Today’s the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death but, from a business perspective, The King doesn’t appear to have missed a beat. Global sales of Elvis-related merchandise are up 20% since 2013, when Authentic Brand Goods bought licensing rights from Core Media Group, ABG says. Consumers showed their burning love by spending $27 million on clothing, jewelry and other items with Presley’s name or likeness last year, Forbes estimates.
Fans can buy an Elvis watch from Hamilton and multiple bags and clothing items with his image from Coach.
But this isn’s just an Elvis phenomenon. Marketers say that dead celebrities never have been hotter, especially around milestone anniversaries.
For example, firms are hatching plans to promote sales of goods tied to stars including Bruce Lee (died 1973) and Farrah Fawcett (2009) and political heroes including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1968) and Mahatma Gandhi (1948).
Call it “new-stalgia,” says Martin Cribbs, VP Brand Management at Beanstalk, a brand licensing firm that says it’s the first to have a division that specializes in “deceased icons.”
Families, estates and foundations that control rights to dead celebrities’ likenesses are eager to cash in, and need professional help to do so strategically, he says.
Manufacturers and retailers are glad to join the effort. They take comfort from the knowledge that their investments probably won’t be undermined by a scandal or tabloid headline — a constant risk with living celebrities.
That’s part of the point, Cribbs says. “Culture has become so cynical and vitriolic,” and many people prefer to look back at stars they associate with talent, innocence or heroism.
“Licensing is all about emotion,” says International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association’s Marty Brochstein. “When you’re dealing with deceased celebrities, you’re dealing with images and emotions that are sort of frozen in time.”
What’s more, “there are a lot of us [baby] boomers out there,” he says, “and boomers have a decent amount of disposable income to indulge their memories.”
That could also apply to an event, such as Woodstock. “Everybody in the business is conscious of the fact that 2019 will be the 50th anniversary,” he says.
Meanwhile, the entertainment industry is doing its part to keep Elvis alive.
Warner Bros and director Baz Lurhmann are preparing a biopic. HBO is producing a three-hour, two-part documentary about Presley’s life to air early next year. The Weinstein Company is developing a scripted, limited TV series — based on the biography Dave Marsh wrote in 1982 — to be filmed at Graceland.
Heartbreak Hotel, a new musical that follows Presley’s career from unknown singer to chart-busting star, will try out this summer at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine — possibly ahead of a Broadway run.
In addition, music and media producer Spencer Proffer, producer-director Steve Binder, and filmmaker Joe Berlinger plan The Colonel, a film bio of Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker.