- ELVIS the ICON
Elvis the icon has become a 'brand'
people and celebrities
By DAVID WILLIAMS
Scripps Howard News Service
Elvis Presley was a rebel, a threat, a "sharkskin-suited girl chaser, wearing eye shadow," U2's Bono wrote, one rock star bowing to another, in a 2004 Rolling Stone essay. He was "a trucker-dandy white boy who must have risked his hide to act so black and dress so gay."
Elvis also was a doting son, a gospel singer, a good soldier. "I don't remember the controversy he stirred up," wrote Southerner and author Bobbie Ann Mason in a 2003 biography, "because everything he did seemed so natural and real, and he was one of us, a country person who spoke our language."
Which all goes to say, whatever you wanted in a cultural icon, Elvis was it, king-size. He wasn't just larger than life. Thirty years gone -- he died Aug. 16, 1977 at 42 -- he's larger than death.
"Just about by any measure I can think of, it's bigger," said Jack Soden, president and CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises, talking about the state of the Elvis brand on the eve of the estate's 30th anniversary celebration.
"We could aim for it, plan for it, try for it. But there's nothing other than Elvis' incredibly unique bundle of attributes that could have made this actually be happening so continuously.
Soden's a businessman, not a songwriter, so Incredibly unique bundle of attributes may not be as instantly catchy as hunka, hunka burning love. But it would seem to explain why Elvis is the name of our eternal flame.
That is, for every person, an Elvis persona.
"People tend to focus on the things and values and personas that resonate best with them," said Robert Passikoff, president of New York-based market research firm Brand Keys.
But whether it's the "Ed Sullivan Show"-era Elvis, shaking what Gladys gave him before 72 million TV viewers, or the gospel Elvis singing "How Great Thou Art," Passikoff said, "neither of them cancel each other out."
And so, 30 years later, the one-man-brand that is Elvis seems stronger than ever -- and poised to grow stronger under the ownership and financial might of media mogul, and "American Idol" TV show owner, Bob Sillerman.
The billionaire Elvis fan plans a $250 million upgrade of Graceland and its environs. The next few years will bring all-new buildings -- mansion aside -- including a visitor center and multiple hotels. The pilgrims won't recognize the place -- new attractions will boast the latest technology, and a walk through the woods will replace the current shuttle-bus system to help create "the environment and the elegance," Soden said, "of an Ivy League campus."
The company's eventual goal is to more than triple the current 600,000 annual attendance.
But then, you don't have to come to Elvis. He'll come to you. As the song of a few years ago said, Elvis is everywhere.
There's an all-Elvis station on Sirius Satellite Radio, an Elvis limited-edition Harley-Davidson that sold out at $58,000 a pop, an Elvis-inspired peanut butter-and-banana creme Reese's Cup.
And, despite EPE rejecting nine out of 10 licensing proposals, there are enough Elvis products to fill the shelves of a big-box store. Call it, Just Elvis.
There's Elvis Monopoly, Elvis Yahtzee, an Elvis bowling ball from Brunswick, Elvis action figures from McFarlane Toys, an Elvis watch from Fossil.
There are even Elvis PEZ dispensers, a box set of three (1958 Elvis in Army duds, '68 comeback-trail Elvis, and '73 Elvis in shades and high-collared jumpsuit) in a limited run of 400,000. (Fittingly, the mold will be broken, the company says.)
Brand. It's a word that Soden -- caretaker of an icon, protector of an image, fan of the man -- once resisted. "Because as brand-like as his legacy is -- you know, he's a person," Soden said.
But there's no resisting, really. After all, Soden reasoned, "The whole goal of brand managers is to create an emotion. They want people to be emotionally tied to their Toyotas.
"We didn't start with a logo and a widget and set out to create an emotional tie. We started with a purely personal relationship between a unique individual and the public."
Again: for every person, an Elvis persona.
On a recent morning at Graceland, it was the typically large and varied lot: old and gray, middle-aged, teenaged in backward ballcaps, pint-sized -- a group snapshot of EPE's claim that 38 percent of all visitors are 35 and under.
They shopped (Aloha replica jumpsuit with belt, cape and certificate of authenticity, $3,700). They toured (Jungle Room to jets to jumpsuit exhibition). They scrawled on the wall ("We Miss U -- Reincarnate"
The Reincarnated King? Well, there was that recent Elvis duet with Celine Dion on "American Idol" that became the No. 1 downloaded video on iTunes. And anyway, what's one more Elvis?
Hillbilly Cat Elvis. Elvis the Pelvis. Army Elvis. Hollywood Elvis. Comeback Special Elvis. Las Vegas Elvis. Black leather Elvis. Black velvet Elvis.
"You usually associate musicians to one music scene, one genre," said Becky Ebenkamp, Brandweek magazine's West Coast bureau chief. "Frank Sinatra, you think of him as being one type of music, really. . . . He was a big-band singer and he did different things. But you think of him as just being the 'New York, New York' Frank Sinatra."
"Elvis," she said, "evolved."