This weekend, my country, France, was mourning two of its iconic figures – Jean d’Ormesson (writer and member of the Academie Francaise) and Johnny Hallyday (our King of Rock’n’Roll since 5 decades). The singer did bigger impact in the crowd than the writer. I’ve heard even some journalists saying that his death before Christmas was a cash opportunity for his music label. That is horrifying but marketing of dead celebrities is a two-billion-dollar industry. The marketing of dead celebrities attracts a lot of big brands and with that, controversy.
On January 10, 2016, David Bowie died. Even his biggest fans didn’t see this one coming. The English singer, songwriter and actor died in his apartment in New York City. The world was in shock. Two days before his death, Bowie released his twenty-fifth studio album; ‘Blackstar’, was released on his 69th birthday. Was this a ‘parting gift’ to his fans or a smart strategic marketing move? Did he know he was going to die? And was that why he released a new album? Five months later, the album ‘Bowie – Legacy, the Greatest Hits’ was released. Sales of his albums skyrocketed. A celebrity’s death makes marketing people do weird things. Gaining money out of someone’s death by releasing a ‘best of’ album only five months later. Is that smart or disrespectful? And we have tons of examples. e.g. in Coachella festival in 2012, Tupac appears on stage as a life-sized hologram, fifteen years after his death. It was so astonishing, as a matter of fact, it makes you wonder if a deceased musician could now go out on tour.
You can ask yourself the question: why wouldn’t you merchandise all kind of things? Delebs (dead celebs even have a nickname) remain famous. When it comes to celebrities, their brand value appears to go up once they have passed. Elvis has been dead for 40 years, mostly irrelevant to the current generations, but he is still “The King” through his albums, moviers and Graceland museum. Of course, many others continue to bring revenue after they passed away, like Michael Jackson, earning approx, $825 million in that time. All this creepy business toped $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.
People love celebrities regardless of whether they are alive or dead. This 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 glamour, Elvis as the King, the likelier that it can translated into products. “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.” Making money doesn’t have to stop when you drop dead … if you’re a celebrity.
In fact, the earning power of pop idols and movie stars can rapidly increase when they’re gone. Several interesting advertising campaigns have included well known figures from the past, including a computer-generated Audrey Hepburn for Galaxy chocolate, Marilyn Monroe promoting Chanel No5, Steve McQueen in Porsche commercials and Gene Kelly singing in the rain for Volkswagen. “You’ve got to do some smart thinking to see which brands resonate with the deceased, but if it works it can be massive.”
So, how much do you evaluate your favorite celebrity’s death?