Victoria Beckham never claimed to be the best singer in the Spice Girls, or the best dancer either. Nor was David Beckham necessarily the greatest footballer ever to wear a Manchester United shirt. The team’s former manager Alex Ferguson once said he had only ever worked with four world-class players, and didn’t include Beckham on his list.
Yet, by dint of hard work, strategic decision-making and a remarkable ability to stay likable even while becoming preposterously rich, the Beckhams have achieved the goal Victoria identified back in 2001, when she wrote of wanting to be “as famous as Persil Automatic”. They have evolved beyond mere celebrities into a fully fledged brand, a household name as familiar and comforting as your daily breakfast cereal or family car. What they seem to have understood is that fame comes and goes, but brands have the power to get inside your head.
In July, it will be 20 years since Victoria Adams married David Beckham in a ceremony that OK! magazine paid an undisclosed sum to cover. They had met in 1997 at a charity football match, although each already had their eye on the other. (As David noted in his autobiography: “My wife picked me out of a soccer sticker book. And I chose her off the telly.”) Within two years they had got engaged, had their first son, Brooklyn, and married; it was shortly after the wedding that the red tops coined the phrase “Brand Beckham”, describing the way each boosted the other’s already significant pulling power.
“When he and Victoria first got together, they were the first celebrity couple you could have on both back page and front page. There wasn’t a part of the paper they couldn’t feature in, a conversation that you couldn’t find a way of fitting them into,” says Andy Milligan, founder of the branding consultancy The Caffeine Partnership and author of Brand It Like Beckham. The timing was perfect – just as football was evolving from a sport into what Milligan calls a “24/7 entertainment business”. From the start, both partners embodied not just glamour but the highly appealing values of groundedness and hard graft. He was the son of a gas fitter, who worked his way up in football through the academy programme; she turned out to be just as driven, doggedly establishing an unexpectedly credible new career in fashion when the Spice Girls folded rather than remain a football Wag.
“The reason we all love Victoria Beckham is that she’s the queen of reinvention,” says Hattie Brett, the editor of Grazia magazine. “She’s constantly doing new things: establishing herself as a designer, bringing out a childrenswear collection, adopting new tech.”
But it’s the licensing and sponsorship deals using David’s name and image that have quietly proved the money spinner. Last month, the Beckhams officially became dollar billionaires, thanks in part to the lucrative corporate tie-ins covering everything from watches and whisky to pants and skincare that David has amassed since retiring from football in 2013. (Her fashion label, Victoria Beckham Ltd, launched in 2008 and has yet to turn a profit, although that’s not unusual in fashion.) They may not be in the Kardashians’ financial league, but as Milligan puts it, “the Beckhams are a really good, British branded business that doesn’t get the credit for its exports. It’s a company whose core value is intellectual property.”
Yet the idea the Beckhams pioneered, that a person could become a brand, has filtered down into mainstream culture. Instagram has turned millennials into curators of their lives for public consumption, anxiously presenting an idealised version of themselves at all times, while professional “influencers” now hire brand managers to protect the image on which their whole commercial edifice rests. At work, Generation Z are told to define their “personal brand” if they want to get hired, promoted or simply noticed in a precarious and crowded freelance world.
For a human, famous or otherwise, to become a brand is more logical than it sounds. After all, the brand is just the part of a business that is associated with human qualities that trigger an emotional response in customers. Think of Marks & Spencer, and you probably think about reliability. Chanel means chic, Coke says feelgood, Volvo spells sensible.
As the explosion of choice on the high street has made customers more brand-aware, manufacturers have worked ever harder at imbuing brands with likable characteristics to make them stand out. So it is a relatively short step from thinking that brands should have personalities to thinking that personalities could have brands, or a defined set of values to which employers and consumers will respond emotionally. As Jennifer Holloway, a personal branding expert who works with blue chip clients from RBS to Asda, puts it: “People buy people. No matter how good you are at your job, if I haven’t bought into you as a person – if I don’t like you and trust you – it isn’t going to work.”
Holloway tells her clients that successful personal brands need a “what” – something you’re good at, providing professional credibility – and a “who” – a related set of appealing personal qualities. For celebrities, the “what” can be fairly hazy, as with the Kardashians. But ordinary mortals need both elements and “if you’re in a very technical field, more emphasis will be on the ‘what’”.
And above all, good personal brands are ruthlessly consistent. They stick to the values they originally embodied, while moving gently with the times (think of the 2006 Victoria Beckham, all hot pants and hair extensions as she watched her husband in the World Cup, versus the pixie cut and chic high necklines in which she relaunched herself as a fashion designer two years later).
When Holloway started out, the emphasis was on CEOs and senior executives wanting to hone their public personas. But these days she is increasingly asked to work with young graduate trainees on making good first impressions, although she thinks branding really comes into its own as organisations begin identifying high-potential employees for promotion. “It irks me, as a female, that women will often rely on: ‘I’m doing a good job and that will get me noticed’, where men are much better at: ‘I’m going to get noticed.’”
What she is describing is arguably a crisply articulated, slicker version of professional reputation-building rather than a brand in the Beckham sense – the latter being essentially a vast international network of trademarks and intellectual property deals, designed to protect and monetise the appeal of a name. Yet even this level of self-promotion makes some people balk, just as some balk at paying over the odds for something just because it has a celebrity’s face on the packaging.
For while the point of branding is to act as a guarantee of quality, something shoppers can trust, increasingly consumers are starting to question what they are getting in return for an expensive logo. “No frills” supermarket ranges and ventures such as Marcia Kilgore’s beauty subscription service Beauty Pie – which sources products direct from the factories supplying premium makeup or skincare brands and sells them for a fraction of the premium price, shorn of the famous name, celebrity marketing and middlemen’s mark-ups – have raised uncomfortable questions about how much value the famous brands are actually adding. Meanwhile, in parts of social media, the phrase “personal brand” has become a kind of ironic millennial in-joke, a byword for pretentiousness.
Pandora Sykes co-hosts the pop culture podcast The High Low and has just published The Authentic Lie, a mini-book on millennials’ complex relationships with their curated lives. Does she think personal branding has become a bit naff? “I think that a lot about the way we now conduct ourselves, professionally and personally, would be considered achingly naff a decade ago; that everything is now ‘content’; or that you can choose ‘public figure’ as a title on Instagram,” she says. But, she argues, branding does help make sense of the kind of portfolio careers pieced together from different gigs and side hustles that the writer Emma Gannon describes in her book The Multi-Hyphen Method. “I think it’s important to be clear about your skill set as a freelancer, because, more often that not, we’re multi-hyphenates and that doesn’t mean dilly-dallying in lots of different pies for the sake of it. It means combining several different jobs to guarantee a fulfilled and financially successful working life.” Sykes, for example, does everything from writing a column for Elle magazine to public speaking and brand consultancy but says there is a thread connecting all of it: “I don’t talk about my personal brand like it’s its own independent being, but I would think of it as: women. I’m interested in what women say, read, talk about and wear.”
But if it has its practical uses as an umbrella for sheltering different work projects, in one important respect branding can leave a person vulnerable. When the product is yourself, or an idealised version of it, it is very hard not to take criticism of that product personally.
Scarlett Dixon was 17 and hoping to become a journalist when she first started a lifestyle blog. But as her follower numbers took off and companies started approaching her with freebies in return for promotion, she eventually abandoned the journalism to go full time as a blogger and influencer. As @scarlettlondon, she is paid to model and plug products on her social media channels; she has, essentially, turned an idea of herself, projected online, into a trusted brand that can then sometimes partner with other brands to mutual advantage.
Over the years, Dixon has become braver about sharing more emotionally raw experiences, including how it felt growing up with chronic IBS (on which she has just published a self-help book called Tummy Tied). It’s important to her, she says, to convey that even if on Instagram lives look unnaturally perfect, in reality “everyone is going through hardships, troubles and health issues behind the face of any kind of glamorous online persona”. But, overall, her brand is a cheery, aspirational one: she describes its values as “creativity, compassion, optimism, spirit of adventure and bridging the gap between everyday realities and my dreams”.
Even the sunniest of brands, however, face storms. Last year, a paid ad Dixon did for the mouthwash Listerine, featuring shots of herself supposedly eating pancakes in bed, went viral for all the wrong reasons. (“Fuck off this is anyone’s normal morning” as one Twitter user put it, complaining that it seemed fake and staged.) Things escalated to the point that Dixon – only 24 at the time – ended up receiving death threats. She won’t talk directly about what was clearly a painful episode, but agrees that online negativity is an unwanted by-product of the job: “It’s definitely difficult to watch a character assassination of yourself take place online, by strangers who do not know you. I do think we all need to be more aware about what conversations we are partaking in online. It’s all too easy to forget that there are real people behind every viral storm.”
And that is one downside of turning humans into products: consumers may begin treating them as if they really are products, disposable or impervious to hurt. When rumours swept the internet last year that the Beckhams were about to divorce, speculation immediately centred on what it meant not for them or their four children but for the brand, given that David’s marketability still rests on being seen as a devoted husband, father and general nice guy.
Since the rumours turned out to be false, we will never know. Yet it was a timely reminder that, unlike Persil Automatic, people have feelings. Their lives can take unexpected turns, which most definitely aren’t on brand; they may get burnt out, or simply stop wanting to live in a goldfish bowl round the clock.
And, in that light, it is perhaps significant that David Beckham and his long-time manager Simon Fuller (who originally founded the Spice Girls and whose company, XIX Management, owns a third of the Beckhams’ family company, Brand Beckham Holdings) recently signed a deal to develop branded products for other sports stars, which would ensure it doesn’t always have to be David’s face on the packaging and his personal life on the line. If even Brand Beckham has begun to plan for a future life behind the camera, rather than always having to be in front of it, that really would be the end of an era.