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Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D.

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The Beckham Effect

Posted: 05/19/2013 4:37 pm

As the world celebrates the retirement of soccer's most beloved icon, it is time to reflect on the success of one of the most influential brands of all-time. Even his biggest fans would admit that the principal reason underlying David Beckham's career success is his exceptional ability to self-brand, to stand out from the crowd and permanently capture people's attention. So, what is the recipe for the Beckham Effect? There are three key ingredients.

1) More branding than talent: Be the most famous person in a field, profession, or domain of expertise, without being the best (or even close to it). Soccer aficionados will fume at any suggestion that Beckham should be considered one of the best 10 or 20 players in recent years. And yet Beckham's soccer earnings alone (which are trivial compared to his endorsement deals) were as high as those of the world's best players -- e.g., Messi and Ronaldo -- not the least because his image rights were included in the transfer deals. When he left Manchester United to move to Real Madrid, he was at the peak of his career... but in the shadow of his more talented teammates (Zidane, Ronaldo and Raul), except when it came to selling shirts and merchandising. When he moved from Madrid to the U.S. his mission was to finally convert Americans to the beautiful game -- yet, despite being the most beautiful footballer in the planet, there was nothing particularly beautiful about his game. In a recent interview, Stefan Szymanski, a professor of sports management at the University of Michigan, wisely noted that, "Beckham is soccer plus sex: those are the only two things that sell in the world, aren't they?" Indeed, but the fact that he achieved that with limited talent for soccer is testimony to the selling power of sex.

2) Altruistic motives and a fortune, too: Beckham has been an ambassador for noble and charitable causes while simultaneously being a symbol of mindless consumerism, celebrity cult, and narcissistic self-promotion. One would have thought that the two are incompatible, but not under the Beckham Effect. He was proud to play for England... and Manchester, Real Madrid, even PSG. When he moved to PSG, he was proud to give up a six-figure weakly salary to charity (while re-valuing his brand, getting more media attention, and barely playing soccer). Shortly after joining PSG he announced his retirement -- surely, to devote his times to more charitable causes than playing soccer.

3) Disrupting cultural stereotypes: The Beckham Effect is also about creating a paradigmatic shift of stereotypes. It is about being original and counter-conformist, while hoping that everybody copies you. Before Beckham, footballers looked scruffy, primitive and unfashionable; now they are metrosexual. Before Beckham, tattoos were for prisoners -- now they are for hipsters. And you may be on the cover of OK! magazine all the time, hang out with Tom Cruise and Prince William, but you are still a shy and simple family guy, the hard-working guy next door. Indeed, unlike most soccer stars, Beckham seems stable, conflict-free, polite and trustworthy -- a mother's dream son (and all this while selling sex!).

In short, the Beckham Effect is the ability to achieve exceptional brand value while having limited talent, disguising materialistic with altruistic motives, and not just defying, but creating novel stereotypes. Although, naturally, there is no better exponent of the Beckham Effect than David Beckham himself, there are some other noticeable examples (in areas other than soccer). Here are a few examples, with brief illustrations for each of the three points described above:

Marissa Meyer: 1) one of the world's best paid CEOs despite her short career and no track record as CEO; 2) committed to saving Yahoo! and being a role model for female managers while being more ruthless than most male managers, hiding from the media during pregnancy and being a fashion junkie; 3) pretty, blonde female in charge of IT empire.

Steve Jobs: 1) the biggest icon of creativity since Andy Warhol despite not really creating that much; 2) Apple's goal is not to make money but to make "cool products" (it is a service to humanity by the most valued corporation of all times -- the iPhone alone has higher revenues than the whole of Microsoft); 3) first billionaire entrepreneur who connected and even attained rock star status with gen Y.

Bill Clinton: 1) one successful term in office yet he would win the French presidential election if he were allowed to run; considered one of the most inspiring politicians alive (globally); 2) inspirational speaker (for a six sum fee); estimated wealth = $55 million; 3) you can be a cheat and a moral authority at the same time... apparently.

Jamie Oliver: 1) one of the most recognizable chefs in the world despite never having a Michelin star and cooking mostly pasta and risotto; 2) committed to improving the nutritional habits of schools, hospitals and prisons (while selling TV shows and books); 3) the world's first -- and still only -- celebrity hipster chef... who made cooking and dining a very hipster thing.

Thus, we can define the Beckham Effect as the ability to (a) become an iconic brand despite possessing relatively less talent than your competitors, (b) being associated with ethical rather than materialistic motives (despite amassing a fortune), and (c) defying cultural stereotypes, by replacing them with newer counter-stereotypes (being original in the hope that others will copy you).

 

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