Brand It Like Beckham

Here's a test of your celebrity savvy. Who deserves top billing: the noble statesman and internationally revered icon who liberated his people or the 28-year-old millionaire sportsman with the squeaky voice and ever-changing hairstyle? That was the question keeping London newspaper editors up all night when Nelson Mandela met David Beckham last month. The Guardian made no bones about its answer: "The former president of South Africa was yesterday lucky enough to meet one of the world's most gifted footballers." They were joking. We think.

In the constellation of 21st-century celebrities, Beckham is more than an icon; he's a brand. Through his feats on the playing field and his exemplary behavior off, Beckham has become the hottest marketing machine in the sports world since Michael Jordan. The Adidas football boot he wears is the world's No. 1 seller. Since Beckham became Vodafone's international face in 2002, global sales have increased by one third. Of course, Beckham loves football--he's made that plain on the pitch--but in moneymaking terms, football is little more than a sideline.

Beckham's sponsorship deals last year more than doubled his salary, which was the highest in soccer. Interbrand, a global consultancy, says that the Beckham brand is worth 50 million pounds. (Vodafone and Pepsi each pay him 2 million pounds per year.) As long as he keeps playing football his cachet should continue to grow, says Interbrand chairman Rita Clifton. For Adidas, which in recent years paid Beckham between 2 million pounds and 4 million pounds annually, the investment is about to pay off. "Beckham's effect on sales will be worth 1 billion pounds over the next four years," says Beckham biographer Ellis Cashmore. "We are looking at a figure similar to that which Jordan pulled in for Nike."

Everyone wants a piece of Beckham. On June 18 Real Madrid made a play for the Manchester United star, coughing up a transfer payment of 25 million pounds to his British club--on top of the 4.2 million pounds a year it offered Beckham. But Real wanted the footballer as much for his face as his feet. In marketing terms, Beckham could be Real's passport to Asia, where Man U--with 17 million fans--reigns in popularity over all sports teams. According to the marketing consultants FutureBrand, Beckham could shift 5 million of those fans to Real's side.

To prove the point, Beckham was in Tokyo when the deal was announced. There, his fans call him Beckhamsama, using an honorific to show admiration and respect. No wonder. He reportedly earned 5 million pounds for four days of hawking auto lubricants, chocolates and a chain of beauty salons--more than he'll be getting for a year's work on the pitch.

Just as Beckham is not just about football, Beckham Inc. is not only about David. By all accounts his wife, the 29-year-old ex-Spice Girl Posh (nee Adams), is the strategic brain behind this marketing powerhouse. "In some ways, Victoria has been David's brand manager," says Clifton. Victoria's post Spice Girls solo projects failed, and Virgin Records dropped her last year. All the while, however, she has been cannily rebranding herself as a top model, doing London catwalk shows, becoming the face of the rapper Jay-Z's clothing line Rocawear and sidling up to such fashion luminaries as Anna Wintour of American Vogue. These days no matter what Posh and Becks wear, they make the news--and boost sales. Even their two sons, Brooklyn, 4, and Romeo, 13 months, set fashion trends for the mini-set. As designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana wrote about the family in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK: "They are fashion icons." What they wear, their hairstyles, the places they go--they "immediately become must-dos or must-haves."

Last year the Beckhams earned more than the Queen: 15.5 million pounds compared with her 15.2 million pounds. But they come from decidedly nonregal backgrounds. David grew up in a working-class London suburb called Chingford. Posh also was reared in a London commuter town. She earned her nickname because her father, who owned an electrical firm, used to drop her off at school in a Rolls-Royce.

Now Real Madrid hopes to cash in, too. Michael Sterling, a sports analyst at Field Fisher Waterhouse in London, believes that Beckham will generate between 6 million pounds and 10 million pounds per year for the club--largely because he will open both the British and Asian markets for them. "Real Madrid will rival Man U as a brand now," says Sterling. "He's a sponsor's dream: a fashion icon, associated with success, a family man. Because of Beckham, football is no longer just about football, but about character and personality." For better or for worse.