The history of celebrity endorsements is over 100 years old, dating back to at least the late 19th century when acclaimed stage actress Lillie Langtry began appearing on packages of Pear’s Soap. Marketers have long known that, whether in connection with beauty products, breakfast cereal, soft drinks or yogurt, a celebrity spokesperson can lend “star quality” to a commercial brand. Of course, in today’s marketplace, celebrities not only endorse the products of others, but create their own as well. Myriad celebrities like Gwen Stefani, Katie Holmes, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Jessica Simpson, and Jennifer Lopez, to name but a few, have become brand conglomerates earning millions by not only endorsing but creating their own fashion and beauty lines. The practice is now so common (even John Malkovic has a fashion line), that it is hard to believe that the celebrity brand is a much more modern phenomenon, dating back only about 25 years.
To trace celebrity brands back to their starting point, one need look no further than this year’s list of top earning dead celebrities published by Forbes.com. Top honors this year, with a staggering income of $210 million, go to the recently departed Elizabeth Taylor. While much of Ms. Taylor’s earnings can be attributed to an estate sale of her famed jewels as well as costumes and artwork (including a $16 million Van Gogh!), a significant portion of her income can be attributed to the multi-million dollars in retail sales of her signature perfume White Diamonds. White Diamonds was launched in 1991 in a partnership with Elizabeth Arden that began in 1988 with the launch of Ms. Taylor’s first perfume, Passion. Elizabeth Taylor was not the first celebrity to launch a scent; Sophia Loren and Cher beat her to the punch earlier in the 80’s. Nor was she the first celebrity to launch a multi-product brand; former Charlie’s Angel Jaclyn Smith established her bargain fashion line at Kmart in 1985. However, Ms. Taylor was the first among celebrities to create an enduring brand empire that was not tied indelibly to an established retailer’s brand – you’d be hard pressed to know that Elizabeth Arden played a role without being told.
Given Elizabeth Taylor’s storied history as a film actress, in hindsight, her ascendance to brand vanguard is not surprising. As a pre-teen in the 1940’s she became internationally famous in such films as “National Velvet” and “Lassie Come Home.” One of the last great stars to be groomed by the old Hollywood studio system, Ms. Taylor left MGM after nearly 20 years under contract. She wasted no time in proving her business acumen by quickly becoming the highest paid actress of her day when she signed a $1 million deal (plus a cut of the proceeds) to star in the infamously panned 1963 film “Cleopatra.” While “Cleopatra” was an artistic misstep (Taylor ultimately became a two-time Academy Award winner), it provided Taylor with another opportunity which arose from her off-screen romance with on-screen co-star Richard Burton – creating the mold for the modern celebrity. Largely on account of Taylor, now a star’s personal exploits and foibles (famous affairs, breaking up marriages, substance abuse, divorces, weight gain/loss, not to mention philanthropy and commitment to social causes) have become just as, if not more important than any artistic output. Almost single handedly, Taylor turned the Hollywood film actress from a commodity exploited by studios into an independent entrepreneuse capable of presiding over a multi-million dollar empire. All celebrities, male or female, who endeavor now to do the same owe her a debt of gratitude.
It will be interesting to see how the Elizabeth Taylor brand evolves. Like the iconic Marilyn Monroe who was near the top of last year’s dead celebrity list, the memory of Ms. Taylor and her fame (as well as her infamy) have nearly unlimited brand potential. All they need is someone as savvy as Liz herself to take control.