Apr 04, 2019 | By Cassandra Napoli
Jun 27, 2016
Wrestling might seem an unlikely source for branding inspiration, but fans of the sports-entertainment industry’s biggest player, the WWE, know exactly how on top of its game it is.
Situated in a field of its own that’s somewhere in the middle of sports, theatre and pop culture, WWE‘s empire of broadcasting, live events and merch are masters in many of the techniques that other industries, from fashion to music, are just starting to capitalise on.
Here are five things your company could learn from Vince McMahon’s entertainment juggernaut:
The Art of Kayfabe
There are lots of great words in the wrestling business, but “kayfabe” is arguably the best. Meaning, roughly, “true in the storyline”, “kayfabe” contrasts with “shoot” (which means actually true, IRL). But in the age of social media, what’s real and not real has never been so blurred (it’s a bit like reality TV, where viewers questions what storyline is there to get more views and what’s real).
WWE superstars routinely start arguments on Twitter, continue their feud on TV, and blow it off via Instagram. They have massive social media followings – John Cena, one of the brand’s biggest stars, counts over 8m Twitter followers; former women’s champion Nikki Bella has 4m Instagram followers – and for many wrestlers, their real-life character strongly informs their stage character. WWE takes full advantage of the contradictions and complexities of kayfabe, teasing viewers as to whether a story development or a wrestlers’ injury is “shoot” (real) or “a work” (fake). Sounds complicated, but it’s super interesting to watch, and a key strategy to maintaining a never ending buzz around the brand.
Co-Creating With The Fans
Co-creation is a buzzword across many design industries today, but wrestling is unique in that co-creation has always informed its business plan. Fans turn up to wrestling events with cardboard signs they’ve made: sometimes these signs echo catchphrases the wrestlers already have; other times the signs become memes in their own right. Matches, meanwhile, are decided by fan vote, or might be made on the spot because of how loudly the fans in the arena are booing or cheering a performer. Fan opinion can ultimately make or break the performer’s career: their success, after all, depends on how much money those watching are prepared to spend on tickets, subscriptions and merchandise.
Reacting To Trends
Long before the real-time social media response trend took off for brands, WWE was tapping into the current cultural mood of its day (Hulk Hogan in the 80s, The Rock in the 90s, for instance) – and it still is. Wrestlers take their “gimmicks” (themes) from whatever is happening in the zeitgeist, whether that’s the ballroom dancing craze (which spawned Fandango), the psychedelic rockstar (Adam Rose) or the hippy eco-warrior (CJ Parker). Some gimmicks are more successful than others, but the technique ensures that WWE always feels relevant – and the best performers can make lemonade from even the least promising gimmick (take Tyler Breeze, the selfie-obsessed wrestler).
WWE creates content 52 weeks a year; its shows reach 650 million households in 25 languages, and its roster of superstars travel continuously around the world for its live events. But for fans who want even more, in 2014 the company launched the WWE Network, an over-the-top (ie. independent and internet-based) channel that hosts all the brand’s live pay-per-view events as well as years of archive content and a host of original programming, from adult cartoons to candid interviews and reality TV. This means that WWE fans can watch its content 24/7, from any device, reliving their favourite matches and feuds as well as going behind-the-scenes with their favourite stars. And it’s affordable: a subscription to the Network costs, famously, just $9.99 a month.
Inside The Wrestling Lab
Every company worth its salt now operates a lab, a space where experimentation and innovation is prioritised and new talent nurtured. WWE is no different: spin-off show NXT showcases performers who are currently training to be main-roster WWE stars, putting them in matches against their contemporaries and giving them the space and facilities to build up the full range of required skills, from promos (speaking to camera or to the crowd) to in-ring moves. The fact that NXT also generates money for the brand in its own right – it now has its own live events, international tours and merch – is just another stroke of branding genius from a company that knows exactly how to keep its fans engaged.
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