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Thursday, 3 February 2011

Fire Up the Brand

Brands are important in wrestling. I'm not talking about the Hardy's and their pals putting the word at the end of their Twitter name. I'm not talking about John Cena wearing Nike sneakers, either.

Many wrestling fans are amazingly loyal to the wrestling organisation they prefer. ECW is a classic example of this. ECW had it's own style, it's own ethos. You can say what you want about your preferences and whether you liked ECW or not, but the fact is there was an aura which surrounded it. And continues to.

Four years after the company closed it doors and promoted it's last official card, a DVD of it's Rise and Fall broke merchandise records. It was successful to the extent that a Pay Per View event was commissioned, which was a critical success. The ECW brand was revived to a lesser degree, and fairly obviously was not such a success.  Just last year, TNA produced a PPV, Hardcore Justice, dedicated to the memory of ECW.

Although not all of the above was financial, critically or morally successful, the fact that almost a decade removed  from the death of ECW it's ghost still haunts wrestling is a remarkable example of brand loyalty and awareness.

You can see a similar thing with many small wrestling organisations. From ROH to Dragon Gate to CZW, small wrestling companies have core, loyal audiences that have a devotion to one organisation as opposed to the wrestling business or an individual wrestler.

And then there is TNA.

I would liken TNA's brand identity to that of the opposition party in politics, or a local rival team in football. If I was being particularly brave I might even compare to people from Scotland or Wales. Let me explain why.

I am an Englishman, and a proud one. I have many, many Scottish relatives, and I have friends who are from Wales. There is, though, an undeniable dislike, or perhaps disdain, for the English from these nations. Whatever those reasons are, I think getting caught up in how much they dislike us stops people appreciating their beauty and positives traits. Both Wales and Scotland are fine countries, which great traditions and values, but too often their national characteristic is hating the English. I can't make them like us, but I wish they'd promote themselves rather than bash us.

Politics is the same.You seldom hear a Labour politician talk at length about how great his or her party is, extolling the virtues of their manifesto and explaining why their collective outlook is best. Instead, their rhetoric is far more likely to be comprised of cheap shots and attacks on their Conservative counterparts and where they believe their faults to be. And before anyone brings it up, the opposite is true. The Liberal Democrats haven't typically been embroiled in this to the same extent, but they are exempt from blame either. In short, it isn't "look at us, we are awesome", it's "don't look at them, they're awful".

And it goes on with football. Pick your team and listen to the fans songs during one game. There will probably be just as many "We hate Arsenal" songs at White Hart Lane as there are pro-Tottenham songs, and the pattern is repeated whether the teams are Wolves and West Brom, Southampton and Portsmouth, Burnley and Blackburn or any combination of heated rivals.

I don't think it is necessarily TNA as a company that provoke the reaction, but I see a lot of TNA fans as not particular pro-TNA but anti-WWE. They dislike Vince McMahon's juggernaut of a corporation and see something they hate, whether it's the cheesy comedy, PG tone or flat out bad wrestling. They might not have the access or the inclination to seek out more niche products like ROH or similar, and TNA have international reach, so it's a bandwagon to hop on.

If you are a major WWE cynic then it's not the worst bandwagon in the world, I guess. TNA have things WWE don't have.. Individuals like Kurt Angle, Rob Van Dam and Jeff Hardy, who fans are familiar with and respect, wrestle in TNA. There are big-name stars like Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan, WWE midcarders that didn't get a run like Elijah Burke/D'Angelo Dinero and Matt Morgan. There is blood and bad language and raunchier girls. In short, it's everything WWE was eight years ago.

It's one of the reasons I worry about TNA. If they had any identity, ever, it was with the X-Division and the Knockouts. I'm not saying the way to overtake WWE is with that, but the niche they used to at least try to occupy still exists.

I went to all three of their UK tour shows last week. They were great fun. I had loads of people say to me that they had been to WWE house shows, and the TNA ones were way better. And I endorse the view. However, there was nothing on these shows that had me thinking "TNA are different". Back in the day, if you'd seen an ECW live event, you'd have left knowing it was different. I am absolutely not endorsing gratuitous violence and danger, but it was different. If you get to an ROH show, you'll leave thinking you've seen some of the best wrestlers in North America, or the world. Similar could be said of a Dragon Gate style organisation, with the inclusion of Japan in the unique selling point.

Taking out any frustrations we (mostly) all have about TNA's booking, what are the differences between them and WWE? Take an episode of Impact and an episode of Raw. Are they really that different? They share lots of the same conventions. The shape of the ring; a pair of announcers; hype videos for matches; backstage segments; music to greet a wrestler; a pose on the ramp; numerous belts; match length; monthly PPVs; a ring announcer; similar rules of matches and outcomes of matches; in-ring promo confrontations; and more. Now I am not saying that they should scrap all of those things. Quite the opposite - wrestling has survived for decades on many of these staples - but they need, I think, to differentiate themselves in some many other ways, to make them feel special.

They have tried with the use of more violent matches and stronger language. I don't so much have a problem with them doing this, but to me the execution of them is so poor it makes them look second rate. Washed up has-beens like Ric flair or never-beens like Tommy Dreamer bleeding everywhere all the time cheapens the moment when ten minutes before the end of a crucial title match on a major PPV RVD bleeds to sell jeopardy.

As for the language and edgier content, I think they may have a slightly better job than with the blood, but it feels like it is there for the sake of it. Steve Austin, if you talk to him in real-life, drinks beer and cusses when he talk to you. That's the way he was built. He's a brash Texan who likes a good time and says what he feels. Stone Cold worked because of it. It felt organic and it felt natural when Austin told you he "couldn't give  damn about the some bitch. I'll kick his ass, the rat bastard.

But Eric Bischoff is an executive. He's a smooth talker and a clever businessman. He may be a foul-mouthed guy in real-life - I haven't met him - but his on air character has been a smarmy heel for his whole career, virtually. I don't feel it when he swears. It just seems like it is being forced.

And enough already with Velvet Sky saying "bittch". That's not a typo, she stresses two 't's in the word. "Where's Winter? I'm going to make that 'bittch' pay". And then there is a Abyss who is such a cartoon you can't take him seriously anyway, so his use of 'bitch' (one T for him) also feels like it is being placed in the show to attract people who like swearing. The stress on the words is so ultra deliberately it makes the show feel low rent.

Anderson I can deal with. Ken has developed a way of talking in and out of the ring that means I can live with him calling his fans 'assholes'. I think it's kind of funny. It works for him. And I know it is his idea because he used the "nice guys finish last, thank God I'm an asshole" line on Wrestlecast in about 2006. But because needless cursing all over the show simply waters down what he says.

Perhaps TNA finding a brand identity might have to do with what their ambitions are. I can't speak for anyone at ECW or Ring of Honor, but I imagine that, certainly to begin with, their intentions were not to attempt to be the number one wrestling organisation in the world. They had different visions. Ring of Honor was to be a product which catered to "wrestling" fans. They brought in the 'pure' title and showcased technical wrestling that wasn't on show anywhere else. Not on national television in the US, anyway. ECW wasn't just about hardcore wrestling. Their underground success was just as much about the featuring of great wrestling, such as that demonstrated by Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, and the import of wrestlers from Japan and Mexico.

Even somewhere like Shimmer was founded on the basis of giving female workers somewhere to ply their trade, since they were not being appreciated on the biggest stage. The founders of Shimmer were, I'm sure, not doing it to become millionaires or to take over the wrestling world. I'm sure if they make a few bucks from it they'll be happy. But the point was to offer something new. Something different. A brand that has it's place in the world.

It wouldn't hurt TNA to take a look at a bunch of the smaller, niche, but interesting indy promotions that exist. Study how they draw fans in a different way, what makes the viewer tick and the ticket-buyer view. Don't copy one, but use some of those methods to help your own product.

An example? Look at how ROH makes wrestling matter. ROH is not an major international wrestling company for many reasons, including but not limited to lack of funding, substandard (compared to the big guns) production facilities and an in built lack of appreciation in the general populous for the art of pro wrestling. They are not big enough to re-educate, but they can provide a service to those and want it. And what a service.

ROH take care to make their guys look as though they care about what they do, that they have a reason for being in the ring. TNA have Shannon Moore spreading the word of DILLIGAF and Robbie E pretending to be Jersey Shore. That's fine in their own world, but tell us WHY they are in a wrestling company and not on a reality show. Shouldn't they want to be the best, to win titles, or at the very least earn money? ROH is somewhere that tries desperately hard to make it's matches count, and often delivers. If TNA took a quarter of the energy ROH does and put it into making wrestling matches count, they'd start getting something back from their audience. It would take time, but they can do it.

This doesn't mean having way more wrestling matches on the show. The opposite, in fact. Rather than having 5 x four minute matches and one ten-minute main event to total half an hour of wrestling, have just three matches and have two go eight minutes and one of them go twelve. Twenty-minutes of action, but so much more meaningful. Talk about the importance of those matches the week before and talk about the consequences of those matches the week after. It wouldn't be hard. It fact it would cause them less stress because there would be less to book.

And make the matches simple. No need to for throwaway gimmicks to pop 0.02 of an extra rating point. Using a ladder match stipulation randomly on Impact without hyping and with no real need, storyline-wise, for it to occur, means that people will simply not pay for this down the line. Why should they? You've told them it doesn't matter. You're always telling them it doesn't matter.

(TNA aren't the only ones guilty of this, by the way, as WWE can fall foul occasionally, but WWE are not the ones kicking unbelievably hard just to stay afloat. They are still making millions of dollars each month, just not as many millions as they were a few years ago.)

They could put more emphasis on X-Division action by occasionally theming a show to feature more X-Division wrestlers, including matches and profiles. Maybe even flashbacks to classic matches. They could do the same another week with the Knockouts. They could sign X-Div style wrestlers and female indy workers to one week contracts and simply bring them in to work a match here and there. It would indicate that it was the most prestigious belt of it's nature that people flocked to try and win. It would be different, it would make TNA stand out.

Perhaps you could got the same route with Tag Teams? You could even diversify into different weight classes (Though that's a blog for another day.) The point is to develop a television product which people put on their TV and say "I've never seen that before." It's what happened when Scott Hall walked into Nitro for the first time. No-one had seen a wrestler from a rival stroll in and take over. It was compelling. It happened when Austin starting flipping off Vince McMahon and raising hell. Wrestling had been homogenised for decades, and when this uncouth redneck told his boss where he could stick and did what he wanted to do it struck a chord.

TNA can't switch to a new style and double ratings overnight. Hell, they may even lose a few viewers to begin with, and this is I think is they main reason they wouldn't do it, because Spike would freak out if they experimented and dropped to below 1.0 again, like they did by going to Mondays. But that is the entire point in a nutshell. TNA went to Mondays and failed to offer anything different. The novelty of seeing Ric Flair and Ken Anderson and Jeff Hardy and Hulk Hogan in a different environment soon wears off, and while some will stick around for some blood and cursing, many more will flip back to WWE and watching something that is often very ordinary but occasionally displays class and logic, something TNA almost always misses the boat on.

I find myself getting into blogs like this with such passion because I actually care about TNA. I spent loads of time with them last week. They are nice people almost to a man and woman. They make you feel so welcome, and make you want to see them succeed. Which I do. And which is why I find myself making pleas to them to change because Impact simply doesn't work. Not as a viable, long-term alternative to WWE which is what they claim to want to be.

The audience for them is there. They have seen spikes in ratings on January 4th, the night after Bound for Glory and other times when they have announced a surprise or booked something intriguing. But they always lose that audience, because that audience wants to see something remarkable. Either the same as WWE but better or something different and equally as interesting. They won't still about for something which can't touch WWE in some ways, and is infuriatingly illogical in others.

TNA's brand identity could be so much. You could go two ways with it. It could be that TNA is the place to go to find the most diversity in wrestling. We got high-fliers, we got technical wrestling, we got funnymen, we got legends, we got girls, we got it all. In some ways they probably think they already have it. But they don't they. They have watery versions of each of them, which collectively add up to very little. If you don't think you can have X-Division style action and more, then ditch it. Forget it. Consign it to history. I think it would be a mistake but you may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. Don't go half-heartedly, give it your all. If you don't think it draws, bin it.

But I don't think they need to. As long they treat something - anything - with respect, they can get it over. Don't pretend the other brand doesn't exist, then in the same breath say it sucks. Do the opposite. Acknowledge WWE's existence. Even go so far as to publicly say the WWE is great. But then make you can say "WWE is great, but in our opinion we something a little different, and a little better" and then PROVE it. Because at the moment it is all words.

I wonder if TNA have a mission statement, or a constitution which defines who they are and why they are in the wrestling business. And I wonder how accurate it is. Because right now there is no way in the world a loyal TNA viewer could explain to you why they watch the show without referring to WWE. "I watch TNA because it is better/different than WWE" as an opinion statement is fine, but when you try to put meat on the sandwich there is nowhere to go. I'll be willing to bet that the follow would include either "I'm a huge AJ Styles/Jeff Hardy/Samoa Joe fan" or "I hate the fact that WWE is PG". Neither would be able, I'm sure, to say what they like about TNA. Both statements suggest that if something minor changed they'd be off like a shot. If WWE signed AJ or scrapped the PG thing, those fans would have their head turned.

But if you create an environment where the whole show has an exciting, fresh, different feel, and use this to create some top individual stars which can draw money (real money, not Impact Zone pops) then people might start saying "I love TNA because you know you'll get a great match every week" or "TNA is the best because they never phone it in" or "I never miss Impact because there are so many guys I care about" or "My whole family watches Impact because there is something for everyone".

As it is, TNA might as well be called NWWE, as in Not World Wrestling Entertainment. And the sad thing is that with a Brand vision there is unlimited potential for a company that makes fans care again, and has the finances, exposure and production set up to capitalise.

There is only one wrestling organisation that can do this.

We're still waiting.

1 comment:

ADennehey87 said...

Couldn't agree with you more, with what you've wrote.

The main problem that my brother and I, and alot of wrestling fans out there have with TNA is the fact that they constantly mention WWE all the time.

I can understand why it may seem 'edgey/controversial' to mention WWE personnel every now and again, and to round home the fact TNA's unique, etc - as it will get their fans chanting, etc and making them feel even more part of the product.

However...since TNA ditched their 6-side ring, got rid of the X-division to such a point that it's laughable and made a complete mockery of the once-great Knocksout division - TNA as you've said as a brand are no different to the WWE, so they can't use that 'unique' tagline to mention the WWE every now and again.

Both my brother and I are wrestling fans and when we were explaining how TNA mention the WWE to our dad, who watches Wrestling every now and again, even he couldn't understand why a company willing to be different going up againgst the leader in the wrestling market would mention them.

It's fair enough I suppose mentioning them when a new wrestler enters the company and saying 'they've made the jump/switch, etc' and in cases where a wrestler has died like when TNA paid tribute to Eddie Guerrero when he died, but that's where it should stop.

After all if you are mentioning WWE all the time to your fans both at the Impact zone and on TV, then you're not selling your company to the most that you can do. It alerts your fans about the other company, and not that they probably won't know who they are, but it gets your so-called 'TNA' fans talking about the other company when they should be talking about what's good about 'TNA.'

The WWE have listened to their fans (all be it 2 years too late imo) by pushing their youth talent and gettnig them involved with the main-event guys whilst the later are decling/going out of the company. TNA needs to go back to being what it was whilst pushing to get better.

It should concentrate on it's youth and give them a chance more, as like Paul Heyman says nobody wants to see Hogan/Flair/Bischoff on TV every week, as it's getting boring now.

The show should be about the guys like MCMGuns, GenMe, Beer Money, Joe and AJ, who have alot to offer the industry and TNA. Guys like Wolfe and Magnsus should be used more as well.

After this whole Fortune/Everybody else v Immortal storyline finishes is going to be a pivotal point for TNA as then the hard work will start, starting a new storyline after a big storyline like this one has drawn to a close.

Don't get me wrong I do like TNA, but if they don't make the right changes coming up they will always be known as 'that other wrestling company' and not as in 'TNA' themselves.

Spike/Carter not getting Heyman involved was a big mistake.

Sorry for the rant!