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The David Beckham Scotch Test: Can Celebrity Actually Sell Whiskey?

David Beckham

Photograph by Aaron Davidson/Getty Images

David Beckham

With a liquor cabinet full of famous brands, Diageo (DEO) has hired retired soccer star David Beckham to peddle a new Scotch.

Diageo has been on a bit of a celebrity bender. In 2007 it forged a marketing and profit-sharing deal with rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs for its Cîroc vodka. And earlier this year it joined Combs in buying DeLeon, a high-end tequila house. Now, Beckham is on board to launch Haig Club whisky and “play a fundamental role in developing the brand, its strategy and positioning,” the company said in a statement.

As for Scotch, Beckham isn’t a bad choice. With a brilliant career closed, he’s both well-known and largely scandal-free. All he has to do these days is look handsome and sip a few sundowners. But does booze gain much from a celebrity endorsement? Surely, Beckham is better at selling running shoes, swimsuits, or even cologne.

Haig Club Single Grain Scotch WhiskyCourtesy DiageoHaig Club Single Grain Scotch WhiskyPremium booze, meanwhile, is fast becoming a small-batch game. A big name and a massive global marketing campaign may actually hurt a liquor brand more than they help. Suntory Holdings, for example, just paid a hefty $16 billion for Beam largely because it owned a batch of creaky old Kentucky distilleries.

Diageo, of course, knows this better than most. One of its hottest products at the moment is Bulleit, a legacy whiskey brand that it has been careful to expand with little fanfare. As Diageo told founder Tom Bulleit: “We’d just as soon you sounded like a hick as a marketer.”

It follows that those who are really into peaty flavors are more likely to be swayed by a true, old-school Scot (like this guy) than a tattooed athlete with a kid named Brooklyn.

The booze business is also pretty saturated. Liquor giants such as Diageo, Pernod Ricard (RI:FP), and Brown-Forman (BF/B) have already covered the world and pushed into emerging markets. From here on out, much of the growth will be in getting customers to switch brands or shift from beer or wine to harder stuff. That’s where Diddy and Beckham come in. Haig Club comes from a centuries-old distillery, but it’s a new blend with a “fresh, clean style”—a starter Scotch, if you will.

David Rogers, a branding expert and Columbia Business School professor, says celebrities are particularly effective for premium liquors trying to be seen as luxurious or glamorous. “There’s a fit of desired brand perception,” he says. “I would assume that Diageo has done their market research and found that Beckham’s admirers overlap with the consumer segments where they see opportunity for growth.”

There’s certainly no shortage of young men and women who would look at Beckham and think: “I’ll have what he’s having.” The same strategy has worked handsomely for H&M skivvies.

Stock is an associate editor for Twitter: @kylestock

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