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Know Your Audience

Paul Francis


Close up picture of a crowd bathed in red light

22 years ago, way back in 1998, the Undertaker threw Mankind (Mick Foley) off the top of a 16-foot cage onto a flimsy makeshift table in front of a crowd of 17,000 people. And the people cheered. 

I was 16 years old when I witnessed what many have described as ‘the greatest match of all time’. My hand was at my mouth as Mick flew the distance to the ground. I remember hearing the crunch of the announcer’s table and the screams and roar of the audience as I watched on Sky Sports. It had never happened before, and even though others have come off similar cages since, they’ve been controlled stunts, with airbags and additional safety measures in place. 

Many people didn't know what Mick was going to do that night. It created a memorable moment for wrestling fans at the time. 

As one of the oldest in our office I decided to show my younger co-workers (some of whom weren't even born when this feat occurred) the determination and ‘testicular fortitude’ (one of Mick’s favorite phrases) of wrestlers back in my day. Several of my colleagues are longstanding fans of WWE, so I wasn't swinging from left field. I was genuinely interested in their reaction to one of the most shocking and greatest moments of my childhood. 

‘Why would you do that??!’ was one reaction.

‘Wrestling’s all about moves and performance. That’s so…violent!’ said another. 

I was actually shocked that modern wrestling fans didn't seem to like this moment - this landmark event that my friends and I couldn't stop talking about for years afterwards. Then I had a stark realisation: the reason is that WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) has constantly evolved over the years to ensure it appeals to new audiences. 

Mick Foley falling from a Hell in the Cell cage structure in 1998

Mick Foley falling from a Hell in the Cell cage structure in 1998
Long shot of a crowd of people crossing the street

20 Years ago Extreme imagery was very popular

But todays audience and social norms are very different

Changing with the times is essential to ensure your business doesn't become stale and old. Many companies can’t or won’t keep up with current trends or adapt to new technologies, which leaves them in a relative Stone Age. New and upcoming companies fill the gaps left by these aged giants, only for them to suffer the same fate 10 or 20 years down the line. 

WWE was initially created by Vincent J. McMahon, after a dispute with the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). This led to the creation of the World-Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) in 1963 (now WWE). 

WWE’s original incarnation was a spirited affair, due to wrestling being a little more ‘wild west’ at the time. People thought that the sport was a legitimate contest and that the moves were real. This changed when Vincent J. McMahon purchased the company from his father in 1982 and began a completely different style of promotion. 

During the 1980s, wrestling took on a ‘cartoon’ flavour. Larger than life characters, like Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior, were the crowd’s favourites. Wrestling began to focus more on entertaining the audience and being family-friendly. This shift meant wrestling also appealed to corporations and advertisers during the 1980s’ period of stock-market highs and lows. 

During the early-to-mid-1990s, WWF, as it was then known, struggled with its identity. The world around it turned gritty. Grunge music gave rise to Nu-Metal, hardcore rap and R&B groups. The world's youth had an ‘edge’ and programmes such as the Jerry Springer Show became increasingly popular. WWF’s childish cartoon characters were no longer popular. 

band shot of motley crew

band shot of motley crew
Kurt Cobain singing into a microphone

During the 80's bands like Motley Crew would be all the rage

But during the 90's a harder 'edge' made it possible for bands like Nirvarna to become mainstream

The company made a drastic change. The product became more edgy and ‘Xtreme’. You saw characters flipping the bird and swearing, and throwing each other (legitimately) through flaming tables. This period was known as The Attitude Era and it saw the rise of Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, who suddenly become household names. 

Today, WWE (as it’s known, due to a legal battle with the World Wildlife Fund) adapts to new audiences constantly. It listens to its fans more than ever, via social media platforms. Wrestlers are now a lot smaller than their counterparts in days gone by; a more athletic style has taken over. Women are also present in the current product and they even headline large Pay-Per-View events. WWE even has its own app that operates similar to Netflix and allows users unlimited access to nearly all of its content for £9.99 a month. 

What I’m trying to emphasise with this post is the need to change. Companies rarely do the same thing over and over and still see success. 

Consider this:

Nintendo initially made playing cards

Nokia used to make tyres and rubber boots

Hasbro sold textile remnants 

Samsung originally exported noodles and dry fish

In business, the ability to adapt is paramount.

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