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Volume 24 No. 159
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WWE's Branding Extends Beyond Programming As Talent Builds Mainstream Appeal

Despite having a large and loyal fan base, World Wrestling Entertainment has long been resigned to the fringes of the sports business world. The company's detractors often labeled it "fake," while supporters presented WWE as scripted programming featuring athleticism. However, during the last decade or so, WWE has gained increased mainstream credibility as a dominant entertainment property. That has allowed WWE to expand the brand's profile, as well as that of its stable of talent, dubbed Superstars. “Since the globalization of the product in the ‘80s, it has gone through a growth period. … Keep in mind we’re only 30 years old as an organization,” said WWE Superstar John Cena. “Turn the clock back to when the NFL was 30 years old and players had to work jobs in the offseason. Turn the clock back to when the NBA was only 30 years old and almost folded.” Cena remains perhaps the company's most recognizable star. He has had endorsement deals with Subway and Gillette, among others. Earlier this year, Cena fulfilled his 300th appearance with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, making him the most-requested personality associated with the organization in its history. He also has a large social media following as the third-most popular North American athlete in terms of Facebook followers, trailing only Basketball HOFer Michael Jordan and Lakers G Kobe Bryant.

BRAND RECOGNITION: In many ways, Cena is the embodiment of what the WWE has become -- a marketing machine with myriad products that appeal to a wide cross section of a global audience. WWE Exec VP/Talent & Live Events Paul Levesque, who also performs under the Superstar name Triple H, said that WWE Superstars are similar to Heat F LeBron James in that people are working to extend James’ brand to that of the NBA and his club. "In what we do, it’s just a little bit different because it seems outside the box,” said Levesque. “Our guys are playing characters on a television show, and then they are their own brand outside of it. Sometimes those brands are the same; sometimes those brands are very different. ... John is kind of different because what you see with John Cena on TV is really what you get with John the person, a lot of it. There’s not a massive disconnect between who he is and the character.” Sculpting that brand is often a 50-50 proposition. Levesque noted some of the WWE Superstars take a hands-off approach in the creative process and allow the company to dictate the character’s direction. Others, like Cena, are very involved in the process. Although Cena said that the key to crafting image is not wavering from your ideals, Levesque points to the star’s personality as the selling point. “John is just a magnetic guy that people are attracted to and want to watch in some way and that helps him.”

GOOD VS. EVIL: The line between “good guys” and “bad guys” within WWE has changed from 30 years ago. Levesque said that society has blurred the line because people recognize that their heroes are flawed. Even Cena, despite his immense popularity, does not always find himself on a crowd’s good side. However, not having WWE Superstars fit cookie-cutter roles has been attractive for potential business partners. Levesque said that some companies want the in-ring persona and others want the real person. “When (WWE Superstar) Mark Henry was in programming last he was a bad guy. He was the ‘World’s Strongest Man’ and an angry giant guy who beat people up,” Levesque said. “But Mark Henry the brand outside the WWE television show … was a big part of our ‘be a STAR’ anti-bullying campaign.” 

GETTING STRONGER: With plenty of opportunities outside of the ring for Superstars, WWE encourages its employees to expand their personal brand. “(WWE Exec Chair & CEO Vince McMahon) has a saying: ‘Whatever is good for WWE is good for everybody else,’ and kind of vice versa. … The bigger star you are within the program, the more that opportunity is going to be there for you,” Levesque said. “It’s all about the fans and what they want to buy into.” Cena described himself as a businessman and said he recognized the need to operate as such when he chose his career path. Now, the success of his personal brand is helping fuel the success of WWE. “We’re now in 600 million homes globally. … We truly are going in so many wonderful directions. Whether it’s my fault or the cause, I’m just happy to be a part of it. That’s truly what I hold near and dear. It’s a joy to be able to a part of this when the company is growing out of control, almost."