The Final Frontier For Licensors?

Hard core Trekkies are known for their dedication to the cause, but will they take that obsession to the grave?

A Detroit-area company thinks so and is now working with CBS Consumer Products to boldly go where few licensees have gone before. It’s producing Star Trek branded caskets and urns.

Call it the final frontier of licensing.

Some people, no doubt, also will call it morbid and exploitive, but say what you will, branding death is one of the liveliest sectors of the somewhat moribund licensing business right now.

Eternal Image Inc., a young company that’s the first in the funeral industry to break into licensing, has signed deals with Major League Baseball, some of the country’s largest universities, the Vatican Library, Precious Moments, the American Kennel Club and the Cat Fanciers Assn. Talks are ongoing with other sports leagues, fashion and corporate brands, and entertainment companies, with a handful to be added this year.

“People are squeamish and don’t want to talk about death. But when you think about branded funeral products for more than a few minutes, you see the beauty of it,” said Woody Browne, managing partner of Building Q, the licensing agent working with Eternal Image. “If you’ve ever had the sorrow of buying a casket, you see the potential. My dad definitely would’ve had a Red Sox casket, but they didn’t exist then.”

There are few areas left in this world (and now the next) that don’t have branding. Today, property owners are open to breaking categories once thought to be taboo. A decade ago, for instance, no one wanted to be associated with gambling and casinos. Now, licensing has exploded across lottery tickets, slot machines and other gaming.

When the rock band KISS unveiled a branded casket in 2001, it was considered a novelty, a garish product that made people shake their heads but still somehow fit the shock-rock image (and could double as an ice chest for the living, with some buyers using it for just that purpose).

While the Eternal Image products aren’t intended to be cavalier about branding death, that doesn’t mean everyone necessarily gets it.

“People hang up on me all the time,”” said Browne. “Or, people understand it but feel like they’ll never be able to sell it in to their management.”

On the flip side, some enthusiastic licensors have called Browne, only to be told turned down because the property doesn’t make sense for funerary products. Opportunistic deals could pretty quickly lead to negative backlash, he said.
One category that may never come around: car manufacturers. People do, after all, die in cars and the marketers simply don’t want the association.

That’s somewhat ironic because Clint Mytych, the 27-year-old president and CEO of Eternal Image, had the idea to start the company after searching for a ’67 Mustang-branded casket for himself. Not that he felt like he’d need it anytime soon, but he was curious. And then he was inspired because he found no branding whatsoever in funeral products.

As a complete newbie in the industry, he launched his Farmington Hills, Mich., company with the mantra of letting people take their lifelong passions into the hereafter. EI designs and manufactures only licensed caskets and urns, marketing them through online channels, funeral directors, trade shows and specialty publications.

“The point is to celebrate someone’s life and not just focus on their death,” Mytych said. “People customize just about everything in their lives now. Why not their funeral and their casket?”

As opposed to the KISS casket, which is covered in elaborate airbrushed pictures of band members posing and preening, the EI products play the subtle card. New York Yankees logos are small, for instance, placed on a few spots around the casket, which is wrapped in the team royal blue and gray colors.
Urns are more decorative, with the MLB’s including a baseball at the top, still trying to avoid “tacky and hokey,” Mytych said. A recent Chicago Sun-Times story detailed a local woman’s decision to put her husband’s remains in a Cubs urn to reflect his years-long devotion to the team (their dog’s name is Wrigley after Wrigley Field and they have a Cubs showcase in their home).

The American Kennel Club and Cat Fanciers Assn. both have deals with EI, via 4Kids Entertainment. It started with urns, which are ready to be customized with the pet’s name, photos and messages, and now extends to garden markers (the pet equivalent of a headstone).

“I know it sounds morbid to talk about pets dying, but people want to honor their pets because they’re part of the family,” said Alyssa Tucker, svp at 4Kids. “They don’t just want to bury them in the backyard in a box.”