The King is dead, long live the King

Listen to this article


The King may have been dead for more than 27 years, but the power of his music is undiminished. Sony BMG, which owns the rights to Elvis Presley's recorded catalogue, has pumped new life into a once-bloated frame in a textbook study in brand resuscitation.

To mark what would have been Presley's 70th birthday on January 8, the record company launched a series of reissued British number one singles, with original artwork, available in limited edition CD and 10in vinyl formats.

The results have been impressive. The day after Elvis's birthday,"Jailhouse Rock" returned to number one. Last Sunday his 1959 chart-topper "One Night" replaced it at the top, winning a further publicity bonus as the 1,000th bestseller in British chart history.

This is not the first attempt to revive the King. In 2002, the pre-merger BMG used the impending 25th anniversary of his death to mount its highest-profile Elvis marketing campaign, and the momentum has grown from there.

The coup of an advertising tie-in with Nike led to global chart-topping success with a remix of his obscure 1960s track "A Little Less Conversation". That prepared the ground for the release of 30 #1 Hits, a compilation that Sony BMG says has now sold more than 10m copies worldwide.

Sony BMG is confident of high chart positions for all of its remaining re-releases between now and April.

The company astutely anticipated that the fresh attention to Presley from both media and public would drown out the whimper of a less impressive commercial reality.

"Jailhouse Rock" was able to reach number one with first-week sales of just 21,262 copies, the lowest UK figure recorded for a chart-topping single. On Sunday, "One Night" lowered the bar even further, with an opening tally of 20,463 units.

The new year is a traditionally soft period for recorded music, and the retail singles market is in sharp decline. Yet the number one slot retains a cachet far beyond the lamentably low sales figures that can now win it. Darren Henderson, Sony BMG marketing director, admits that the reissue campaign is a means to an end.

"Yes, it is a marketing exercise, of course it is," he says. "It just so happens it captured the imagination of the media and the fans. We feel we've begun to get another new generation buying into Elvis."

By the mid 1980s, the Elvis catalogue was gathering a thin layer of dust. Its reawakening contains lessons for other brand managers, according to Brent Green of Brent Green & Associates, a Colorado-based marketing, communications and consulting company.

"You must never lose sight of the fact that customers are always changing and cannot assume that everybody automatically gets the brand," says Mr Green.

"That means it must be repackaged - and that doesn't mean reinvented if it is a good brand - for the constant parade of new customers while never losing sight of the core customers. We saw Coca-Cola blow it on that basis when they introduced New Coke."

Last summer, before the Sony merger, BMG set down a marker for the initiative, using the 50th anniversary of rock and roll to justify promoting Presley's debut single from 1954, "That's All Right Mama". It sold 18,799 copies in its first week.

"That enabled us to gauge the amount of market potential in reissuing Elvis singles," says Mr Henderson. He adds that sales from box sets and other albums indicate a die-hard Elvis fanbase in the UK of between 15,000 and 20,000 people. "We could pretty much calculate how many singles we would sell week by week. We will continue to sell approximately 20,000 to 25,000 every week."

Underlining the proactive stance of Sony BMG's UK division, the UK market is the only one in which the singles campaign is taking place.

"There aren't many other territories that could sustain what we've done and retain a [profit] margin as well," notes Mr Henderson.

While Sony BMG owns Presley's recorded output, his name and likeness are owned by Elvis Presley Enterprises, now in new hands after Lisa Marie, his daughter and sole heir, sold 85 per cent of the company last month for $100m to Robert Sillerman, a US businessman.

It is Elvis's overweight image of his later years that could have presented a problem for the marketeers. But it has not.

"Our absolute intention was to get away from that clichéd image of him," says Mr Henderson. "We made a conscious effort to market the cool Elvis rather than the Vegas Elvis."

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.