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She's the ultimate celebrity, a luminous blond with international name recognition. Her new handlers are keen to build a reality show around her. And if the pieces fall into place, her name may soon grace a line of makeup and lingerie. That's a pretty good trick for a woman who died almost 50 years ago.
Marilyn Monroe, the rights to whose image and name were sold on Dec. 30, is just the latest departed star to launch a new career. Deceased stars or their estates generated $2.25 billion in North American revenue in 2009, says Ira Mayer, who runs The Licensing Letter, which tracks licensing deals. "The interest in dead celebrities by brands is growing because it's a known quantity," said David Reeder, vice-president at GreenLight, a Corbis unit that represents the estates of Steve McQueen, Johnny Cash, and Andy Warhol. "There's a lot of private equity money looking to buy entertainment properties."
McQueen appears in UBS's (UBS) We Will Not Rest TV ads, celebrating achievers. John Lennon has deals with Montblanc and Citröen. In 2010, Fender Musical Instruments sponsored the "Experience Hendrix" tour of artists performing music of guitar great Jimi Hendrix.
CKx (CKXE), producer of American Idol, holds 85 percent of a venture that controls the Elvis Presley estate. "The family felt they had taken the brand as far as they could," says Chief Executive Officer Mike Ferrel. CKx has since signed with Sirius XM Radio (SIRI) for an Elvis channel, just inked a deal with Liquid Comics to develop an Elvis character, and expanded the relationship with International Game Technology (IGT) for Elvis slot machines.
Jamie Salter, whose Authentic Brands Group paid an undisclosed sum for the rights to Marilyn Monroe's name, with entertainment licensing company Neca, got into the celebrity legacy game in 2009 when he and his former employer, Hilco Consumer Capital, teamed with the estate of Bob Marley to sell merchandise under the name of the late reggae singer. They've since launched a line of headphones under the House of Marley brand as well as a "relaxation drink."
Last year Salter launched Authentic Brands, backed by investment firm Leonard Green & Partners. He says the screen goddess' likeness was an obvious purchase for the venture. "Every female celebrity after Marilyn Monroe has tried to emulate her in some way," Salter says. "Marilyn Monroe is the brand." Under the deal, Salter's group is part owner of the rights to Monroe trademarks, including images of her lips, eyes, and the name "Marilyn Monroe"—but not the famous billowing dress publicity photo for the film The Seven Year Itch. Salter and Joel Weinshanker, president of Neca, say they're talking to retailers about selling lingerie and cosmetics under the Monroe name and shopping a reality TV show where contestants compete to represent the Monroe brand.
Although Monroe would be 84 today, Weinshanker says social media links younger audiences to celebrities of yore. "There always used to be a wall between a star and a fan," he says. "In the 21st century, that wall's disappeared." One sign: Monroe's Facebook page—and her 357,410 friends.
The bottom line: Marilyn Monroe is just the latest dead celebrity whose brand is being resurrected by marketers.