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Can the WWE brand go Beyond Wrestling?

By Alan Brew

The wrestling world has got its leotards in a twist over WWE’s rebranding plans.

WWE? That’s World Wrestling Entertainment Inc., a public company listed on NYSE.  Vince McMahon, the chairman and chief executive of WWE and himself a former wrestler, is set on moving WWE beyond the “sport” that it elevated to a spectacle.

I’m not being haughtily judgmental here by putting quotation marks around that word – sport. It’s just that WWE does not like the word. In their rebranding guidelines they specify “Entertainment” or an “Action Soap Opera” as their category, not sport. Seriously.

The company has also shortened its name to WWE, thereby removing all reference to wrestling, and has plans to expand through acquisitions, create its own cable channel and sell its production expertise.

From now on WWE will no longer stand for World Wrestling Entertainment. It will just be WWE, plain and simple.

“I think every brand has to re-create itself,” McMahon said. “I want everyone to look at us in a vastly different way than they have. It is a logical broadening of what we already do.”

That logic might be true for the business, but not necessarily for the brand.

Now it’s true that PricewaterhouseCoopers has finally bowed to the inevitable and changed its name to PWC. And the organization that was National Public Radio says it now just plain NPR. Initials can be brands, too. But what WWE is trying to do is different.

PWC and NPR were simply doing a Fedex: formalizing a situation that had prevailed informally for years. They acknowledged reality and followed it.

WWE is attempting to do what AT&T has struggled mightily to do for years without much success – change the meaning of its brand beyond a fading legacy business.

The danger for WWE is two-fold: At customer level, WWE is synonymous with the sport (sorry – Action Soap Opera). The success of WWE brand with that scratchy double W logo is based on the strength it has with a segment of the market that is looking for something very specific. WWE provides it very successfully.

For all its rebranding and linguistic sophistry, WWE fans want to watch wrestling entertainment. That strength is also its weakness – will non-wrestling fans and families accept entertainment fare from a brand so steeped in the raunchy genre?

At corporate level WWE hopes it can evolve the brand and broaden its appeal without losing its grip on the business it practically invented, an edgy variety of wrestling entertaining known as WWE.

WWE would do well to remember that BP tried to reinvent itself by claiming it was “Beyond Petroleum” until the Deepwater Horizon tragedy inconveniently reminded us of its oil-based reality. It was pilloried as much for that attempted obfuscation as for the spill itself.

It falls into the category of wishful thinking as brand strategy.

WWE is a public company and Vince McMahon is looking for growth. The rebranding moves come as WWE looks to rebound from a tough end to 2010 that saw attendance at its events and pay-per-view revenue both drop 15% in the fourth quarter and they are reportedly losing market share to real fighting – a mix of martial arts and ultimate fighting.

“I think it is very obvious that they need to do something,” Hudson Square Research managing director Marla Backer said of the company’s plans. “Clearly, their prospects in terms of growth are limited if they stick to their knitting.”

Ratings for its shows such as “Raw” and “SmackDown” are still strong, suggesting a “House of Brands” approach could be a viable strategy if brand allegiance can be transitioned into the individual event brands. That would leave WWE freer to evolve into new growth businesses, but it needs to be completely recast as an entertainment brand with, possibly, an additional word in the name to go with WWE.

But I’m guessing, and I’m guessing that Vince McMahon is guessing.

Moving forward from a position of brand strength without greater certainty around a brand strategy and a clear understanding of the WWE brand boundaries is a huge gamble.

Someone needs to get him in a headlock while he listens.