Inside Story: Rebranding the stars

The icons of 20th century pop culture are perfect for advertising, says Martin Cribbs. He turned celebrity detective to match the person with the product
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The Independent Online

The recent use of classic Hollywood stars in high-profile UK advertising campaigns, such as Gene Kelly in the recent VW Golf campaign and Cary Grant and Jack Lemmon in the Virgin Trains ad, shows the marketing value such figures still have. Corbis - Bill Gates's online picture library - recently acquired the image rights for more than 50 of the world's most recognised personalities. It is the job of Martin Cribbs, Corbis's new director of rights representation, to find inspiring ways for advertising creatives to retell the stories of these movie icons. Seeing himself as a kind of "celebrity detective", Cribbs spends a lot of time talking to the surviving family membersin an effort to establish more about the stars' personalities.

Mae West

Remembered as the busty blonde from the golden age of film, Mae West was one of Hollywood's and Broadway's most popular comedians. But beyond the blond bombshell façade, she was an extremely astute businesswoman who understood and capitalised on the changing times around her. She was deeply influenced by African-American culture and was unafraid to address risqué subjects in both her private and working lives. Bawdy and often hilarious, West was a true renaissance woman who was not only an entertainer but also took full control over her own career. West continues to be one of the most quotable personalities of the modern age. Her comedic talent and frank appraisal of sexuality have fantastic appeal to contemporary women's fun/sassy sensibility. She is the perfect celebrity on which to build a campaign targeting a feminine audience in several demographics - be that for clothes, cosmetics, cars or even financial services.

Andy Warhol

I have spent countless hours delving into Warhol's life, talking to friends, family, and business associates from the 1960s. Blurring the distinction between "fine" and "commercial" art, Warhol's iconoclastic paintings of soup cans and movie stars became masterpieces of the 20th century. Born to immigrant parents, Warhol earned a scholarship and was the first in his family to go to college. He invested wisely and proved that you don't have to wear a suit to be an astute businessman. He would be a fantastic representative for financial services looking to attract people with high disposable incomes.

Bela Lugosi

Bela Lugosi rocketed to fame on Broadway in the role of Count Dracula in the 1927 Broadway adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel. The downside was that Lugosi quickly became typecast. Behind this success was a deeply private man who started out in the US as an unknown Hungarian immigrant and became one of the most-well respected actors within the industry. He was also a family man who remained grounded despite his huge success. His life story could provide an inventive illustration of the "man behind the mask" theme which could work for financial planning, insurance, clothing, etc.

Maria Callas

We have had many in-depth conversations with Maria's family that have helped to discover her background. Maria was born to modest beginnings and worked with a ferocious passion to get to the top. She had to be tough and it was because of this she developed a reputation as a diva who expected nothing but the best. Creatives looking for an exemplar of the self-made woman might think about capitalising on Callas's belief that if you work hard enough you can achieve anything. Her story could be ideal for marketing aspirational goods such as jewellery and other luxury products.

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen left an indelible imprint as one of Hollywood's sexiest leading men. His revered roles in films such as Bullitt, The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair and Papillon have often been imitated but never repeated. Remembered as an iconic action hero, McQueen is the definition of a man's man. Yet, in truth, McQueen's life experience made him a more vulnerable soul than his public persona would indicate. McQueen rose from the tough circumstances of a broken and neglectful home which influenced the way he lived his life. He worked hard to create stability for his own family, which remembers him as a loving husband and father. Moreover, McQueen frequently returned to the boys' reform school where he spent much of his childhood to offer support and inspiration to its pupils. McQueen's balance of masculinity and sensitivity lend a fantastic appeal to the "modern man" and could be seen in advertisements for jewellery, or, perhaps more surprisingly, insurance companies.

Albert Einstein

Through my privileged entrée to Einstein's private archives at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I discovered that he was far more than the caricature of a scientific genius that most of us recognise. While many are aware that Einstein was a Jewish refugee forced to flee Europe during the First World War, few realise how deeply this affected him. When he arrived in the US Einstein found a deeply racist and divided society, and became a campaigner for black civil rights. Einstein was one of the first "celebrities" to use his fame for social good. Marketers have a rich cultural and social legacy to draw upon.


Liberace delighted the world with his camp stage show, outrageous costumes and cheerful showmanship. Bejewelled beyond belief and wearing hugely extravagant furs, the entertainer would drive on stage in a rhinestone-encrusted Rolls-Royce. Yet the many sides to Liberace's character mean that he has massive contemporary cultural appeal. Liberace is not only a Las Vegas legend: his humour and rightful title as the original king of bling place him squarely in 21st-century pop culture. Replace macho men with Liberace to pitch beer and a marketer has struck a demographic goldmine.

The Wright Brothers

Wilbur and Orville Wright's creative and technological genius revolutionised transportation. Yet despite this the brothers were simple men from Ohio who kept their feet on the ground. I have had many conversations with the brothers' surviving family, and learnt that the two men valued family life above all else and were never happier than when laughing around the dinner table. On the date of the first powered flight, 17 December 1903, both Orville and Wilbur expressed relief at their success because it meant they could put work aside and travel home for Christmas. I also discovered that both men loved to cook. Orville had a tradition of stuffing the Christmas turkey and each year he would say, "'Tis a fine bird this year." The potential for an ad campaign based on this aspect of the brothers' lives is huge.

Gloria Swanson

My insight into Gloria Swanson has been gained largely through intimate conversations with her daughter. Swanson was was a pioneering businesswoman. Constantly challenging the social constraints of the 1920s, Swanson was at the forefront of women's liberation. Married several times and a mother of three children, she was among the founding members of United Artists, a major Hollywood film studio. This allowed her to produce her own films, something unheard of for women at the time. Swanson is the perfect vehicle for high-end perfume and cosmetics - or any companies wanting to appeal to successful, entrepreneurial and sexually independent women.