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Time to Play the Game – Things Professional Wrestling Taught Me About Marketing

Time to Play the Game – Things Professional Wrestling Taught Me About Marketing
Start Something

Start Something


13 Aug 2021·8 min read

It is 1.30pm on a Friday in early 2001, 9-year-old me sitting on the school bus, on-route towards home. A neighbour, slightly older than me, asks everyone in the 15 seater bus, “Is anyone watching WWF Smackdown tonight?” I replied that I had no idea what he was talking about and he simply told me, “Turn on channel 22 at 8pm”.

That was the night I fell in love with professional wrestling.

There are only a few times in your life that you will come across something you deeply feel for. While I came to love marketing in my late teens, wrestling was my earliest passion that has followed me through till today. As I grew older, I cared for wrestling in different ways, and most recently for the brand building and marketing principles it has taught me to apply in my work.

Today I’d like to share some of them with you.

Invest in Emotional Connections

Wrestling is made up of good guys (aka “faces”) and bad guys (aka “heels”). As a kid, I loved the faces and despised the heels – exactly what they wanted me to. I could not explain why, but whenever a face overcame adversity to pull off a victory, I was happy, cheering from behind the TV screen. Likewise, when a heel got their comeuppance, things felt right.

When I grew older and began to understand the nuances of the sport, I began to notice that there were some faces I could get behind more, while there were some heels who did their jobs so well that you had to respect them. I was emotionally invested and this inadvertently drew me closer to the brand and characters.

Takeaway: Today, I take this approach when strategizing for brands that I work on. Are we creating an emotional attachment with our consumers? How can every piece of communications that we put out show a little more of who we are?

Know Your Connections

“WWE” and “professional wrestling” have become synonymous to the casual watcher, however, the industry houses a range of companies or “promotions”, each with a different style – much like every other product or service category.

In recent years, many promotions have opted for the more athletic style of wrestling, utilizing flips and fast-paced counters to create superhero-like sequences. This was refreshing for viewers, resulting in many clamouring for WWE to adopt this style more often.

Recognising a market for it, WWE did increase the amount of athleticism in their matches but largely kept to their core position which was a focus on storytelling. They understood that while this style attracted the “woahs” and “holy sh*ts”, viewers would constantly crave for something more daredevil, potentially putting their performers at risk. Moreover, this work rate would not be sustainable for their intensive 300-days-a-year tour schedule.

Takeaway: Sometimes it may seem easy to introduce something new into the market just because our competitor has done similarly, or perhaps it’s just exciting to inject something new into the market. However, in doing so, we risk losing what is core to our businesses. This is not to say that we shouldn’t reassess our position in the long run, but rather, it is important for us to understand our position and develop strategies to strengthen it.

Trust The Consumer

Wrestling is predetermined, which means that results and champions are often planned beforehand, allowing for long drawn storylines to play out. This was not the case in 2013-2014. Daniel Bryan, a respected independent wrestler who made his way to WWE in 2010 was passed over as World Champion in favour of the taller, more “public-facing” looking, Randy Orton.

Randy Orton was planned to main event Wrestlemania, WWE’s largest annual event alongside his long-time friend Dave Bautista, aka Drax the Destroyer. The match was arranged months in advance, but with every passing week, fans grew louder in their support for Daniel Bryan. They would chant his signature “Yes” throughout shows, in segments he was not in and even at sporting events. WWE listened to this and changed the main event, resulting in one of the largest crowd reactions. The rest, as they say, is history.

Takeaway: We’ve been in those meetings where the team comes up with what is “the best idea ever” and all agree that “consumers would love it”. If they didn’t, they “wouldn’t know better anyway”. It is a slippery slope to take this approach because you are forgetting that consumers are the lifeblood of your business. Their opinion matters, and when they collectively say that something does not fly, it is highly likely that they are onto something.

Accept That Some Things Won’t Work

While some characters in wrestling last for decades, others have lasted just a week. Regardless of the timeframe, WWE has never shied away from dropping a project. If a fan’s reaction is not strong enough, it is likely that said character will be off-screen in the near future.

They have seemed to master something that many brands struggle with: letting go. It is the drawback that stems from pride of work. Whether an agency or client, it can be very difficult to accept that some things don’t work.

So let’s look at some innovations that have emerged, that go beyond 360 degree photos, and actually come closer to replicating an exhibition experience from the comfort of one’s home.

Takeaway: It’s important to step away from initiatives that just aren’t working out — and having the wisdom to recognise when these situations are developing is important. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t calling yourself a failure. This is you acknowledging that you put something out that did not receive the intended response and rather than spending more resources, it is time to look for a stronger concept.

The agility of which WWE is able to execute this has always served as a checks and balance for me in the work I do.

Final Thoughts

Our passions often have an impact on what we do. I’d like to encourage you to look at the things you care for out of work as well and see how you can bring some of what you love about them into your craft.

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