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Living legends: how brands can bring icons back to life

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We have the technology to include deceased stars in modern art and advertising. But how can brands do it respectfully and authentically, and delight fans old and new?

Tupac Shakur, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and Ronnie James Dio defined their music genre and moved fans – in life and beyond.

While wildly different in personality and artistic vision, they all have made post-life comebacks on the stage as holograms, an astonishing technological re-imagining. Yet holograms used in performance is not new. English engineer Henry Dircks and scientist John Henry Pepper were creating ‘ghostly illusions’ for crowds in the 1800s.

What is new is the trend of bringing icons, often musicians, back to life – and it is creating marketing opportunities: Michael Jackson is performing every night in Las Vegas in the Cirque de Soleil show Michael Jackson One; Ronnie James Dio heads out on tour with his band this month; Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe have hologram deals with Pulse Evolution.

As technology and entertainment converges, producers need to address the issue of licensing. We are talking about using technology to ‘recreate’ some of the most prolific performers of our time – this is a delicate situation.

Authentic fakery
Working with an icon’s estate or the estate’s representative from initial discussions and beginning the licensing process immediately is critical. Die-hard fans aren’t the only ones who want to see beloved icons as holograms; family members and close friends are invested too.

Companies should begin negotiating commercial partnerships early on. Identify what words or sayings an icon would never repeat, clothes they would never wear and dance moves they have never performed. Take the time to understand the sensitivities that might still plague the estate. No celebrity is free from gossip, so source information and have the facts before going down the road toward hologram creation.

Dealing with the likeness of a dead celebrity is tricky business, even when producing a static image. Throwing in a moving image that actually performs and, in the case of Michael Jackson, dances, is uncharted territory. You have to communicate with the estate or family. Those are the people who knew the icon best in life and can help ensure the piece of technology, whether hologram or virtual reality, is as an authentic representation as possible.

Life partners
Another important part of creating a hologram or virtual reality project is finding the right partner. There must be confidence that the technology company used to bring the person back to life has done their homework and is willing to invest to ensure the technology is capable of creating true representation.

If not the same company, it is imperative to identify a partner who can distribute the hologram and produce a show. There are a number of companies creating holograms but setting up performances or concerts and making sure the technology works properly is essential to an authentic experience.

Getting it wrong when creating something as expensive and public-facing as a hologram is not an option. Ultimately, that means being open to working closely with those who knew the artist or who have a deep understanding of the icons entertainment genre.

Millions of fans remember these performers in a certain way and it is the responsibility of these technology companies to start communication early with estates to ensure their creations live up to the reality of these bona fide stars. This means finding the right costume designer, makeup artists and choreographers to make for a great show.

Virtual heights
The opportunity for marketers to use this technology has never been greater. Swedish band ABBA plans to set out on tour in 2019 via virtual reality. The group is working with a technology company to perfect ‘digital avatars’ of themselves during their peak in the late 1970s. All members of the band are living, yet virtual reality gives fans the ability to experience a performance from the band during the height of their career.

Imagine a virtual Woodstock? Live concerts are not the only vehicle for this sort of commercial partnership. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner 2049 saw holograms of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra. Hollywood is starting to integrate these figures into their content.

The technology is here. The question now is how do marketers best use it to create authentic experiences for fans and give justice to the icons’ themselves? We can all close our eyes and imagine our favorite performer belting out a song. Now imagine how special it would be to see Frank Sinatra’s baby blues live on stage.

Establishing licensing rights early, working closely with icons’ estates and paying attention to what made these icons beloved in life will help get us closer to that reality.