As brand execs go, WWE’s chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon might just have the most unique job description in the world. Can you picture Unilever’s Keith Weed fighting Brock Lesnar? Or going toe to toe with Ronda Rousey? Or confronting Jon Stewart during a live broadcast, as McMahon did last weekend at Summer Slam 2016? Not only does McMahon shepherd the brand in the boardroom, but she also plays a bonafide character in its unique blend of soap opera and sports entertainment.
Of course, it shouldn’t come as a surprise, given how her father, WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon has long been involved in both the C-suite and the squared circle. But outside the ring and her villain persona, McMahon is the caretaker of one of the biggest sports and entertainment brands in the world. Its origins can be traced back to 1952, when Stephanie’s grandfather Jess McMahon founded Capitol Wrestling Corporation. Fast-forward 64 years and WWE boasts more than 675 million social media followers across all platforms, broadcasts live shows 52 weeks a year, and this year will put on more than 500 live events around the world. Last quarter the company grew revenues by 32%.
In 1985, the first Wrestlemania took place in front of about 20,000, a capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden, while at Wrestlemania 32 this year at AT&T Stadium broke the company’s own attendance record with 101,763 people. But maintaining and building people’s enthusiasm for WWE doesn’t happen by accident. McMahon says that the key to longevity is the ability to continually re-evaluate and reinvent. Last year the brand, with NBCUniversal, launched a new campaign “For the Hero In All of Us,” that’s aim was to educate the marketplace in terms of who and what WWE is.
“I think any successful company with longevity has to continue to reinvent itself over and over,” she says. “At our heart, what we are, we’re storytelling. We have compelling stories because in order to invest in the characters and care whether they win or lose, you have to understand who they are. And you have to be able to relate to those characters, because ultimately, that’s the best form of storytelling. We combine the best elements of reality shows, soap operas, drama, and action into one incredible show that never goes off the air. You can be engaged with WWE 24/7 if you want. We’re always here for you. That’s an unusual notion that doesn’t exist with any other brand.”
Back in the 1980s, Vince McMahon dreamed up the idea of Wrestlemania as a way to put wrestling and the then-WWF into the mainstream cultural conversation. It was to be a marquee event, pro wrestling’s Super Bowl, but in order to really get people talking around the water coolers he enlisted celebrities from sports and music–Liberace and the Rockettes, Cyndi Lauper, Muhammed Ali–to add to the hype. Now the 21st century water cooler is just as important to WWE, and the company now has a social media department of more than 80, using it to not only spread the brand gospel, but also listening to fans and using it to actually influence what happens in the ring.
“Our fans are a part of our show, they’re our secret sauce, and they’ve always given us that feedback,” says McMahon. “They chant, they boo, they cheer, they vote with their wallets when they’re buying T-shirts, and we track all of those metrics, and now when you throw in social media, which is just another form of real-time engagement, and another way for our fans to be a part of our show. It just gives us more valuable information to help us in our decision making.
“We’ve had more than 11 billion views of our content over the last 12 months, and 12 million subscribers to our YouTube channel,” says McMahon. “We trend on Twitter every week. And on Facebook, John Cena is the most active American athlete on the network. It really does add tremendous value to be able to reach out to our audience, not only to get feedback, but for engagement. That kind of connection with the brand is invaluable. Not only are you soliciting feedback and sending out information or responding, you are in a full-time conversation with your audience on a one-to-one basis.”
The brand’s social strategy is also a big business opportunity, with major brands like Snickers, KFC, AT&T with Cricket Wireless, Nestle, and more partnering with the WWE on a variety of social and content deals. McMahon says that brand message recall for WWE brand partners are 92% higher than the cable TV norm. One promotion with General Mills even spontaneously became part of a WWE pay-per-view event.
“They had done a partnership with us across multiple platforms, and they wanted to increase their engagement on Facebook, and fans had submitted Totino’s Pizza Rolls dressed up as our superstar Sheamus–with facial hair and a red mohawk–and when the commercial aired during one of our events, the entire arena started chanting ‘Pi-zza Rolls! Pi-zza Rolls!'” laughs McMahon. “Now we can’t guarantee that every time, but that’s how engaged our fanbase is. They really do embrace the brands that embrace WWE.”
As the company continues to grow–adding a second live TV program on Tuesdays, announcing a multi-year content distribution deal in China with PPTV–McMahon says it’s important to keep things simple in order to maintain brand consistency. She says the ultimate mission is to put smiles on people’s faces through entertainment and giving back to the community through partnerships with programs like the Special Olympics and Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
“When your mission is to put smiles on people’s faces the world over, it’s very clear,” she says. “No matter how big and broad our company gets, it’s a simple message and mission to embrace. Many companies have these crazy long mission statements, and I’m sure they’re all trying to do wonderful things, but you need to be able to simplify your brand message in order to stay on point. The more you grow, the bigger you become, the simpler your message needs to get.”
Internally, McMahon says the company tries to maintain the same level of engagement with its employees that it does with its fans.
“We also have a philosophy around treating every day as if it’s your first day on the job,” says McMahon. “It’s good to have that perspective to be able to question how things have always been done. Sometimes things are done a certain way for a very good reason, but other times it can be a legacy hangover and should be changed, and it’s that kind of thinking that helps figure out which is which. Just like engaging with your audience, listening and caring about them, business leaders need to do the same with their employees. If you do that you will have a more cohesive, more vibrant and engaged team around you, and as a result your product will be better.”
Perhaps the biggest development for the WWE over the last few years is its WWE Network over the top platform that’s basically a wrestling Netflix, with more than 6,000 hours of video on-demand content, more added every week,access to live pay-per-view specials, original programming, historical libraries, and more for $9.99 per month. As of Q2 2016, the network reported 1.52 million average paid subscribers, a 25% increase over the same period last year. But McMahon says while it’s perhaps the company’s most significant opportunity, it’s also the challenge that keeps her up at night, and the brand’s biggest focus.
“It’s our fastest-growing, and second most profitable line of business to date,” she says. “So it’s all about staying on top of OTT trends, the way our fans are consuming content, making sure that content is available on every possible platform so they can get it any time, anywhere, on any device.”
Originally the company had looked into creating a traditional linear cable network, and had actually been negotiating a potential deal over a couple of years, but after began re-examining four years of research they had done, McMahon said they found their consumers were five times more likely to consume content on a digital platform, and that was the big aha moment.
“My father has this philosophy that you always want to be slightly ahead of the curve,” she says. “You don’t want to be to far ahead that people don’t get it, and you certainly don’t want to be behind it, but slightly ahead, and that’s exactly where we found ourselves. The network is now available in almost every country, and has the potential to transform our business if it continues on the path it’s on. But it all comes down to that original goal of getting our fans the best possible content to give them a creative experience that’s worthy of their passion.”