Marilyn Monroe

The world is noisy. With hundreds of television channels, innumerable magazines and the exponential growth of online outlets, it is increasingly difficult for brands to distinguish themselves. For marketers across the spectrum, from wellness and beauty to travel and experiences, the image and legacy of a legendary icon can make a big difference.

Distinct from the mere celebrity, an attribute that is both transient and transactional, iconic stature is eternal and carries the weight of genuine import. Without question, a “star” can make an impact in the world, but stars burn bright and fast then fade from our collective memories. A legendary icon is significantly different. A person who becomes an icon is someone whose broad and lasting impact on culture and the world around them far surpass who they were as individuals. Their legacies bear both a historical and emotional heft that endures long after they are gone.

The ultimate example of a legendary icon is Elizabeth Taylor, the violet-eyed superstar who dazzled the world for six decades. In addition to indelible roles and innumerable awards, Taylor was an irrepressible advocate for people with HIV and AIDS and founded an eponymous foundation in support of that advocacy. Decades prior to her passing in 2011, Taylor licensed her name and image to Elizabeth Arden for a suite of fragrances, earning tens of millions of dollars for her foundation — and for Elizabeth Arden, the licensee. The advertising campaign for White Diamonds, the most successful fragrance in the Arden portfolio, is so pervasive that it’s easy for people to forget the campaign has been running for more than 25 years, and that Elizabeth Taylor has been gone for nearly a decade.

Farrah Fawcett, who died in 2009, is another enduring icon whose legacy continues to resonate with consumers. Not only did Fawcett define the look of an era, but the depth and range of her talent also redefined the role of the stereotypical Hollywood beauty. Moreover, she used her stature to bring attention to cancer in a way that was unflinching and heartbreakingly real. Today, 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 place in culture lives on in important ways. Income from licensing her name, image and likeness support The Farrah Fawcett Foundation that funds cancer research, prevention, and awareness.

To mark the 112th birthday of famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, Ulta Beauty released a makeup kit in July 2019 that bears the artist’s likeness. The distinctive packaging is a celebration of Kahlo’s unconventional beauty and introduced the artist to a new generation of consumers.

Icons can also impart a sense of dignified authenticity to a brand, while also elevating its general awareness. By establishing an icon as the face of products or services, the equities and essence of the icon are imparted to the brand by attrition. Equally important, an icon is often an efficient and effective means of instant storytelling. When a consumer sees an image of Gandhi or Albert Einstein, it doesn’t require explanation. It’s clear and complete messaging. And in this age of social media and constant noise, an icon’s immediately recognizable visage can powerfully cut through. And not to be cheeky, but there’s the very real fact that there is no risk of embarrassing faux pas that can be detrimental to business.

Very different from traditional advertising or product extensions, but no less impactful, are the more subtle ways an icon can be used to articulate nuanced messaging. The mega-band U2 recently used a variety of Mahatma Gandhi quotes in its massive Joshua Tree concert tour stop in Mumbai. Norwegian Air featured the world’s most renowned gay icon, Harvey Milk, on the tailfin of one of its Boeing 787 Dreamliner jets. A mural image of Latina superstar Celia Cruz, oftentimes referred to as “the Queen of Salsa,” was erected outside of a Wells Fargo bank in a largely Hispanic neighborhood.

Having an iconic personality lead a campaign can be beneficial both generally and specifically. In addition to meeting the first, most crucial objective of any ad — capturing the attention of broad, general audiences, icons are also effective in speaking to more targeted groups of consumers: those for whom icons resonate nostalgically or culturally. Obvious examples include famous beauties like Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn appealing to customers in their 60s and 70s.

Less obvious but more compelling are ethnic communities for whom Bruce Lee deeply resonates. In underserved neighborhoods, oftentimes local theaters couldn’t get first-run, mainstream films. Instead, what were considered “Kung Fu” films were often shown. Decades later, Bruce Lee is still a beloved figure as evidenced by the successful homage capsule collection by DGK, a streetwear and skatewear brand.

Also worth noting is how the stewards of many of these late, legendary icons continue to serve society at large. As noted previously, The Farrah Fawcett Foundation honors Farrah’s own fight with cancer by funding research, prevention and awareness. The Celia Cruz Foundation is dedicated to raising funds for underprivileged students wishing to study music. The Harvey Milk Foundation, run by Harvey’s nephew Stuart Milk, helps empower marginalized local LGBTQ communities worldwide. And the Bruce Lee Foundation provides martial arts instruction for underprivileged youth, operates the Camp Bruce Lee summer program for kids and has provided financial assistance to students and families.

As we are still early in this new century, it will be fascinating to see which notable personalities emerge as icons. With the help of digital technology, deceased celebrities are being brought back to life in exciting new ways. Already, a Dior perfume commercial featured Marilyn Monroe moving and smiling alongside the real-life Charlize Theron as well as other late icons, Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich. More recently, Humphrey Bogart, in one of his most famous scenes from “Casablanca,” was revived in a clever campaign for British grocery chain Tesco.

The power of licensing icons from bygone eras remains vast and dynamic. The key to that success is a keen mixture of creativity, commercially desirable products and the authenticity our real-life heroes bring to bear.

Martin Cribbs is vice president of brand management at Beanstalk.

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