Now, usually, over-dramatised docu-series about global superstars telling the world of how tough their lives actually are behind the scenes is not usually my bag. However, as a football fan and as someone who grew up in the 90s, curiosity got the better of me and I watched the recent Beckham documentary in its entirety.
Much of the series is based around the Beckhams, both individually and collectively, and their efforts to shape their reputations – both at the time and in the present day. When you think of 90s British culture it is inescapable to not think of David Beckham, Victoria Adams, and then Posh and Becks. They rose to the absolute pinnacle of British cultural life, meaning their reputations were under unrelenting scrutiny for the best part of two decades.
So, what lessons can Beckham Inc. teach us from a business reputational standpoint?
There are a few other images that are more representative of the 90s than a swarm of paparazzi hounding prominent people in the public eye as they go about their daily business. In this pre-social media age, newspapers ruled the roost. People went down to the local shop to get their daily newspaper, complete with some clever (and many not so clever) headline puns slapped on the front page. However, social media platforms are now the town square. This means that it is not just the journalist and editor of a story that can throw in their two cents, or the photographer who can capture a moment – but the whole world.
To be fair to the Beckhams, being under intense media scrutiny in the 90s, didn’t look that fun. However in today’s age, where anyone you pass in the street has a high-res camera and ability to speak to the world, this could be argued to be worse. Even more of their trips to the shops, drive to school, or dinner at a restaurant would have been broadcast to the world almost constantly.
From a business point of view, this additional scrutiny has put a much great emphasis on the managing of a positive reputation. In the past, all manner of reputational issues that were public may not have made it into mainstream public discourse, whereas now the game has changed. This means that businesses must be aware and cognizant of their every action, always keeping reputation management at the forefront of their minds.
Reputations can be made up of lots of different factors. For example, if David Beckham wasn’t exactly a looker, then perhaps his rise to the top would not have been achievable, but none of this works without substance behind it. Fundamentally, David Beckham was a great footballer. The documentary covers his explosion on to the scene when he scores from the halfway line in a match early in his career – an almost unprecedented feat. His continued rise through the Man United ranks turned him into one of the best midfielders of his generation.
For Victoria it is similar, especially nowadays. Clearly, being part of one of the most successful groups of our time played a big role in the early days. However, she was never considered a world-leading singer – I think of Ali G’s joke when interviewing the pair, ‘Does Brooklyn want to grow up to be a footballer like his dad, or a singer…Like Mariah Carey’. But what has truly propelled Victoria’s reputation since her Spice Girl days is her move into the fashion world. Now the owner of a hugely successful brand, and a leading figure in the fashion world, Victoria has by many metrics surpassed David’s success from a business and monetary point of view.
This is the same in business. Although branding, marketing, communications, image and every other facet of a business’ perception are incredibly important, fundamentally no business can succeed without a great product or offering. It is important that our reputations are built on solid foundations, otherwise when the going gets tough, a reputation may not be able to survive.
Take Beckham’s infamous kick at the 1998 World Cup – getting him sent off, before England went on to be knocked out on penalties by arch-rivals Argentina. Headlines the next day included, ’10 brave lions, and 1 stupid boy’ – a headline that might belong in the ‘not so clever’ camp mentioned earlier. The media attacks were vicious and went on for weeks. He was booed at every stadium he went to, hounded in the street and it was hard to see how he could come out from underneath. His response was to rely on his famed right foot. By focusing on football, and continuing to show his immense talent, he eventually got redemption; not by some clever PR stunt, or grovelling apology, but by scoring the freekick in the dying stages of a match against Greece, allowing England to qualify for the World Cup.
And this for me is where there is a key learning. In the business world, if a reputation takes a hit, of course there will need to be a communications strategy to begin healing the damage. However, one of the best things that can be done is to focus on the core business that got them there in the first place – ensuring that it focuses on its key people, customers and stakeholders. By focusing on rebuilding trust with these people, businesses can rebuild wider trust and move forward.
Oh and finally, David Beckham is a beekeeper. Who would have thought?
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