon Elvis was able to find success in several different areas.”

Such versatility led to enormous success in recorded music (rock, gospel, country and pop), live performances, and even Hollywood. It spanned the years as the performer and his audience aged.

“In today’s parlance, we call him the ultimate cross-over artist. Elvis had the ability to do what Madonna gets credit for doing – constant re-invention. Even after he lost that slim appearance, he was able to re-invent himself,” said Thompson of Syracuse University.

Montoya agrees that Elvis’s success may largely rest on the ability of the brand to morph into another version of itself. First, Elvis had the “look” – the lip, the collar, the sound, the accent, and the pompadour with sideburns.

“Elvis was able to reinvent those key elements again and again – a bigger collar, a new song, a slightly different style or emphasis. From records to movies to live performances to merchandising, Elvis was a man, a product and an identity that the world still hungers for,” he said.

Perhaps that explains why Elvis seems to be attracting young people as fans, as well as retaining the passionate allegiance of his original loyalists.

“If you are in your 60s or 70s, this guy was the sound track of your youth,” said Thompson. “But there are a lot of young people who were not even born by the time Elvis had died. They have discovered his music and take him very seriously.”

That’s welcome news for Elvis Presley Enterprises, which positions, protects, and preserves the brand. Burgess, the marketing director, said that reaching today’s young people is one of the goals of EPE.

“We realize that the way to get to today’s audiences is through the Internet. That’s why we have Elvis.com. You can research everything you ever wanted to know about Elvis. It’s a tourism site. It’s even got a new kids’ section,” she said, adding it has games and other interactive features.

Fans can also go online to join the new Elvis Presley Collectors Club, which is off to a strong start, according to Burgess. Founding members can purchase limited-edition collectibles, get discounts for Graceland, Elvis Presley’s Memphis Restaurant and Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, as well as get other benefits.

Many of these fans surely are now in Memphis for Elvis Week. A variety of music, sports, social and charitable events lead up to “Elvis: The 25th Anniversary Concert” on August 16 at the Pyramid arena. The production reunites Elvis, via a huge video screen, singing vocals to the live accompaniment of 30 musicians from his former bands.

“You pretty much don’t realize that Elvis isn’t really there,” said Burgess. “You’re looking at the screen, which is what you do at many big concerts anyway. Of course, the original band members are on the stage. It’s a phenomenal thing.”

The success of the re-mixed version of A Little Less Conversation, which was also featured in a Nike World Cup soccer television ad, has mobilized the stewards of the Elvis brand. They have already met with recording companies to discuss releasing other re-mixed Presley songs.

“It’s bringing in a new audience that is discovering Elvis,” said Burgess. “There is such a huge catalog of material out there that it would be easy to do, and it would be fun.”

The King is dead?

“I can’t imagine that the brand called Elvis is going to die,” said Montoya. “Elvis continues to strike a chord with people all over the world. He has a timeless, evocative quality that just keeps creeping back into our hearts.”

Long live the King.     

[12-Aug-2002]

 
  
  

John Karolefski, formerly the editor-in-chief of Brand Marketing magazine, writes and speaks frequently about marketing issues.

     
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