The Elvis Presley brand is as strong as ever; in fact, The King’s continuing popularity is nothing short of death-defying. According to Forbes, some 600,000 people visit Presley’s home, Graceland, annually, second only to the White House. Presley has sold 118 million record albums, second only to the Beatles. There were 550 million commemorative Elvis US postage stamps sold in 1993, sixteen years after his death. Over 250 companies are official Elvis licensees.
Since entertainment company CKX bought a controlling interest in Elvis Presley Enterprises in 2005, there’s been an even more aggressive push to keep the Presley brand alive. A current television ad for the state of Tennessee shows country singer Dolly Parton riding in a convertible with none other than Elvis Presley. The scene was digitally re-created from a 1967 film. It’s the first time Presley’s image was authorized to appear with another celebrity.
Elvis is but one example of the personality brand’s staying power. Movie stars Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, rock stars Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, and international celebrity Princess Diana are notorious for their posthumous popularity. The ten year anniversary of Diana’s death, and the re-opening of an inquiry into the case, led to a recent rash of television specials and renewed interest worldwide.
Celebrity death can even bring new life to fading personality brands. The accidental overdose of Anna Nicole Smith, and the carnival-like atmosphere of the ensuing paternity dispute, provided far more publicity for the television reality show star than she garnered while alive.
When tragedy befalls a young celebrity, that individual can reach new heights of popularity. James Dean and Richie Valens appear larger now than they were in life. John F. Kennedy lives on because of his untimely death. “When you die young, you’re frozen in time,” said Mark Roesler, the head of CMG Worldwide, in a 2003 interview with The New York Times. Roesler pioneered the field of protecting dead celebrities and their estates. CMG’s first dead client was Elvis Presley. Today they represent more dead celebrities than anyone else, among them Babe Ruth, Joe Louis, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Malcolm X, Jack Kerouac, and Mark Twain.
Roesler describes his business in an interview with Business Horizons magazine (March-April 2007), published by Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. He says: “In representing clients like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, we formulate comprehensive marketing campaigns in an attempt to turn these personalities into brands. In doing so, we select the proper programs that reinforce and build those products into long-term viable brands.”
These days, those brand-building programs include lucrative licensing agreements, digitization of personalities, and official websites. Roesler says his company has recovered hundreds of Internet domain names for clients. The celebrity websites CMG represents now get about 20 million hits daily.
One of the interesting complexities of the dead celebrity business, Roesler points out, is the lack of uniform laws. They differ from state to state and country to country. The exploitation of Princess Diana after her death resulted from the fact that the UK has no law protecting a deceased celebrity’s intellectual property, says Roesler.
Then there are those rare ordinary individuals who, by their simple acts of courage, make a huge difference in the world—people like US civil rights activist Rosa Parks. When Parks died in October 2005, it was only a matter of time before unscrupulous marketers would try to capitalize on her legacy. According to an October 2006 article in The New York Times, “Rosa Parks”—civil rights symbol in life, marketing phenomenon in death—has become the centerpiece of the kind of posthumous peddling usually associated with athletes and Hollywood stars.”
That’s why, in April 2006, the Parks Institute, entrusted by Rosa Parks herself with protecting her image, hired Mark Roesler’s firm. CMG has already negotiated a deal in which a picture of Parks appears in a Chevrolet ad.