Will there ever be another icon like Elvis? Probably not

Elvis Presley's brand has endured for decades.

August 16, 2016 marks the 39th anniversary of Elvis' death.

And even though nearly another lifetime has passed since – he was 42 – his brand is still not only culturally relevant, but known and celebrated around the world – even by consumers who weren’t alive in 1977. Which sort of puts Elvis in a class by himself.

Elvis is #2 on the list of Forbes’ top-earning dead celebrities of 2015 with $55 million, but Forbes notes that’s largely because of ticket sales to his Memphis estate, Graceland.

According to Elvis Presley Enterprises, the corporate entity created by the Elvis Presley Trust to “conduct business and manage its assets,” which is now owned by intellectual property corporation Authentic Brands Group, as well as Joel Weinshanker, chairman of media and entertainment company the National Entertainment Collectibles Association and managing partner of Graceland Holdings, and the Presley family. Elvis has sold over one billion records to date, which is more than any other artist and, of course, his trophy case includes myriad awards, such as the 1971 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

But his appeal far exceeds music and entertainment. Indeed, nearly 40 years after his death, it’s safe to say interest in the Elvis brand remains strong – perhaps unlike any celebrity before or since.

Elvis as tourist attraction

A rep for Elvis Presley Enterprises did not respond to requests for comment. However, a press release says hundreds of thousands of visitors come to Graceland annually. And, in May, Graceland, which calls itself “music’s most important and beloved landmark,” welcomed its 20 millionth visitor.

What’s more, a $92 million “luxury resort” called The Guest House will open on October 27 “just steps away from Graceland Mansion”. A release calls The Guest House “the most significant enhancement to Graceland since it opened to the public in 1982 and the largest hotel project in Memphis in over 90 years.”

And then there’s the 200,000-square-foot, $45 million entertainment complex – “Elvis: Past, Present & Future” – under construction across the street from Graceland that is scheduled to open in Spring 2017 with the “largest and most comprehensive Elvis museum in the world.”

Elvis as consumer good

In addition, a recent auction of Elvis merchandise owned by third party collectors brought in over $730,000, including a birth record, which sold for $87,500; the “red and white western style pants” created for his first starring role the 1957 film “Loving You,” which went for $42,000; and 24 of Elvis’ pool balls, as well as table chalk, invoices and a signed check from his father, which brought in $15,000.

But Elvis memorabilia gets far, far more personal. And it is arguably consumer appetite for goods like his hair and medical records – even decades after his death -- that make the Elvis brand distinctive. Plus, there are Elvis fan reunions, impersonators and sightings, which, at the very least, further demonstrate sustained interest.

Elvis as SEO hotshot

And even though Elvis died roughly 20 years before the Internet, he unequivocally rules the SERP (search engine results page) for his name — poor Elvis Costello doesn’t appear until page 3.

But Elvis Presley isn’t the first celebrity to die young. And, nevertheless, his presence looms arguably largest. But beyond just, “Elvis is Elvis,” which is a somewhat legitimate explanation, why is this, exactly?

Elvis as cultural icon

Another iconic figure in pop culture, John Lennon, reportedly said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”

And, in simplest terms, this may explain Elvis’ enduring legacy.

President Jimmy Carter, who was in office on August 16, 1977, said, “Elvis Presley’s death deprives our country of a part of itself.”

And this may also illustrate why consumer interest remains. Carter also noted Elvis’ impact was “unprecedented and will probably never be equaled” as he “permanently changed the face of American popular culture.”

Mike Grehan, CMO and managing director at intent-based digital marketing firm Acronym Media, agreed.

He pointed to enduring images like Elvis in his comeback costume, as well as Marilyn Monroe in the white dress blowing up around her and James Dean in his Rebel Without a Cause pose.

“These are enduring images because they represent cultural change,” Grehan said. “[But] no iconic artist has, really, ever been a marketer. In fact, they are preyed upon by commercial bandits.”

And as Authentic Brands Group and Weinshanker now own the intellectual property of what they called “one of the most widely recognized and beloved entertainers in the world” and construction booms around Graceland like Monopoly players putting up hotels on Boardwalk, Grehan might be on to something.

Elvis as pitchman

In other words, per Garland, Texas-based Southern Maid Donuts, Elvis only did one commercial in his lifetime – and it was singing the Southern Maid jingle: "You can get 'em piping hot after four PM, you can get 'em piping hot. Southern Maid Donuts hit the spot, you can get 'em piping hot after four PM.”

Although, funny enough, Southern Maid also notes, “Nothing is known of Elvis' impact on Southern Maid Donut sales.”

Elvis as brand asset

Countless other brands, however, have used Elvis’ image, including Pizza Hut, Audi and State Farm.

Elvis Presley Enterprises encourages brands to make “the King of Rock 'n Roll an effective part of your next advertising or promotional campaign.”

And even though the Presley family retains a stake in Elvis Presley Enterprises, one could argue the Elvis brand is seeing unprecedented commercialization. Which, to be fair, may be precisely what the Elvis brand needs to survive. And unless the conspiracy theorists are right and he is still alive, it’s impossible to definitively determine Elvis’ take on his brand as it stands in 2016 – or how he’d feel about being an effective part of advertising campaigns. Maybe he’d be thrilled. Maybe he’s rolling over in his grave. We’ll never know.

Elvis as enduring icon

But the fact remains the Elvis brand has survived in part because the man himself continues to strike an emotional chord with consumers – and not just those with the means and desire to buy his hair.

“Iconism has an emotional attachment and a mental image that sticks,” Grehan added.

Gary J. Nix, senior social strategist at digital marketing agency iCrossing, agreed, saying references to Elvis spark an emotional response, which is always good for brands – hence their interest.

And, for his part, consumer psychologist and retail consultant Bruce Sanders said the key driver of Elvis’ post-mortem brand success is an emotional offshoot: nostalgia.

“Elvis’ body of work, along with how he worked that body of his, created memories of positive, exciting times people longed to prolong,” he said. “The Elvis impersonators and Graceland tours were a result of the nostalgia appeal as well as a mechanism for keeping the nostalgia going. And then maximum effectiveness for selling required the power of imagination. We wanted to pretend we were actually hearing Elvis singing or that he was just around the corner in the next room at Graceland.”

Elvis as a sign of the times

Meanwhile, Tom Eslinger, creative director at visual effects company Framestore, said Elvis’ relevance underscores our collective obsession with celebrity, including excessive spending, substance abuse, bizarre behavior and estate bickering.

“Elvis was really the first celebrity who rose, fell, rose again, got weird, fell again and died mysteriously and very publicly, with a long and noticeable decline in product, appearance and behavior – essentially what we consider the pillars of brands,” Eslinger said. “Unfortunately, his connection to generations through music and his impact on popular culture is not what we immediately remember him for today, mainly because of the way his estate manages his brand on image rather than legacy. Elvis changed TV, music, movies, celebrity, Las Vegas and hopefully the emphasis on authenticity in what we see and share will swing toward his breakthroughs rather than breakdowns.”

Elvis as 'King of the Personal Brand'

The market has changed dramatically since Elvis’ last real-life turn in the spotlight – we have far more channels and noise and even the very definition of celebrity is in flux. So have we seen the last Elvis? I.e., in 40 years, will any other icon be as relevant in terms of personal brand and influence? Or is the Elvis brand the last of its kind?

For his part, Nix said there is plenty of room for another individual to have the same kind of pull as Elvis, but it will be done in a different way.

“That’s really the big difference – in Elvis’ day, brands used a person’s celebrity and influence because they had celebrity and were untouchable,” Nix said. “But people are more touchable now…now, you don’t have to have that amount of fame to have the same large brand. You can do it from your living room.”

He cited YouTube influencers like Lilly Singh that could even pass Elvis in popularity at some point.

“It may not last as long, but the peak could be larger than Elvis because they’re more authentic and have the ability to connect with [consumers] now through technology and social media,” Nix added.

But while Gil Eyal, CEO of Hypr, which he says tracks over 1 billion social accounts and 10 million accounts it designates as influential, noted unlimited channels mean anyone can become instantly famous, he said the lifecycle is dramatically shorter. Mainstream celebrities can maintain a longer relationship with fans, but he said even Taylor Swift may struggle to be relevant in 50 years – precisely because there’s so much noise and attention spans are short.

“She won’t last because there are too many channels and too many other options,” he said. “Tens of thousands of people have a chance to showcase their talent at any given moment and the audience grows bored,” he said. “Snapchat’s success demonstrates how the value of keeping something has diminished as compared to seeking out a new and exciting experience every day. More importantly, niche fame is becoming more and more prominent, as people can seek celebrities that fit their specific topics of interests and have regular access to them.”

And that means fans always eventually get bored and find someone new despite a celebrity’s best efforts to keep them engaged.

And that, perhaps, whether it’s true or not, will be music to Elvis Presley Enterprise’s ears.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.