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WWE Brand


get the 'F' out
by Dave Liss
November 11, 2002

What is the biggest, baddest, longest-running soap opera targeted at men? World Wrestling Entertainment – or formerly, the World Wrestling Federation, which was formerly World Wrestling Federation Entertainment, and then formerly again, Titan Sports.


In the event that you live outside of the WWE broadcast range (perhaps in a remote cave), the organization produces and promotes wrestling matches for television and live audiences. Its two premier shows are Raw and Smackdown!, which broadcast to millions of avid viewers around the world.

You may not like what WWE does, but you have to admire how they do it. This must be one of the few brands that can tell you to "fuck off" if you don't like the product and still remain in line with its core element. Part of the strength of the brand is that no one would ever accuse WWE of trying to be all things to all people.

So who likes WWE? The target audience is males between the ages of 12 to 34. The company was initially created in the 1940s by Jesse McMahon to promote boxing. Gradually, it moved from promoting boxing to becoming a regional professional wrestling business. Eventually Jesse's son, "Vince" McMahon, joined the business and together they founded the World Wide Wrestling Federation in 1963. In 1979, the first name change occurred when they dropped the word "Wide" from the title – they could have dropped "World" at that point too, since initially the company operated primarily in the northeast of the US. Vince inherited control of the WWF in 1982 and focused on a national stage as opposed to being strictly a regional operation.

Today, McMahon owns 14 percent of the company's stock and virtually all of its voting power. Viacom is the next largest owner of company stock at 13 percent ownership of available shares.

The initial business and its corporate reincarnations have grown into an international media and consumer product powerhouse with fiscal year 2002 gross revenues of US$ 425 million and nearly 340 live and pay-per-view events broadcast in more than 130 countries in 12 languages. Programming is shown throughout North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. In 2002, approximately 2 million people attended WWE events worldwide.

Success is not without its problems. By 1988, media mogul Ted Turner created a strong competitor to the WWF in World Championship Wrestling (WCW) broadcast at TBS (Turner Broadcasting System). By 1993, Turner was also able to lure several WWF stars from McMahon's stable of talent. Also during 1993, the US government charged the WWF with illegal distribution of steroids. The corporation was acquitted of charges in 1994.

But the WCW subsequently took the ratings lead from the WWF in 1996. In retaliation, the WWF acted to regain the ratings crown through programming served with greater portions of violence, innuendo and overt sexuality – women in bikinis, plotlines with a heavy sexual dynamic, disparaging implications regarding the true proportions of various wrestlers' dimensions – in short, entertainment for men ages 12 to 34.

The brand's opponents vilified these practices, while fans reveled in it. The outrage of WWF detractors served to intensify the fervor and the passion of the fans. With so much excitement circulating, it's no wonder that the WWF returned to the top spot in wrestling ratings by mid-1998. In 2001, the WWF consolidated its dominance of professional wrestling through its purchase of the WCW from Turner Broadcasting – or more appropriately, the WWF body-slammed WCW.

But the franchise continues to face challenges. In 2001, the WWF in partnership with NBC television launched an unsuccessful extreme football brand called the XFL. This was to be a professional football league that played following the NFL season in late winter. NBC bought half of the new league and broadcast the games on its network. The league ended up on the ropes during its first season, and it quickly folded after a US$ 47 million loss.

In May 2002, the WWF found an opponent it couldn't beat when it lost a court battle to the World Wildlife Fund. The World Wildlife Fund, whose own battles involve animal preservation as opposed to animal exhibition, claimed the World Wrestling Federation was improperly using the nonprofit group's initials.

The wrasslin' WWF changed to World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and launched an appropriate campaign to alert the public of its new name. "Get the 'F' out!" was entirely in line with the brand's mixture of humor, irreverence and aggressiveness. The battle may have been lost for the initials WWF but the new name is a truer representation of the enterprise -- entertainment and not sports in the classic sense. According to Greg Castronuovo, WWE vice president of marketing, the term "Federation" is outdated and "Entertainment" is a better fit. From the corporation's perspective, the name change helped to focus on being an entertainment company, which will appeal to a much broader audience in the future. More importantly they feel that while any company must think hard about what they want to accomplish by changing their name, changing the name doesn't or shouldn't change the brand.

So what is the brand? Today WWE tries to base the brand consistently and constantly on fun, passion, action and surprise, as well as fans getting their money's worth. Castronuovo readily acknowledges that the WWE is about escapist entertainment.

WWE treats each show like a focus group. The staff collects and analyzes every piece of information or correspondence from the audience and reacts to it. There is the possibility of going into the arena the day of a match to make brand and product changes based on this feedback. The brands constantly evolve in response to these evaluations.

This scenario is obviously quite different from that of a consumer products company or a carmaker. Smaller and able to react much more quickly to its consumers than Procter & Gamble or Ford Motor Company, WWE doesn't have to stop production lines to revise a brand. At the same time, the brand managers can get ahead of themselves, making mistakes by adjusting too quickly.

Story lines and characters are constantly created and revised. Each wrestler – Hulk Hogan, The Rock, The Undertaker, Stone Cold Steve Austin – is treated as a brand in and of itself. Each new character is approached as a product launch with the potential to become a household name. One of those brands, former star wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura, was elected to current governor of the state of Minnesota. Although we're certain his election based strictly on his considerable political acumen, it's a pretty feather for WWE's cap.

Whether professional wrestling is trash or a modern, more plebeian version of Shakespeare or Greek tragedy, WWE has attracted and repulsed masses. And with that kind of attention, the brand will probably remain in the ring for a long time to come.


Dave Liss is a freelance writer, public relations consultant and occasional business radio host based in Washington, DC. He would love to hear your thoughts about this article and your ideas for others.

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