I started earlier by comparing the way in which World Wrestling Entertainment uses branding in a really pervasive and powerfui way. In the case of the Undertaker, likely the most famous of current superstars, the WWE’s brand strategy has been wildly successful. In today’s post, I’ll focus instead on where it hasn’t worked quite so well.
You Can’t C Me
Arguably the next best branded wrestler today is John Cena, perennially indestructable, G-Rated Superman and hero to the under 8 set. When he emerged on the scene, Cena had an identity problem: hitched to a character more Marky Mark than World Champion. In his decade plus run since, Cena was blessed with the McMahon paycheck and development to push his visibility and work through the branding missteps of his early career.
Wisely, the creative team never denied his past. Changing up a character wholesale (at least once they’ve reached a certain level of fame) has never worked to my knowledge, the exception being Mick Foley’s string of personalities (that they wrote into the storyline). In Cena’s case, even as they were re-tolling him into a quasi-veteran patriot, he wore the same stonewashed jorts as always, albeit flipped in his South Boston style with the appropriate (branded) accessories. His omnipresent armbands and hat nod towards his Marky past even as, only in recent months, he’s gravitated to khaki cargo shorts that mimic but are slightly less ridiculous than his trademark denim. Like any good redesign, Cena kept what was working and updated the rest. Textbook branding.
Now where this goes wrong is where a successful character is milked far too long. “Ain’t fixin’ what ain’t broke” seems to be a WWE tenet in some really obvious cases, leaving their performer trapped like General Zod in a bizarre, arrested psuedo-verse indefinitely. The wrestler that best illustrates this point is Rob Van Dam.
Now into his second decade in the ring, he has yet to get a visual refresh. In the ’90s when he assumed the esoteric/oriental/Steven Segal-type character complete with high-and-tight ponytail and airbrushed onsie, Van Dam dazzled more with this aerial acrobatics, ‘extreme’ bouts against hardcore legends Sabu and Jerry Lynn, and his then-yet-to-be-mainstream mixed martial arts style than his persona. People bought into Van Dam because of what he did, not who he was. I have to think as an athlete that this would be preferable ,but unfortunately, in order to sustain his career as he got older, Van Dam could have used that sort of thing to fall back on a little. Today, nearing the end of his career, he looks more like one of the creepy old guys at your local gym that still listens to Sugar Ray and drives a Camaro, except this one can still frog splash from the top of ladders on the regular. Dont get me wrong – Rob’s still fun as hell to watch, he’s just incredibly hard to take seriously anymore (even by professional wrestler standards).
Van Dam didn’t update for the same reason so many established businesses don’t examine or refresh their own business identies very often: doing so takes effort, and is never short on risk that you’ll make a mistake ‘just when everything is going so well.’ Its an important comparison to make, as it shows that risk aversion is not only a naturally-occuring thing among conservative business owners, but flashy sports entertainers. The fear is that their brand, as shitty as it may be, is all they have, or is their strongest asset. And that may be true. An average of 46% of web traffic is due to brand familiarity, and that’s a hefty, scary “L” were your innovation to somehow flop. The alternative is just as scary. I dont have the answer to that, except to point out that at least if you’re trying and failing you’re not just letting time push you into obscurity.
As an aside, from the opposite end, the up-and-comers, whether your local dog biscuit boutique or upstart grapplers like Zach Ryder, are all really big on social media in an attempt to build that kind of brand identity. In the meantime, social is drawing only 3% traffic. While one of the most popular on Twitter, Ryder can’t claim even a fraction of Undertaker’s IRL fan-base. If we are to reverse-engineer the comparison, it would make sense, then, for small business to take heed of the struggles faced by (even questionably) minor celebrities have in gaining the sort of traction they also seek. The importance of brand identity is reiterated by the struggle to emerge, even for Vince McMahon’s properties with his bankroll behind them. Lastly, it underlines the importance of traditional branding techniques: a solid and constantly-refreshed visual identity supported by consistency and commitment from its handlers. (58 min)