Twenty years to the week after his death, Ricky Nelson is rocking again.
Starting today music giant EMI Group is launching a fresh collection of Nelson's greatest hits, part of a larger effort to sell a new generation of music fans on artists popular with their parents -- maybe even their grandparents.
Armed with months of research from focus groups, consumer researchers and market data experts, EMI hopes "Ricky Nelson: Greatest Hits" will replicate the company's success last year in making "Dino: The Essential Dean Martin" a sleeper hit by convincing young listeners that the late crooner was hip again.
That album sold 759,000 copies, according to Nielsen Soundscan. It was the bestselling Dean Martin album in more than 30 years.
Nelson, however, is a special challenge. Although he sold 35 million records by the time he was 22, and had 17 hits in the top 10, he is virtually unknown to younger music fans. Most reissues of his hits in recent years have been lucky to sell 10,000 copies.
"Ricky Nelson is a whole different type of artist," said Geoff Mayfield, a senior analyst at Billboard magazine. "He isn't cool the way Dino was."
Enter EMI Music Marketing President Ronn Werre, who hopes to "re-brand" Nelson just as he did Dino. A former Campbell Soup Co., Procter & Gamble Co. and Coca-Cola Co. executive, Werre believes market research can make old hits bestsellers again.
"For years, the music industry relied on its gut rather than data to sell songs," Werre said. "Now, we're using the same techniques Procter & Gamble uses to sell pet food."
Today's Nelson album debut comes four days before the 20th anniversary of his death at age 45 in a plane crash while traveling to a New Year's Eve concert in Dallas.
Nelson grew up in black and white in America's living rooms as a star on his family's "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet." As a teenager, he launched a rock 'n' roll career that featured such hits as "Hello, Mary Lou," "Poor Little Fool," "Lonesome Town" and "Travelin' Man." Although his career waned when the sitcom ended in 1966, Nelson enjoyed a comeback in the 1970s as a country rock singer with the hit "Garden Party."
Werre chose the singer as his next project after learning that the A&E biography of Nelson's family was the channel's most popular one after Oprah Winfrey's.
Werre's research led him to carve up the potential Nelson audience into two groups -- Midwesterners and blue-collar buyers -- and to advertise with TV shows and magazines they like.
Researchers asked consumers what popped into their minds when they heard Nelson's name. Middle-class respondents 45 years and older had fond memories of Nelson's early years. Midwestern listeners recalled the innocent family values of "Ozzie & Harriet."
"Research showed that Ricky could sell well in conservative markets," said Herb Agner, vice president of catalog marketing for EMI.
Werre and his staff painstakingly tested the new Nelson CD, studying consumer response to liner notes and song lists. They concluded that the best image to promote was that of a young adult Nelson -- somewhere between the country rock "Rick Nelson" and baby-faced "Ricky" who made teenage girls swoon when he was barely old enough to shave.
"Everything from the cover photo to the title of the Ricky Nelson album was influenced by data from dozens of focus groups," Werre said.
EMI also is hoping sales will benefit from a public-TV special about Nelson this month, and a Larry King Live interview scheduled tonight with members of his family. Quotes from Bob Dylan and the late Elvis Presley praising Nelson were incorporated into the advertising campaign.
"At Procter & Gamble we were always aware that we had to listen really closely to consumers, because there's always another soda or laundry detergent," Werre said. "But the music industry has sometimes paid more attention to bands than consumers."
EMI's current roster includes the Rolling Stones and Coldplay, which both released new albums this year. But the company's financial success depends almost as much on older hits.
Catalog sales can make up as much as 40% of a record company's income. But in recent years they have declined market-wide along with sales of newer releases, a victim of the overall industry slump caused in part by widespread illegal downloading.
Werre's strategy for boosting catalog sales so far has worked wonders. Sales of EMI's older songs have grown 56% during the last three years, including bestselling rereleases from the Beach Boys, George Thorogood and Nat King Cole.
Reissuing Martin's hits last year seemed risky at the time. EMI had released the singer's repertoire 90 times in 50 years, mostly targeting older listeners.
But Werre's consumer research indicated that younger music buyers also liked Martin -- as long as it was the younger, hipper version. So EMI began to view Martin as the Dino "brand," shunning the tuxedoed, graying Martin for the smooth, confident Rat Packer making mischief with Frank Sinatra at the Las Vegas Sands.