David Beckham, England footballing legend and globally respected brand ambassador made headlines yesterday by publicly backing the campaign to remain in the EU. Celebrity backing of a political campaign can have ramifications for both the credibility of the campaign and the celebrity themselves.
Therefore, while this step into the political sphere is an unusual one for Beckham, it will have been carefully thought out in advance.
One striking aspect of the EU Referendum has been the scepticism the general public has shown towards key political figures.
The attitude of supporters of Leave in particular has been characterised by a rejection of elites, experts and political authority. Even remainers have been blasé in voicing their mistrust of many corporates and politicians backing an 'in' vote.
This toxic atmosphere makes the Referendum a potentially perilous arena for a celebrity to enter: get it wrong and you can damage your reputation, credibility and campaign. But get it right and there is a fantastic opportunity to legitimise your position as a thought leader and representative public voice.
The tone and manner of communication is crucial. Bob Geldof's bizarre pursuit of Nigel Farage down the Thames made for hilarity in national newspaper columns, but did nothing to enhance his position, or that of his brand, as a commanding voice on the EU.
Similarly, Emma Thompson's dismissive reference to Britain as 'a cake-filled, misery-laden grey old island' invited derision and hostility from the press. The greatest gripe the public have with politicians from both campaigns is the feeling that they are being treated with condescension. Cameron and Osborne have been plagued by accusations that they are patronising the public and Thompson's comments invited similar criticism.
Two of the best examples of how to approach the topic have been offered by JK Rowling and David Beckham.
In classic Rowling style, the author penned a piece to her fans and followers which wasn't egotistical or aggressive but hugely insightful and emotive. She refrained from ranting and has maintained a consistent argument throughout- tying in to her true brand values.
The statement made by David Beckham was another clever instance of slick brand management. The negative rhetoric surrounding the campaign has irked many people, who view it as defeatist and scare-mongering.
Beckham is not a politically authoritative figure but has used his position as a national icon and his 'family man' brand to enhance his standing. He said that no matter what happens, Britain 'will always be great,' before going on to champion the vibrancy and connectivity of the world, with reference to the welcome he enjoyed in the various countries he played in. He also made himself more relatable by emphasising his role as a parent, imploring the British people to think of the consequences of the vote on their children.
Beckham was positive and by releasing a pre-written statement via Instagram, he delivered media content that was strategically planned and controlled. This is in stark contrast to Bob Geldof, who let go of any control he had of the narrative the second he stepped onto that boat.
The decision to back a political party is not taken lightly. A celebrity will consider the potential impact on their brand, any effect on future sponsorships and collaborations and the impact all of this could have on their public perception. Beckham's brand is a business in itself and a lucrative one at that, so he will have been strategic in his thought process.
Strategic planning is imperative, as even apparently well-matched partnerships such as Lance Armstrong and Nike have the potential to disintegrate at a moment's notice.
This looks a good match though. Beckham is a reliable ambassador who commands widespread respect from the British public, even more so following his role as an Olympic ambassador. His support lends credence to the campaign and the manner in which his message has been crafted paints a picture of a down to earth celebrity engaging with the subject from the public's viewpoint.
There is a role for celebrities on both sides of the debate but it is imperative that they approach it in the right way: by controlling their own narrative, offering a message focused on their own expertise and experiences and by avoiding patronising or exaggerated negative statements.
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