What can businesses learn from the world of professional wrestling?
From 1995 to 2001, the wrestling industry went through a period of remarkable popularity, as WCW poached all of WWF's biggest stars and went head-to-head with them for TV ratings in what was dubbed the Monday Night Wars. By March 23, 2001, Vincent K McMahon, the majority owner of WWF, emerged victoriously, not only winning the war but consuming WCW and tertiary player, ECW, in the process.
By 2002, the now renamed WWE stood alone at the top of the pile, it's competitors eradicated and with a clear monopoly of the sports entertainment business. In the years that followed, many tried and failed to compete, with TNA perhaps coming the closest throughout 2010, but ultimately the resources of WWE were so gargantuan by this point, that they were unbeatable.
But...it was this sense of invincibility that has ultimately led them to shed nearly two-thirds of the TV viewers for their flagship show.
So where have things gone wrong and what lessons can be applied to YOUR business.
Competition is a good thing
Removing competition invites apathy. When you don't have anything to win or lose, it can be difficult to motivate yourself and easy to take your foot off the gas just a little too much. It's why salespeople have targets - it keeps their eye on the prize and keeps them motivated year on year. Rather than seeing your competition as someone to destroy, try to use them as a constant reminder that you need to be at your best.
Don't believe you own hype
You may have been the best last year, or even for the last ten years running, but as soon as you think that entitles you to anything, you're done for. The best businesses and elite athletes recognise that you're only as good as your last result. You may have won that big deal last quarter, but where is the next one? You may have smashed your numbers in 2020, but how are you going to do it in 2021? It is that constant drive to be as good or better than you've always been, that causes companies to sink, or swim.
Never think you know better than your customers
Perhaps the biggest criticism of WWE in recent years is their failure to listen to their fans, the paying customer, and deliver what they want. I've seen this in business too, where the company owner believes (often based on that sense of invincibility) that they know what customers want better than the customer does. Guess what? You don't. If your customers are telling you they want more X, give them more X, do not second guess them and give them Y. And never, ever, ever, try to force Z on them because it suits your own agenda. Every single product or service you sell should be aligned with what your customers or market want to consume. As soon as you think you stop listening, you'll lose their trust.
Don't let greed hamper your focus
Doing one thing well and with consistency should always be your top priority as a business. When you try to do too many things (see WWE Network, more House Shows, XFL, extra shows, movies, brands) you can lose sight of your core offering and clientele. What then happens, is your dilute your offering to the point that the many of your core customers no longer feel aligned with your brand. Equally, in WWE's case, they're vast wealth meant they could go out and just hoover up every last bit of talent across the world. That leaves them with a bloated, demotivated and underutilised roster, takes away all the alternative products in the market that might draw customers back in and, frankly, paints them as the evil empire that must be toppled. And we Brits love an underdog, right? Even many of WWE's staunchest fans wouldn't mind seeing them bought down a peg or two and the love for the brand becomes more complicated.
Prioritise long-term customer needs over short term revenue
What ultimately won WWE the Monday Night Wars was what they called their "Attitude Era". They had an incredible grasp of their target demographic and delivered, within reason, what that audience wanted to see. You have a beer-swilling Texan flipping middle fingers and stomping mudholes, a charismatic Corporate-champion raising eyebrows and savaging opponents with witty and juvenile one-liners and more half-dressed women than you could shake a stick at. The perfect cocktail for an 18-30 male demographic! They were giving the customer what their viewing figures told them they wanted.
However, in 2008 they cast aside everything that had worked for them, including those young fans who were now in their 30's. They entered what is known as the PG Era, which really marked the start of their decline. The above context is important because what happened here was that they adjusted their product in pursuit of lucrative sponsorship deals. They chased the dollars and in the process forgot about the end customer. The loyal fans no longer identified with the product and they could no longer deliver to the demographic that traditionally made up their viewership.
This blog isn't there to suggest the WWE is going to fail, and with revenues still nearing $1b per annum, they're in a pretty healthy financial position! However, with the rise of AEW, backed by Fulham's co-owner Tony Khan, debuting to nearly 1m viewers, the WWE we once knew is certainly "on the ropes" (pun intended). Their stock is down nearly 50% over the last 12 months...and that was pre-COVID. But this isn't about share tips, it's about learning the lessons from their expensive mistakes and applying that logic to your own business.
Embrace your competition, stay grounded, listen to and shape your proposition around your customers and stay focussed on the end goal, no matter what else is going on around you.
WRITTEN BY ED HALSEY
Any opinions expressed here are my own and not the views of any of my employers. They are personal views based upon a 15-year career in insurance across underwriting and sales roles at mainstream insurers, consultancy firms and technology providers.