Rebranding Duke

John Wayne's son promises a corral's worth of new themed merchandise

Prior to his death in 1979, John Wayne appeared in 150 films in which he played everything from a gun-slinging cowboy to a gun-slinging Marine storming Iwo Jima. And if the youngest son of the famous actor (still America’s favorite movie star, according to a 2010 Harris Poll) has his way, Duke is about to resume a rather rigorous work schedule. As the president of John Wayne Enterprises, Ethan Wayne recently announced plans to expand his father’s already considerable legacy into a global branding empire.

“We already have a roster of items,” Ethan Wayne, 49, told Adweek. “But I want to create products that people want to use.” Products like John Wayne beef jerky, and a John Wayne coffee mug with the inscription: "Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway."

Dead-celebrity branding has reached a kind of cultural apotheosis. At least one 2009 estimate puts the market for deceased-celebrity gewgaws at $2.25 billion annually; departed stars like Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley still boast earnings that would make some hedge-fund managers jealous.

But marketers have also awakened to a frequent tradeoff: Glamorous or swashbuckling as a movie star may have been in life, chances are his or her afterlife in the world of licensed merchandise will take the ignominious form of T-shirts, flip-flops, and board games. In the case of John Wayne, such merchandise has existed for some years now—a $200 cuckoo clock, a $30 chess set, a $40 collector plate—but Ethan Wayne is determined to make some changes.

“If our job is to represent John Wayne in the marketplace,” he said, “we need to represent his spirit. We need to be doing stuff like pocket knives, horse saddles, leather jackets—things he used in his personal life.” (Meaning Duke liked beef jerky?)

Wayne isn’t the first licensor to wake up to the fact that dead-celebrity goods often fall dismally short of Hollywood's glitter. When Jamie Salter bought the rights to market Marilyn Monroe merchandise in January, he stated publicly that he would not be putting the star’s image on what he called “trinkets and trash.” Instead, he promised “elegant” merchandise because “Marilyn was an elegant woman.”

But Salter isn't naive either. "Don't get me wrong," he added, "it's a good business—calendars, posters, and shot glasses."

And John Wayne was a brave, sunburned, patriotic man—things that Ethan Wayne hopes will be reflected in the 20 new license deals he plans to announce on June 14 at the Licensing Show in Las Vegas. Wayne said he plans to ink 30 more deals, too, but there's one clause that's already non-negotiable. In keeping with his father's red-white-and-blue persona, he said, “We only want products made in the U.S.A.”