EliteXC needs a branding makeover to compete against UFC

When people think about Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), the first brand they think of is UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship).  In fact, UFC has basically become the generic name for MMA, much like Kleenex for facial tissue.  Much of this popularity is due to the success of Spike TV’s reality TV show The Ultimate Fighter, which first went on air in 2005 and is extremely popular with the elusive 18 – 34 guy (including yours truly).  Basically UFC has made all other leagues seem bush league…something every brand strives to do.

This Saturday Night, UFC’s competitor EliteXC had a chance to change the game with a prime time feature on network TV with CBS Saturday Night Fight.  It was a first for MMA since UFC has always been limited to cable (on Spike TV) or Pay Per View.  EliteXC blew the opportunity though and further cemented UFC’s lead.

If you are a challenger brand, you need to make the most of your brand

EliteXC missed the opportunity because of simple branding mistakes.  You see, when you are a challenger brand (ie in 2nd or 3rd place behind a huge brand), you need to make the most of opportunities.  You need to show potential fans/consumers why your brand is better than the entrenched brand.  EliteXC had the potential for this type of showing.  They were on a national stage that UFC has never had (CBS vs Spike).  They had stellar fighters lined up (Gina from American Gladiator and Kimbo Slice from street fighting fame).  And most importantly, they had a much-anticipated title fight lined up. 

But they screwed it up with poor branding missteps

Here are just a couple of ways EliteXC wasted their opportunity in the spotlight:

  1. Horrible brand positioning:  Several times the EliteXC announcers referenced that a fighter was a former UFC fighter.  While this isnt a negative in itself, it is when you position it the wrong way.  EliteXC positioned the fighters as UFC has-beens…fighters that couldn’t cut it in the Octagon of UFC and had to settle for EliteXC instead.  They should have instead said “X fighter was in UFC for 5 years, but now he is here to conquer the real fighters of EliteXC.” 
  2. No brand personality in their people:  UFC succeeds in part because of all the strong personalities that represent the brand.  Dana White (UFC President) looks like he could be a fighter himself and is a guy MMA guys/fans can see havig a beer with.  EliteXC doesnt have that.  UFC has an announcer that people love in Joe Rogan, a real guy’s guy.  Elite doesnt have that either.  They have Frank Shamrock, a has been fighter who wasted color commentary talking about himself, not the fighters.
  3. Poor execution of the opportunity:  EliteXC might have been able to overcome the above 2 if the show had been amazing and the fights were something to talk about.  Unfortunately for EliteXC, that didnt happen.  The first 2 fights of the night lasted 61 seconds and 70 seconds and were lackluster without a big knockout.  Then the title fight, which Shamrock said could be “a landmark” and “put EliteXC on the map” turned out to be an absolute bust.  After a minor poke in the eye of one fighter, the doctor called the fight despite both fighters wanting to continue.  On TV you could hear the chants of “bullshit, bullshit” over this decision.

If you are trying to overcome an established brand, what you dont want to hear from your consumers is a chant of “bullshit” during your first time in the spotlight.  It doesnt take a Brand Manager to know that about marketing.


6 Responses to EliteXC needs a branding makeover to compete against UFC

  1. rey z says:

    Personally, Ultimate Fighting Championship is the stupidest name I have ever encountered…it is equal to National Football Championship…the only merit UFC gets is marketing and doing it first, hence, drawing the best fighters in the world first….Cuban has the dough to dilute UFC…

  2. Dave Knox says:

    Totally agree on the name Ultimate Fighting….that is probably one reason it gets shortened to UFC so often….just like NFL, NFC, AFC, MLB, etc. I’d love to see Mark Cuban use his money to make some changes in MMA…but he better start with branding/marketing. The guy is brilliant at personal branding but he hasnt been able to apply that to his business ventures (Magnolia, HDNet, etc). If he can surround himself with great talent, his money will be the enabler to knock UFC off its perch

  3. Finn McKenty says:

    I completely agree with your post, Dave. The EliteXC show last night was a complete abomination. I’ve been watching MMA since the mid 90s and that was one of the worst shows I’ve seen in YEARS- it was about on par with Battlecade or some other B-level show from 1997.

    The other problem with EliteXC is their leadership. Gary Shaw is an old-school boxing guy who simply doesn’t get MMA or the way you build a contemporary youth culture brand: authenticity, transparency, and treating your consumers (or audience) as co-owners of the brand rather than sheep to be fleeced for their cash.

    Dana White, on the other hand, keeps it 1000000% real at all times. Nobody is perfect, of course, but he runs the UFC like a fan would, and the results speak for themselves. He is a legit fan of the sport and it shows.

    One of the things that I like most about Dana is that despite being the most powerful guy in the sport, he still posts on mma.tv, the oldest and most hardcore online community for the sport. For example, last night he posted his comments on Elite XC here:

    This is what makes MMA and specifically the UFC so special. If you post something on mma.tv for Dana, Joe Rogan, Tito Ortiz, or many of the other top names in the sport, chances are pretty good that they’ll be on there to answer your question, sometimes in minutes.

    Gary Shaw and the EliteXC team have no concept of building relationships with the fans like that. They view their audience as a revenue stream, not as partners in the brand, and that’s why they’ll be off the air soon unless they make some major changes. Contrast that with the amazing job that Dana is doing of building up tonight’s (Sunday) WEC show and the writing is on the wall for anybody that wants to challenge the UFC.

  4. Finn McKenty says:

    whoops, i’m the master of HTML.

  5. Dave Knox says:

    Finn – Thanks for jumping into the conversation and for pointing out the way Dana engages with the audience. I’m a big MMA fan but I didnt have a clue that the top names interacted with the community in that way. Very cool.

    One reason I think MMA has the potential to crop up as the next major sports league is because of fan interaction like this. They encourage the fans AND athletes to become part of the MMA community because they know that is how they will win. That is why you have great adjacencies like Tapout, etc. Contrast that with the NFL or MLB who tightly control their licensing and who associates with the brand. MMA is really at a tipping point but I am hoping debacles like last night on CBS dont derail the sport.

  6. Brian Siegel says:

    MMA Mockery – The only thing CBS ‘sliced’ with Kimbo and other antics were reputation, ratings, and image. Fans smelled the aura of fakeness, and were not tricked into the deception that this was the ‘real deal’. Smoke and mirrors pass you short term, but long term will create challenges. I hear the program went over it’s alloted time, and was too long winded for @ 2min of actual fighting. You have to be of substance, style, and context. If Kimbo fought a reputable fighter, he would be in serious trouble. Curious to see how they respond to this! Great perspectives as well at this link http://sports.yahoo.com/mma/news?slug=ki-elitexctv060108&prov=yhoo&type=lgns

    ps did you see the guy Kimbo fought? What was with his ear? Gross! ha

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