Digital Branding Opportunities Last More Than a Lifetime

Back in April 2012, late rap legend Tupac Shakur came alive once again to his fans. Friends and family of the beloved rapper arranged for a virtual version of Tupac to perform at the annual Coachella Music Festival in Indio, Calif. The performance went viral, capturing more than 15 million YouTube views within two weeks. Tupac album sales increased more than 500%, and his Greatest Hits album landed a spot on the Billboard 200 for the first time in 12 years. Tupac died in 1996.

The virtual Tupac performance was an early example of celebrity branding in the digital arena. With technologies becoming increasingly sophisticated, companies should pay close attention to the opportunities that these changes offer in terms of branding and marketing. If the afterlife is endless, so are the marketing opportunities surrounding it.

Celebrities, their families and managers have long grasped the value of controlling a public persona or brand, both in the present and after they are no longer among us. In an analogue world, that has meant securing their likeness or personality rights in the form of photos, videos, and mementos so that no one else can profit from or alter his or her image without permission. 



But digital technologies are taking likeness rights to a whole new level. Those who secure digital likeness rights can do everything from a mash-up of posthumous album remixes to the creation of virtual humans that let the celebrity live on. The gradual maturation over the last decade of facial tracking, gesture recognition and animation technologies has enabled the industry to recreate public figures with eerie accuracy.

In May, for example, we produced Michael Jackson’s “appearance” at the 2014 Music Billboards Awards, in which a virtual Jacko performed the song “Slave to the Rhythm,” dancing alongside a four-piece band and a host of live dancers. He was singing a track from his new album, while wearing wardrobe and dancing to choreography that was specifically designed for this new performance. Anyone doubting how far the technology has come should just check out the video online, which has seen nearly 23 million views on YouTube since its release on May 19. 

So who profits from this new realm of virtual celebrities? Obviously, the estates see renewed sales of music, videos, photos, film, etc. And branding agencies, which often manage these rights, market the enduring appeal of iconic figures like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley to fans and marketers, who appreciate the lifelike illusion.

Savvy brands will increasingly choose to align themselves with these digitally generated figures. Already, companies such as Dior and Dove Chocolate have used computer-generated imaging to splice in scenes of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn into their TV advertisements. 

Lastly, in the age of social media, everyone’s a celebrity. As the concept of maintaining a personal brand spreads to just regular folks, even non-celebrities are moving to secure their own likeness rights – a movement that will certainly bring exciting and challenging marketing opportunities to us all. 

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