What the Qatar X Beckham backlash teaches us about brand partnerships

Can you put a price on reputation? Maybe £10 million would do it?

Apparently, for one-time “gay icon” David Beckham, it would. Because that’s how much he’s being paid to be Qatar’s ambassador for the 2022 World Cup.


If you missed Joe Lycett’s hilarious yet poignant and perfectly pitched ultimatum, the subsequent ‘shredding’ of £10k, and his follow-up statement, let us explain: Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar – punishable by imprisonment, or even death. Unsurprisingly, last year it was voted the eighth most dangerous place for LGBTQ+ travellers.

Yet the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) very deliberately chose Qatar to host one of the world’s biggest sporting events: the 2022 Men's World Cup. 


Aside from setting in motion a tidal wave of tourism to the country – trips that could be genuinely dangerous for non-cis, non-het  and lets be honest, non-white LGBTQ+ travellers  – FIFA has alienated a huge portion of football fans. And not just those in the LGBTQ+ community: LGBTQ+ allies have also been voicing their disappointment and anger at the decision.

In response, FIFA said it was determined to push Qatar on staging a "tournament that is inclusive." Their version of this involves negotiating with Qatar's World Cup leadership to ensure in-stadium displays promoting LGBTQ rights won’t be removed, although according to the fan-led World Cup Guide they will be “inspected” at the entrance. Having since made the “unprecedented” decision to impose sporting sanctions for captains wearing the rainbow OneLove armband, it’s hard to take FIFA’s promises seriously.


And what about the Qatari LGBTQ+ community? Chris Paouros, a member of the English Football Association's inclusion advisory board, put it neatly when he said, "ultimately we do this work because we want to make sure that everybody can be free to be who they are and if you're a Qatari and you're not able to, then it just feels like window dressing."

“Window dressing” brings us back to David Beckham – and what his ill-informed partnership can teach other brands. 


As Lycett points out, Beckham has “always talked about the power of football as a force for good.” As the first premiership footballer to do shoots with gay magazines and speak openly about his gay fans – added to the fact he’s married to a Spice Girl, which Lycett reckons is “the gayest thing a human can do” – the David Beckham brand has long been considered LGBTQ+-friendly. 


So, what’s with the d*ck move?


Becks has made a time-old branding mistake: he’s forgotten to walk the talk. With 70% of consumers believing it’s important for brands to take a public stand on social and political issues and 55% saying they would boycott or discontinue shopping with brands that support public issues that don’t align with their own views, it’s no minor c*ck-up.

As founder and CEO of Sway Group Danielle Wiley writes, “More than ever before, customers expect the companies they buy from to stand up for issues that matter, but corporate social responsibility needs to go beyond statements. Without action, brands run the risk of being perceived as performative – or worse, expressing solidarity while continuing to contribute to systemic inequality.”


FYI, who you partner with says just as much about your brand values as anything else you say or – more importantly – do. “When looking at your relationships with other organisations – be it affiliates, agencies, corporate partners, suppliers or third-parties – think about their core values and inclusion practices,” says Michael Stephens, founder of We Create Space. “Are they similar to your own? Is diversity as important to them as it is to you?”

This is where Golden Balls could be in trouble. Like FIFA, DB’s decision to align himself with a morally dubious partner risks alienating his fan base. But unlike FIFA – whose corruption and bribery scandals pale in comparison to reports they’ve enabled dictators, turned a blind eye to human rights, and even bought elections – he has actual brand equity to lose. 


The knock-on effect could be other brands – such as H&M, Tudor Watches, Haig Club Whiskey, Adidas, Breitling, Armani, Gillette, AIA Group, and Pepsi, all of which he currently endorses – reassessing their partnerships for fear of their reputation being dragged through the mud (see: Ye being dropped by literally everyone). And with Authentic Brands reportedly paying $269 million for a 55% stake in DB Ventures (Beckham’s brand management company), our maths tells us that could cost him a lot more than 10 mil’.


And for those of you considering a career in travel, here's our Head of Talent, Ciarán Smyth's top tip:

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Thea Bardot

26th November

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