Variety

Stretch it like Beckham

Harish Bhat | Updated on May 23, 2013

Like the footballer, brands become interesting by stretching across opposite themes and reconciling them.



I was in London last week. Everything in that city, including the constant talk about the famously unpredictable weather, was eclipsed by the news that David Beckham had just announced his retirement from professional football. Newspapers splashed his rugged, handsome photograph across their front pages. Editorials paid rich praise to the man who was the face of English football. Women journalists wrote in gushing prose that betrayed many a secret crush. Here was one of the biggest brands in the world of sport, finally calling it a day.

How did Beckham become such a big global brand? He was a very good footballer, but not a truly great one. He was certainly not in the same league as Pele, Maradona, Ronaldo or Zinedine Zidane, whose magical skills with the ball were far more wide-ranging. Yet he is football’s most famous and wealthiest celebrity today, well ahead of these masters. So what made the difference, and can marketers learn something from the brand called David Beckham?

The hypothesis I would like to offer is that David Beckham became such an interesting and exciting brand because he stretched across opposites and reconciled them seamlessly within his personality. By doing so, he was never unidimensional, nor was he ever perceived as monotonous. This is not a new phenomenon in the world of brands. Some famous brands of foods (Maggi Noodles, for example) offer consumers two seemingly “opposite” benefits at the same time. Maggi offers families and kids the goodness of whole-wheat atta, along with the pleasure normally associated with quick and tasty junk food. Iconic brands of cars (for instance, BMW or Audi) offer brilliant hardworking engines, combined with incredible flair and style. Great financial brands such as HSBC offer robust standardised global process, blended with customised and flexible local service.

While each of these brands has typically stretched across one specific spectrum of opposites, brand Beckham has become iconic by adopting this stretch across several dimensions. Here are some of these Beckham stretches:

Looks and performance

In the world of sports, stunning sexy looks and brilliant performance don’t necessarily go together. In Beckham, they came together superbly, and how! Beckham has a film star’s looks and an athlete’s body. That’s why he was chosen to market underwear for Swedish fashion chain H&M, and those semi-nude hoardings featuring him have always had the potential of creating several traffic pile-ups along the way. He is a tattooed and toned demigod to millions of women. But alongside such divine looks, he also turned in brilliant performances on the football field. He helped his teams win a prodigious six Premier league titles, two FA cups and one Champions League title. He appeared an astounding 115 times for England, and scored several famous goals – including one of the Premier League’s most iconic goals in 1996, scored from behind the halfway line against Wimbledon. When a brand stretches to combine such diametrically different dimensions – outstanding looks and spectacular performance – on a sustained basis (over 21 years of Beckham’s career, to be exact) it has all the right ingredients to become iconic.

Posh and Normal

Beckham was glamorous and posh, but he was also a normal, small-town boy at the same time. At one end, he hobnobbed easily with Hollywood superstars. He has been married to a beautiful wife, Victoria (Posh Spice of the Spice Girls), who symbolised glamour herself. He advertised luxury products for the rich, including the Swiss brand Breitling, and several labels of expensive fragrance and aftershave. On the other end, he has been a normal guy with a stable family, dedicated to his wife and child. He has also always kept close to his Leytonstone roots (Leytonstone is a suburban area of East London, far away from the glamorous and wealthy areas of West London), including the typical language and expression associated with this area. Thus, he combined glamour with normality in a genuine, effortless manner that few people can successfully do all the time. That is one of the reasons Beckham became so likeable, and there are lessons here for marketers of all sorts of brands.

Triumph and Shame

Beckham represented both triumph and shame, which sit at opposite ends of the spectrum. The Telegraph newspaper, in an editorial last week, has called him “the incarnation, for good and ill, of modern football”. Some of the game’s greatest moments of triumph belonged to him, including the legendary last-minute free-kick against Greece that took England into the finals of the 2002 World Cup, or the manner in which he created the two goals that led to Manchester United’s famous Champion’s League victory in 1999. Equally, there were memorable points of disaster and shame that are associated with Beckham. Eight big and shameful red cards pockmarked his career, two of these when playing for the national team. Who can forget that he was sent off the field for recklessly kicking out at Diego Simeone in England’s 1998 game against Argentina? He became a national villain for that shameful event. But these opposing themes – triumph and shame – have actually made Beckham appear more human, and hence, from a common man’s viewpoint, more relatable. Brands can bear that in mind, too.

Just a whiff of rumour

We live in a sporting world where scandalous or loose behaviour has unfortunately become commonplace. Lance Armstrong’s doping admission, Shane Warne’s indiscreet sex-texting and the recent IPL spot fixing episode are infamous examples that come readily to mind. In the midst of all this, David Beckham has always been squeaky clean, ethical in every respect. Much like Sachin Tendulkar, he has, therefore, been a role model in this regard, to a whole generation. But unlike Tendulkar, there has also been, about Beckham, an occasional whiff of salacious rumour, which makes him, in many ways, even more irresistible. The story of his alleged affair with his former assistant Rebecca Loos – the claims were, of course, vehemently denied by Beckham – has always remained in the recesses of his public image. Sometimes, squeaky clean is boring, on the other hand a little bit of unsubstantiated, juicy gossip is good for brands. It adds to their interest quotient, and helps capture public imagination.

There are many other opposites too, which converge so neatly into brand Beckham. He is British and international at the same time, a great English hero but with significant stints in American and European teams as well. He is incredibly wealthy with an estimated fortune of £165 million, but carries himself with unusual humility for a man so rich and successful. All these combinations of opposites make his brand personality multidimensional, interesting and appealing. They also ensure that there is no boredom, he is always in the news.

So, how can brands of products or services achieve sustained fame and success by stretching it like Beckham? The specific answers will vary based on category and market, but one essential truth is that any brand that desires to achieve this stretch will have to create a tension of opposites that sits together neatly in its core proposition. That is always a challenging goal to achieve, but, like the ball that Beckham hunted so expertly on the soccer field, it is surely worth the pursuit.

Harish Bhat is Managing Director and CEO of Tata Global Beverages, and author of Tata Log: Eight Modern Stories from a Timeless Institution. The views are personal. bhatharish@hotmail.com

Published on May 23, 2013

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