Brand Culture: Mixed martial arts & brand architecture
by DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) UFC 229’s recent McGregor/Nurmagomedov fight was said to be one of the biggest fights in Ultimate Fighting Championship history and, as it turns out, the fight made headlines —for all the wrong reasons. But between Conor McGregor, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dana White lie some interesting cultural branding lessons and, more specifically, a brand architecture lesson.
While the fight itself was indeed something to witness, YouTube search recommendations sadly include the phrase “post fight brawl”. For those not familiar with the combat world, ‘brawling’ is not something that any self-respecting mixed martial artist wants to be associated with. Entry-level students train to defend themselves against ‘brawls’ and experts tend to avoid them at all costs.
While the broader outcome was disappointing, the details remain interesting.
Jumping right in, it’s important to understand the two fighters. Beyond their styles of fighting, their personal brands also pulled them apart. McGregor is known as a dangerous striker and Nurmagomedov is arguably one of the best wrestlers the UFC has seen. But their personal branding seems to stretch even further apart. This difference was brought to life by Beats and Reebok, the brands using McGregor and Nurmagomedov respectively in their commercials.
The Beats commercial features McGregor and does a fantastic job of capturing the spirit of the Irish fighter. Starting in the middle-class suburbs of Ireland, we follow a group of boys collecting in what seems to be a communal area to support their friend, Liam, in an upcoming fight. While the boy in the ad is not supposed to mirror McGregor, you may be excused if you interpret it as a childhood version. The boys in the commercial were given free rein with improvisation and the opening lines “Yo, ginger”, “What’s up, Ugly?” are said to be completely off the cuff. Knowing this is a lovely little detail and helps us understand how the fast-talking, bombastic McGregor is adored in his home country — this and, of course, the pride that sporting heroes contribute to their nations.
The group of boys will be familiar to many: joking insults, mock punching, open affection and, if you look closely, the deep need for pride and belonging. A frame-by-frame analysis isn’t necessary to see how the TVC is littered with the defiance and rebellion that McGregor is known for. It tells the story of working hard and dreaming big in order to make it against a system that tries hard to keep you down. Because the archetypal nature of it is so easy to recognise and understand, the McGregor brand personality makes for great entertainment.
Reebok’s Nurmagomedov’s commercial couldn’t be more different if it were briefed to be. It has the same structure as the Beats ad: childhood, upbringing, camaraderie and fighting style. But this is simply the spectrum on which they oppose each other. The Reebok TVC replaces the urban setting with the vast mountainous landscape of what I assume is Dagestan — Nurmagomedov’s home country. The rags-to-riches Juicy soundtrack is replaced by music that sounds far more cultural and the banter of young boys replaced by feet on gritty mountain trails and the sounds of combat. Instead of casual t-shirts and jeans, the boys here wrestling singlets and the mock jabs through clothes lines is substituted for training videos that even features the clip of a childhood Khabib wrestling a bear. One YouTuber has joked that he would’ve bet differently, had he seen that clip.
If anything, this ad is about obedience and diligence. The boys in Nurmagomedov’s commercial are not so much concerned with the success that being a champion will bring. Instead, they do seemingly nonsensical exercises — running in lines, climbing ropes and wrestling exercises. The underlying narrative is not against a system; instead, it paints a picture of the obedience and hard work that’s required to carve success out of the unforgiving natural order.
A very important distinction here is that McGregor’s brand sees the world of MMA as a vehicle through which chaos and violence may be brought into culture, while Nurmagomedov’s brand treats it as a vehicle through which we may order and channel our destructive violent nature. The former brings violence to order and the latter brings order to violence.
So, what’s the architecture lesson? The two fighters are different brands but aren’t fundamentally different. We’re not comparing Nurmagomedov to Michael Phelps, nor are we comparing him to Floyd Mayweather. The two fighters are UFC sub-brands.
The UFC may be seen as a house of brands, just like Unilever. The mother brand provides some fundamentals or table stakes, such as quality, reassurance and care, while the brands are free to evolve in order to keep up with the people that use the brand. Whether brand is a stylish haircare brand or a nurturing food item, you can always be sure that it’s a safe, quality product because it’s a Unilever product.
The UFC is an interesting brand. The origin isn’t a tournament but rather a US$100 000 standing offer for anyone who could beat a Gracie family at Jiu Jitsu. When challengers filled the gym, Rorion Gracie decided to put on a bigger show and UFC1 was born. A large part appeal of the event was rooted in the fighters and, in 1993, the fighters were given ultimate freedom while the UFC brand protected this freedom by arranging a cage. The story goes that some of the ideas for the original Octagon included barbed wire to prevent fighters from getting out; true or not, it’s an interesting little detail given UFC229. The UFC was really a portal that allowed us to peer not into violent culture but even deeper: right into our violent nature.
One of the UFC1 challengers, Ken Shamrock, makes an interesting comment in this regard. The first fight was a slender Sevante fighter, Gerard Gordeau, vsa mammoth sumo fighter, Teila Tuli. The fight quickly ended when Gordeau kicked three teeth clean out of Tuli’s mouth (while he was down) before landing one last punch. The locker rooms went quiet. This wasn’t supposed to be legal.
It wasn’t a brand but rather a spectacle. Unlike other businesses, the struggle wasn’t ‘how do we make this culturally relevant’ but rather ‘how do we make this cultural’. It is worth noting here that we’re talking about mainstream American culture in the ’90s. This sort of tournament wasn’t uncommon in other parts of the world.
Culture is very complex and the meaning structures evolve in very different ways to allow for cohesive and sustainable societies in the face of a human nature and a dynamic environment. It’s also worth noting Clotaire Rappeile’s link between sex and violence in American culture — both are taboo in cultural terms and deeply codified in cinema. That is to say, we don’t see the actual deed; we see, for instance, the panning of a camera followed by the couple lying in bed smoking a cigarette. That means that they did it. Many cultures structure these elements of our nature differently and this should be kept in mind.
The sport struggled along, introduced more regulation (to control the violence) and eventually got sold to the Fretitta brothers with their business partner, White. Growth was in line with an increased adspend and it was only in UFC40, when the now-legendary Ken Shamrock took on reigning champion, Tito Ortiz, that things took off. As with any business, it’s difficult to pinpoint a reason for a spike but it’s widely agreed that the public disagreements and rivalry meant that it was going to be less of a martial arts event and more of a fight — like in the school yard. And this drew the crowds.
But, given the nature of the culture it operates in, the UFC (and other promotor brands) needs to maintain its ability to bring the excitement of combat to the masses while, at the same time, protecting us from the anxiety, confusion and fear caused by actual violence. A bit like your browser protects you from the real evils of the internet (think dark web).
Pre-fight banter, the actual fight and post-fight interviews (and keeping them separate) are a strong tradition in mainstream combat sports. Providing the platform and the cultural norms and expectations for this is the job of the mother brand. Build the rivalry to promote the fight, control the fight to make it safe, and reward the winner afterwards to keep people coming back. Mainstream sports like boxing and UFC are all about the entertainment and the athletes tend to abide by the implicit rules of leaving most of the pre-fight banter outside the cage and then calling it off once the fight is over. While the tension might carry through, the actual disagreement is cut clean. This tradition goes beyond American combat and reaches into music (rivalry between musicians) and other celebrities (celebrity roasting). This culture of tongue-in-cheek insults doesn’t always translate as we saw when South Africa had a roast of Steve Hofmeyer. The insults didn’t seem to roll off anyone’s back as they should and seem to build tension, rather than relieve it. The US is different. Sarah Silverman noted on an age-related insult that it cut a bit deep but that it was fair, so no hard feelings. If the culture doesn’t have this attitude somewhere in the coding, you probably shouldn’t try to import roasting.
Nestled in culture
The UFC’s pre-fight banter, set up for fighters to have a go at each other, is nestled in this culture. The Irish fighter seemed to take to this like a fish to water and here we may argue that American and Irish cultures overlap. McGregor took pre-fight banter a bit too far and he leant too heavily on the ropes of culture (that is to say, he expected culture to defend him against the consequences of his increasingly offensive insults). A slew of unacceptable comments was aimed at Nurmagomedov’s country, family, religion and he even went so far as to force a glass of whiskey on the devout Muslim (think here of how religious culture shoots its roots far deeper than roasting culture). This was after McGregor threw a dolly at Nurmagomedov’s bus, shattering a window and taking some fighters out of action. In many ways, this was more violent than UFC1 and started tugging at the modern brand that had been crafted. The mother brand was slowly losing control of its sub-brands, fueled by the UFC’s own decision to use the dolly incident as advertising for the fight. In looking at it through our brand lens, we can say that they disregarded the brand and became obsessed with the popularity of the sub-brands and ‘what will sell’.
The Russian fighter felt differently about insults and it’s possible to argue that the mother brand didn’t provide an adequate platform for the Russian sub-brand — especially with the new direction that McGregor was taking them in. The pre-fight banter cut deeper than the UFC could cater for and the boundaries around the octagon collapsed. The misunderstanding is clear when, in the third round, Nurmagomedov mounts McGregor, landing one devastating punch after the other, punctuating it with “let’s talk now”. After the round is called, a baffled McGregor is heard saying “it’s just business” and here lies the difference. To the one, it was show business and, to the other, it was personal.
The real brand damage was yet to come. Nurmagomedov submitted McGregor, shouted a final insult and leapt out of the cage to continue the fight outside the ring, which was followed by his team jumping into the cage to tackle the now-exhausted McGregor. In that moment, the UFC became a spectacle and violated the category norms of containing and controlling violence.
The Octagon is a registered trademark and one of the key brand assets of the mother brand. It’s comical but not entirely accurate to say the sub-brand literally leapt over the boundaries of the mother brand. But it’s close.
I’m not sure whether the UFC will suffer ticket sales or pay-per-view (PPV) viewers. But, from a brand perspective, we’ll be dealing with a different animal if White can’t align fighters with the UFC and what it stands for. I happened to read a comment about someone who, after months of nagging, managed to get his partner to go to a fight. Her feeling after interacting with the brand was not the excitement expected but confusion and fear. I’m sure she’s not alone, too. Die-hard fans felt disappointed and some simply feel that this isn’t something that should be supported.
Rock and a hard place
The UFC is now between a rock and a hard place. The culturally unacceptable ‘no-holds-barred fighting’ didn’t go away; it simply moved to pre-fight. But now it seems that a combination of the fighter’s personality, values and cultural background (the cornerstones of a brand) means that they can no longer guarantee the integrity of the Octagon.
How do we prevent this from happening to a brand? It’s first important to understand what your relationship to culture and, better yet, that cultural phenomena’s relationship to human nature. Social media brands play in our desire to cooperate and be social, traditionally a good thing, but when groups form without authority, we see the dark side of groups in the form of pro-anorexia and pro-suicide groups. So, too, the UFC is rooted in our complex relationship with violence and the phenomenon of organised tournaments. Tournaments traditionally allowed societies to determine who their strongest combatants were without killing the second strongest. It’s just a bad cultural norm to kill the second-in-line in case the enemy manages to kill the first. In this, combat has a lot to do with glory and strength and less so with insults and fame. Clotaire Rappaile did call the US a culture trapped in its teens, which gives things like strength and glory less traction and schoolyard fighting a lot more.
Beyond this understanding, the brand then needs a why — something we can believe in. This belief should first be something that inspires people, encourages sales and drives the business. Secondly, it should be culturally responsible, promoting values and beliefs that would improve society if everyone bought into the brand. And while both McGregor and Nurmagomedov stand for things we can believe in (should or shouldn’t is a different story), the UFC seem to lack anything of this sort — at least from where I stand. Granted, it’s tough for a combat brand to bring this sort of thing to the table. Our knee-jerk reaction is to say that violence is bad. But old-fashioned boxing seemed to have organically grown a positioning as something that orders violence into a force for good. An old Everlast commercial is the best articulation of this, dealing with purposeful violence and giving it shape. It shows the enthusiasm of a youngster being guided by the wisdom of an older man. The tagline summarises wonderfully: “Boxing makes you bigger.”
In an interview, White suspects that this will be felt for a while. I do hope this is not the case. I like the UFC and, as with most people, a fight gets my attention — it’s entertaining. But violence, guided to a benevolent end, might well be the steel girders that holds culture together — the watchers on the wall, if you would. Violence is simultaneously an enemy’s ability to destroy, our own ability to defend and our ultimate source of agency. Its’ therefore important not to regulate the UFC into impotency but rather to articulate the combat brand as a source of pride, strength and order.
DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) brings cultural context and long-term trend insights to brand communication through cultural insight and semiotics. He is back to contributing the monthly “Brand Culture” column, exploring the value and meaning interaction between brands and society, to MarkLives.com.
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