World Wrestling Entertainment: Lessons from a Brand in Crisis

World Wrestling Entertainment (including its many former acronyms) has been a significant player in sports entertainment since 1982. Bringing together the excitement of acrobatic athletics, the drama of soap opera style storylines, and big boom hits, pyrotechnics, and theatrics, WWE’s brand of professional wrestling kept strong to its style of sports entertainment for almost 40 years.

But in 2015, WWE began to change its stance on some long-standing corporate values. Unfortunately, WWE corporate hyped all changes as “history” pivoting, while it was actually their corporate and creative teams Finally embracing some much-needed changes regarding the representation of women and minorities in its screen time and storylines. These pivots excited diehard fans while disenchanting fair-weather fans and those in the proverbial nosebleed seats. This pivot (and other developments at the time) saw an increase in viewership, social media engagement, and revenue in its emerging streams like the WWE Network, WWE’s freshly launched OTT platform, which substantially lowered the barrier of entry to their previous diehard-only Pay Per View fans.

So all of this is good, right? Yes.

As of 2019, new competition has entered the market, and it’s a competition that did their homework. Founded by former wrestlers from many companies (not just World Wrestling Entertainment), All Elite Wrestling (AEW) took notes on how to represent, respect, and heed the fanbase, create a diverse and talent-ripe roster, and flip the traditional idea of professional wrestling in every sense (corporate, creative, and otherwise) completely on its head.

That’s good too, right? Well, it is for AEW.

See, since AEW’s introduction into the mainstream market, WWE has kind of lost its s**t. All these headlines are from October:

In short and more professional terms, World Wrestling Entertainment is a brand in crisis. Through various circumstances outlined below, WWE’s brand equity, viewership, and fan loyalty have dropped considerably in the last two months. Suddenly, and quite clearly, fans and employees are speaking out in droves with a singular, surmised message: “WWE is not the gold standard in wrestling it claims or wishes to be.”

Here, we have a classic but devastating brand issue — the brand vision and message are sorely misaligned with the brand sentiment. Yet, as usual, WWE continues to operate as though this is not the case. The dissonance between WWE and its fans continues to grow substantially on a daily basis, as customers see their money, time, and loyalty wasted on bad corporate and creative decisions, culturally tone-deaf leadership, and its historically patented “business as usual” tactics that make everyone from employees to their lifeblood diehards feel worthless and ignored.

And while this brand landscape may be paving a perfect runway for WWE’s new, whiz kid competition, AEW, to do things just barely above par, AEW answered the call to enter this monopolized market, and they showed up in all the right ways. AEW features a genuinely diverse roster, many of which are designated full-time employees, which allows these performers equal and reliable rights to employer-provided healthcare, something WWE doesn’t provide (which John Oliver roasted them for on his late-night show). AEW also has innovative, creative storylines that are bringing together talent, factions, and feuds from over five continents and multiple decades, and a “we work for the fans” attitude in action. Because of these key differentiators, AEW is stealing fans, viewership, and revenue from the previously WWE-owned television and market space.

Here are just a few of the major brand missteps WWE has committed over the last few weeks, and a marketing lesson we as marketers and brand leaders can all learn from this.

1. WWE creative still hasn’t pivoted from it’s literal “may the strongest man win” basis in the ways it claims it has, and the immensely talented roster of non-white, non-male, average weight and stature employees deserve better. (Oh, and fans have been saying so on social media.)

In 2014, when WWE highly touted its self-created issue solve for women’s representation, The Women’s Evolution, I sincerely cheered and shed a few tears for the fans and performers that were finally getting the representation they deserved. Since then, we’ve seen momentous movement for women inside the company, with multiple proprietary titles like “Hell in a Cell,” “The Royal Rumble,” and of course, “Wrestlemania,” inviting their first-ever female headlining matches. This is, I am so happy to admit, a huge deal.

But, after and during that time, the backdrop of the wrestling company didn’t change. Physically domineering performers dominate the landscape, and some champions have reached more title-wins in 3-5 years than Hall of Fame Performers achieved in 20+ year careers. This constant belt-switching between only the bulkiest performers makes storylines stagnant and smaller-stature, less physically domineering, but equally worthy competitors stay on the outer-rims of attention, accolade, and attributable income.

The Lesson Here: Don’t pat yourself on the back for changing history you wrote. Acknowledge your needs and abilities to make a good change in the world by first changing your brand’s behavior, and never stop pushing. When it comes to representation and listening to your customers, there is no “enough.” Establish a strong brand vision, yes, but never lose sight of the people whose money, enthusiasm, and sentiment keep you afloat — they are your lighthouse, and the seas can get rough.

Also, your employees are human beings with rights, feelings, and social media accounts. Word of mouth still dominates the field in effective marketing techniques, so do your best as an employee-oriented work environment to respect the efforts and opinions of your employees. They, too, light the light of your brand’s path to continued success.

2. WWE’s insistence on partnering with Saudi Arabian leaders to put on high-budget performances that bow solely to the will of these high-paying customers alienates its bread-and-butter, storyline-driven fans on other continents.

In 2018, WWE struck a ten-year, multi-million dollar deal with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to bring WWE Pay Per View events to the country twice a year. Reminiscent of the NBA’s attempts to repair its financial relationship with China, another country embedded in human-right atrocities, fans were very outspoken, particularly on the stance of its minority fans and performers being underrepresented and in some cases banned completely in the country. In fact, for 2018’s Saudi Arabian performances, no female performers were allowed to compete or attend. Many performers refused to attend, citing religious or social activist reasons. Sentiment was flooding in from inside and outside WWE’s four walls that this business partnership was ill-advised.

But, corporate decided to go for the money. June 2019’s Superstar Showdown Pay-Per-View was lackluster and relied heavily on nostalgia matches and traditional gladiatorial, strongman performances. But nothing was as bad as October’s Crown Jewel. While this Saudi Arabian Pay-Per-View finally welcomed its first female match (where the female performers were forced to dress extremely modestly, and one got hit with a thrown water bottle upon entrance), employee treatment hit an all-time low. Flights out of the country were halted for various reasons, leaving many performers stranded without flights or hotel accommodations for up to two additional days. Subsequently, WWE chartered a flight out for select employees only, creating a “#Top20” mentality that made its way to Twitter in an instant. WWE’s PR statement about its phased travel arrangements made the employees not selected for private charters seem lazy and of less worth than those chosen, an extremely unfair and unprofessional public statement that confirmed the suspicions of fans and employees alike — not all wrestlers are created equal in the eyes of WWE corporate.

The Lesson Here: Your employees have signed up to be full-time ambassadors for your brand. The decisions your brand makes weigh heavily on their consciences, so confidently make choices your company can rally behind as a group. While the bottom line is the bottom line (and not just because Stone Cold said so), your fans and employees are looking to support a brand they believe in. The modern mindset of “dollars as votes” has never been more poignant than it is during this controversial administration and the upcoming election, and your fans and employees want to spend their dollars where they feel morally, socially, and financially responsible. Your fans are also employees elsewhere, and your corporate practices are also under the microscope from their limited, but still valid point of view.

And to that point, while some employees hold higher titles, bring in more revenue, and hold higher salaries than others, all employees are entitled to the same rights, privileges, and treatment across the board. To create a corporate environment of belonging, innovation, creativity, and personal and corporate growth, this is imperative. If it doesn’t exist, this toxicity must immediately be addressed, head-on.

3. The WWE 2K20 game is a disaster of product quality and seems to perfectly evoke WWE’s perceived “good enough” attitude when it comes to providing engaging experiences for fans, its actual brand value.

I’m going to let the videos, pictures, and tweets do the talking here. Language may be NSFW but will be nowhere near as nightmarish as the visuals, and worse, brand value implications this horrible example of quality assurance has provided.

The Lesson Here: Whether in a new, innovative product like The WWE Network (which has its own share of persistent bugs years into its release), or a standardized offering like the library of WWE 2K games, quality is critical, especially when your brand equity is already in the spotlight. This disaster of video game programming could not have come at a worse time, and already angry WWE fans felt cheated out of yet another attempted engaging experience, this time with the hefty price tag of $60 per game. WWE claims it is working on these bugs, but the internet is having a heyday with it in the meantime. Fans are blowing off some steam, while highly influential cross-market prospects like video game streamers and their audiences are being introduced to WWE for the first time, and it looks a lot like this:

4. WWE is not answering the call to AEW’s challenge to up-level its efforts, a legitimate challenge that would bring fan-welcomed change into the squared circle.

WWE has endless options with which it may answer AEW’s call to higher quality. With its multiple brands, there is ample landscape to be more experimental and welcoming to diverse talent, innovative storylines, and fan-decided outcomes. WWE is dabbling with this in NXT, its most loyal brand by far, but it’s not substantially moving the needle. Even if an innovation effort were to fail, the effort itself would speak volumes. Instead, hesitance and traditional, outdated values are speaking loudest of all. So we’re all switching channels, and internal morale continues to drop.

The Lesson Here: Innovation has everyone on their toes. Startups and upstarts alike are always challenging the outdated ideals of established brands and practices. Therefore, these established brands must always be open to new challenges and new ideas to stay leaders (or at the very least relevant) in their space. Hire a talent roster ripe with experiential and cognitive diversity, and listen to their concerns and ideas. Have a healthy eye on your competition. Have a unique offering, a strong backbone, and flexible practices, and you’ll set up your brand for longevity.

WWE, as a brand, has had exceptional longevity. It’s outlasted and outperformed all its previous competitors, even absorbing some of them in recent years. However, times have changed, and unfortunately, WWE has not. At least not enough. And with recent headlines, it faces a brand crisis like it hasn’t seen in decades, if ever. Fans are venting on social in droves. Employees are, too. And there are now two primary CTAs on, “Sign Up” and “Restart Your Subscription.” If that doesn’t speak volumes, I don’t know what does.

Oh, yes I do. This: WWE Stock Plummets, Announces Pay Cuts for Future Saudi Performances, More Stars ‘Want Out’

Randy Orton, one of WWE’s most popular, seasoned, and loyal performers, posted to Instagram in late October to (not-so) cryptically hint to his anticipation for a transition to All Elite Wrestling (along with tagged others) once his 18th annual contract expires in 2020.

UPDATE: Randy Orton re-signed with WWE on November 5, extending his commitment to the company through 2024, but did not delete his Instagram post alluding to defecting to AEW. “The Viper,” indeed.

Mandy Is The Creative Director At Marketwake And A Self-Described “Big Idea Brain With Quick-Moving Hands.” Read More From Her, Including Topics About Sparking Your Inner Creative And The Power In Asking “What If,” On The Marketwake Blog. You Can Also Connect With Her Via LinkedIn To Get A Conversation Going.    

Marketwake Team

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