Why Late, Legendary Icons Can Breathe New Life into a Brand

October 14, 2019 | By: Martin Cribbs, VP of Icon Representation

It takes a lot to stand out in today’s overcrowded sea of brands and digital influencers. For some marketers and brands, especially in the health and beauty arena, the beloved memory of a late, legendary icon might be key.

It’s worth noting that an icon is different than a celebrity. Whereas a mere “star” is ephemeral, an icon is an individual whose lasting imprint and broad cultural impact supersede who they were as individuals. As such, their legacies often carry an emotional heft that endures long after they’re gone.

Elizabeth Taylor, who died in 2011, is the classic example of an icon. The value of her name and identity, as licensed to Elizabeth Arden in the White Diamonds portfolio of fragrances, continues to generate many millions of dollars per year in revenue for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation – and for Elizabeth Arden, the licensee. In fact, many consumers come to expect seeing the campaign each year for White Diamonds, and the imagery that corresponds with it. It’s easy for consumers to forget that the campaign has been going for over 25 years, and that Elizabeth Taylor has been deceased for nearly a decade.

Farrah Fawcett, who passed away in 2009, is an icon who continues to resonate with consumers. From an ongoing bit about ‘Farrah Fawcett Hairspray’ on the smash hit show Stranger Things, to licenses with Zara, Funko and a luxury lipstick exclusive to Barneys, Fawcett’s legacy lives on. That’s good news for The Farrah Fawcett Foundation, recipient of her licensing income, which funds cancer research, prevention and awareness.

Released this past July to mark the 112th birthday of Frida Kahlo, Ulta Beauty introduced a makeup collection that bears the artist’s likeness and bold artwork. It is a natural partnership that celebrates Kahlo’s work and approach to self-expression. The brilliant packaging translates the empowering essence of Frida to a new generation of consumers and is creating significant attention, buzz and healthy debate around the prominence (or lack of) of her signature unibrow and subtle mustache.

Icons lend authenticity and awareness to a brand. By adopting the icon as the face of a product or line of products, the specific brand equity and legacy associated with the icon becomes that of the brand itself. Not to mention, an icon is a shortcut to storytelling. If you see a picture of Gandhi or Albert Einstein, do you need more explanation? You know the message already – and what those icons stand for. It’s clear-cut, easy-to-grasp messaging. In this age of social media and constant noise, an icon’s powerful image cuts through. And, there’s no risk of an icon committing a future faux pas.

While icons are, of course, an accessible vehicle for messaging to a general audience – since practically everyone knows who they are – they’re also an effective way to target certain audiences. In the health and beauty sector, this can be even more pronounced, as icons like Marilyn Monroe, Selena, Audrey Hepburn, as well as the aforementioned Farrah Fawcett, Frida Kahlo and Elizabeth Taylor (and their related brand equities) can each be used to speak to a specific group of consumers. Someone from an older generation might respond more to Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn, while Selena might resonate more with someone from a younger generation or the Latino community.

Timeless icons often stir nostalgia. That nostalgia can tug at heartstrings and elicit strong memories – and make the icon bigger in a consumer’s memory than what he or she was when alive, and make the product feel even more special. While a brand may die and never return, an icon can always be reimagined or relived through their story. And, as tried and true emotional influencers, icons can help brands stand out and even thrive during challenging economic times. In a recession, which some say may be around the corner, inexpensive treats and feel-good products, like a red lipstick, sell well. Conceivably, the one that sells best will be the one associated with an icon who evokes nostalgic emotions.

Looking beyond the health and beauty space, it’ll be interesting to see which icons will be next for licensing and marketing opportunities. With the help of digital technology, deceased celebrities can even come back to life. For example, some years ago, a Dior perfume commercial featured Monroe moving and smiling alongside the real-life Charlize Theron as well as two other dead celebrities, Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich. And who can forget the pairing of Marilyn with Willem Dafoe in that Snickers Super Bowl commercial?

We’ve seen the power of licensing the ‘brands’ of deceased icons, and it is important to keep in mind that a successful strategy involves the smart combination of creativity, commercially-viable product or experiences – and most importantly, authenticity.