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Estate-based Sales Edge Up 1.0% to Reach $2.29 Billion

Retail sales of licensed merchandise based on estate properties reached $2.29 billion in 2016, up 1.0% from $2.27 in 2015 for the U.S./Canada, according to TLL’s Annual Licensing Business Survey.

Note that retail sales for the property type includes only deceased celebrities whose licensing strategies remain the same in death as in life. Deceased musicians, artists, and athletes, remain in music, art, and sports, respectively. There are a few exceptions: Celebrities that started in one of those categories but have come to transcend it are included here; Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley would be examples.

While living celebrities are struggling, a few key estate brands fared quite well in comparison. Retail success is largely limited to a couple of dominant, A-list properties, such as Marilyn Monroe and Bob Marley.

The (living) celebrities category grew just 1.9% in 2016, reaching $5.8 billion in licensed retail sales. Although the smallest slice of the pie at just $1.0 billion, digital celebrities is the fastest growing subcategory at 5.4% and accounted for a sizable chunk of growth.

The biggest areas of retail success for estate-based brands include apparel and accessories (from the traditional consumer products side) as well as music sales and promotional partnerships—which TLL does not track in our sales figures.

Therefore, although the slow growth of estate-based retail sales seems to imply a lagging industry, on the content licensing side, it is doing quite well. The most notable trend of 2016 was the rise of holographic and VR technology to bring dead celebrities back to life with large-scale arena events. Estates also frequently license a former star’s image (from archival photographs or footage) for advertisements and promotions.

Top Estates

According to Forbes, the top-earning dead celebrity of 2016 was Michael Jackson. His No. 1 spot is attributed to the sales of his half of a music publishing catalog to Sony/ATV, which includes a library of Beatles songs, for $750 million. The estate’s total pretax haul for the year totaled $825 million—the largest single-year sum recorded yet by the publication. Even without the sale, at $75 million in profits, Jackson still would have topped the list.

At No. 2 was Peanuts creator Charles Schulz with $48 million. Forbes included golf legend Arnold Palmer on the list at No. 3, with earnings of $40 million, even though some of those were realized while he was alive. Here’s the full list, with notations where TLL does not attribute retail sales to the estate category:

  1. Michael Jackson, $825 million
  2. Charles Schulz, $48 million (publishing)
  3. Arnold Palmer, $40 million (sports)
  4. Elvis Presley, $27 million
  5. Prince, $25 million
  6. Bob Marley, $21 million (music)
  7. Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, $20 million (publishing)
  8. John Lennon, $12 million (music)
  9. Albert Einstein, $11.5 million
  10. Bettie Page, $11 million
  11. David Bowie, $10.5 million (music)
  12. Steve McQueen, $9 million
  13. Elizabeth Taylor, $8 million (fashion)

Pantone recently honored No. 5-ranked Prince with a new custom shade of purple, titled “Love Symbol #2.” According to WWD, the singer’s estate is in talks to partner with various companies to utilize the custom color on retail product collaborations.


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