In the depths of winter I found myself in Banff with two of my SW&A colleagues at The Gathering – a conference of cult brands like Air BnB, Converse, Vice and the Toronto Raptors.  Like the Rocky Mountains surrounding the conference center, these brands have crashed through barriers, rising high and mighty to change the landscape around them.

Alright, enough with the metaphor.   It was a pretty cool conference though, with impressive speakers, inspiring content and just the right amount of entertainment sizzle and alcohol to keep the attendees hyped for 3 days.

The three of us pre-planned who was going to attend what sessions.  I ended up at the UFC.  You’d think I pulled the shortest straw but I actually chose this session as I was super curious to see what a brand that’s so misunderstood and vilified had to say.   I know you’re thinking “But I hate the UFC!” Just push pause and walk with me…

Jackie Poriadjian, former Senior Vice President, Global Brand Marketing UFC (and the only female presenter at the conference…tsk, tsk organizers) in her awesome Brooklyn accent gave a very smart, engaging presentation that proved the UFC’s cult brand status. 

If there’s anything the UFC does exceptionally well it’s understanding the fans and athletes and the human stories they both tell.   UFC President Dana White has incredible instincts on what motivates fans and athletes alike.  He gets into their heads, takes a peek around and uncovers the insights into their needs, wants and desires (scary stuff I’m sure). 

They’ve taken this obsession with their fans and athletes to give the brand higher meaning.  Turns out the brand recently overhauled their strategy because they found both fans and senior execs had no idea what the hell the brand stood for.  So they set out to clearly articulate their brand purpose and what business they are really in.  From a one-step-up-from-a-bar-brawl sport to a brand that believes in the modern day warrior breaking barriers, pushing limits and making the impossible possible the UFC has defined themselves not simply as a combat sport but as the “Promoter of Human Potential”.

On top of that, the UFC took risks, clawing its way to one of the most popular sports in North America.  Mike Germano of Vice magazine shared a framework for why people align to certain brands.  The message is powerful:  your brand must be one of these or it’s irrelevant. 

The farcical hype of the “Fight of the Century” between Mayweather and Pacquiao ushered in the end of boxing.  Major league sports has become corporate-driven and overly regulated.  The UFC, first as the Outsider and now as the Underdog, took risks to break through convention with fewer rules, greater fan interaction and yeah, more blood.

As Chuck D of Public Enemy once said “Before people buy you they need to buy into you”.    Given the new clarity around the UFC I think fans will keep buyin’ what they’re sellin’ (even with #payperviewsodangexpensive).