In Memory of Michael

How the estate of Michael Jackson has handled the licensing market so far.
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Following the death of Michael Jackson, the huge potential of the star’s image and music to live on through licensing deals is becoming ever more apparent. Celebrity licensing expert David Reeder, Vice President of GreenLight, looks at how the estate has dealt with this issue so far and gives his thoughts on what its next steps could be.

The tragic death of Michael Jackson has cemented his transcendence from music super star to iconic brand. Yet how the estate manages the phenomenal desire to commemorate his life will be key to preserving both the memory of Michael and the quality of the brand he will become. While Michael Jackson’s later life was dogged by controversy, the controversies appear to have been largely overlooked in his passing. Instead, the sentiment following his unexpected death has overwhelmingly been focussed on celebrating the iconic music he created in the first 30 years of his illustrious career. Having made such popular music for so long, his appeal spans generations, and his music, rather than his private life, has now come to the fore.

The death of such a star can prompt not only moving tributes to the deceased, but also a bitter scramble for whatever pieces of the financial pie different parties can lay their hands on. However, the aftermath of Jackson’s death has been relatively civilised: the judges have upheld the conditions of his will, and the family have largely accepted these, making the care of Michael’s children their prime concern.

In terms of managing the estate of deceased celebrities, there are several phases we’ve learnt to recognise at GreenLight, especially with those stars who, like Michael Jackson, are taken before their time. There is the initial shock the death immediately provokes, which is then usually followed by a chaotic outpouring of grief. It is at this phase when, in licensing terms, there are many opportunities for fast, easy merchandising deals, which in some cases may make a lot of sense for the estate, but in other cases may diminish the future value of the brand.

After this comes the acceptance of the finality of the star’s death, and I feel this is the stage we’re entering now with Michael Jackson. It’s the time for the estate’s administrators to take a step back and decide on the most appropriate way forward in their management of the star’s brand, so that they can provide in the best way possible for those accounted for in the celebrity’s will. I think the Jackson estate will probably be looking at this until around the end of the year – Michael’s huge appeal means very careful consideration will be required. Once the estate decides on a strategy, it can then start a new beginning for Michael, in which it starts to execute its strategy to develop and sustain the longevity of the star’s memory and brand appeal.

The family has been wisely cautious with the deals done so far – these have been in the realm of traditional merchandising such as t-shirts, caps, calendars, the film rights and so on. Protecting the brand will be a prime concern for the estate, and it’s important that it is selective in the deals it chooses to make now and in the future. Our experience shows that iconic celebrities are best saved for high-end, aspirational goods that align to and enhance their iconic status. Examples such as entwining Steve McQueen’s heroic, high-octane lifestyle with limited edition Matisse Motorcycles and TAG Heuer watches are good examples.

To protect the brand, it’s also important to guard against low quality imitations that undermine what the estate is trying to achieve. Having a network of agents across different markets to monitor piracy and enforce regulations will be key to keeping piracy and its detrimental effects on the brand to a minimum.

The Michael Jackson brand has enormous potential for longevity, perhaps even more so outside his native US than within it due to his global appeal. He reportedly has a catalogue of over 100 songs that will be released for years to come, extending and deepening his appeal with current and future generations.

My advice to the Jackson estate at this point would be to safeguard against saturating the market with merchandise – there can be too much of a good thing. Cultivating the advertising side of the licensing deals as well as the chances for entertainment and merchandise agreements will also widen the opportunities to use and enhance the brand. Finally, increasing Michael’s brand’s reach to consumers in all markets across the world will not only take advantage of his global appeal but it will enhance it too, strengthening an already solid base on which to promote his music and image for the generations yet to come.

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