Marketers cash in on image value of dead celebrities
THOMASVILLE, N.C. -- The Ernest Hemingway furniture collection was a best seller, and the new Elvis line went toward the top of the charts. Now, Humphrey Bogart is the latest pop culture icon hawking leather chairs, chaise lounges and liquor cabinets from beyond the grave.
When it comes to marketing appeal, dead celebrities are a good bet, says Thomasville Furniture Industries' Mitchel Scott.
"The 'Book of Life' for this person is already written," Scott, the company's marketing chief, said during a break in sales meetings. "The entity is known. It's not going to change."
Marketing the departed isn't confined to selling furniture.
For two years, Forbes Magazine's has compiled an annual list of the dead celebrities whose estates produce the most income. This year, Elvis remained the king 25 years after his death, with $37 million in income, followed by "Peanuts" comic strip creator Charles Schulz at $28 million.
New to the list was NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt, whose death in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500 stunned race fans across the country. Earnhardt debuted on the Forbes list in a third-place tie with Beatle John Lennon at $20 million.
The totals included licensing deals as well as book and record sales during a one-year period ending in June.
Thomasville's Bogart Collection, containing more than 60 furniture pieces, rugs and accessories, made its debut during the fall run of the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point.
Marketing professor Andrew Bergstein of Penn State University said the release of the line is ideally timed, as American consumers find themselves drawn to heroic figures.
"If the present and future look bleak, people often look to the past in a nostalgic way," he said. "They forget about the bad parts and all the pain and suffering. There won't be any New York firefighter furniture collections, but companies can sell things using macho figures like Bogie.
"He's heroic, sophisticated and romantic all at the same time," Bergstein said. "And some of his movies were from World War II, which was a war that had a clear line between right and wrong."
The idea came from Stephen Bogart, the actor's son with Lauren Bacall, who saw a magazine ad for Thomasville's Hemingway Collection.
"I called them and told them I thought my father would be perfect for furniture," Stephen Bogart said. "As my mother would say, he was a man of comfort, class and style. My father possessed a suaveness that is not around today."
When using deceased celebrities' name for a product or service, marketers pay what are called licensing fees to the celebrities' estates, in much the same way that living celebrities are paid to endorse products.
Scott predicted the Bogart line could rival the success of the Hemingway Collection, which has more than $300 million in sales in the past three years. "The response so far from retailers has been very good."
The line includes the Bogie Chair, the Hollywood Vanity, the El Morocco Bar and the Trench Coat Chair.
Bogart, who died in 1957, was one of the biggest stars of the 20th century, appearing in such Hollywood classics as "Casablanca," "The Maltese Falcon" and "The African Queen."
Still, there are some risks when a company uses a deceased celebrity in a marketing campaign. Consumers could be turned off by what they might consider to be cashing in on death, Bergstein said.
"It's interesting to see how people manage the brand of people who are dead," he said. "Most of the brand management involves live celebrities or sports figures like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan."
The marketing campaign must be appropriate, he said. "Consumers are emotionally attached to celebrities in our society."
Just as Bogart embodied heroism for one generation, Bergstein said Earnhardt's posthumous popularity is being buoyed by fans, even those who knew little of the stock car racing champion before his death but have become enamored of his take-no-prisoners driving style.
"Earnhardt is a more modern incarnation of these other figures," he said. "In certain categories he has huge appeal."
And that's a key in marketing dead celebrities, according to Bergstein: Know your target audience.
"You can't expect to sell a lot of Dale Earnhardt cut-glass brandy snifters or Marilyn Monroe beer huggers," he said.