UFC Chief Brand Officer Garry Cook Fights To Be First, New, And Exciting

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is battling for sports fans’ attention across a variety of media platforms. In a conversation with CMO.com, global chief brand officer Garry Cook pulled no punches about how digital is affecting the business.

UFC Chief Brand Officer Garry Cook Fights To Be First, New, And Exciting

Every night (and every day, too) is fight night at Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), a premier organization in mixed martial arts, holding more than 40 fights per year and hosting most of the top-ranked fighters in the world.

Global chief brand officer Garry Cook spoke to CMO.com about how digital is affecting the business, the challenges his team faces in developing Web and social media content, and what keeps him up at night.

CMO.com: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself, your career, and how you got to where you are today?

Cook: I am born and bred in England. I am a financial major; however, I entered into the sports industry by being an athlete. I worked in a branded sporting goods business for many years but most prominently with Nike from 1995 through to 2008.

In that time, I worked in all facets of Nike’s business, namely in commercial and brand marketing roles, and my last position with that company was president of Michael Jordan’s brand, Air Jordan.

In 2008 I went to be the president of a soccer team in England called Manchester City, and then in 2012 joined the UFC, managing their European, Middle East, African operations as part of their international growth and development. I moved to sunny Las Vegas in September 2013.

CMO.com: How has digital affected the business at UFC?

Cook: I think we have to look to the media explosion of the last 10 years to really understand the impact that digital is having on our lives. We used to consume content via typical linear channels. As time has evolved with media demands and the content demands of consumers and fans, we’re now able to access it on different platforms, in more capable and compelling ways, and what we’re also able to do–you know, you hear it all the time–whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want.

So the challenge that puts on companies like ours is we have to create content that is both relevant and adaptable for the various platforms. When we started many years ago, we were great fight promoters, and so we were creating linear content for TV broadcasters. As time has evolved, we’re seeing more and more of our content appear on mobile and on secondary platforms, so we’re seeing that’s where all the consumption is. Now the challenge is making sure that you are inside that space, which is clearly cluttered in today’s world.

We’re in an ID world. We’re in a personalized world where everybody wants what they want. It’s unique to them, and they want to be able to do it whenever they want, which again leads you down the pathway that you’ve got to be able to provide them with a library of content they can access whenever they want. So I think the digital world has had a huge impact on how we consume content.

CMO.com: You mentioned that UFC creates content. What kind of content are you creating for digital experiences, specifically, besides just broadcasting the fights?

Cook: One of the most exciting areas that we are looking at as we look toward the future is that not only have we been in the events business, we’re creating the live sports events, which clearly all of the broadcasters and the fans alike like to see as it happens.

When you start looking at editing that content, providing engagement, and getting people to engage with your business, you need to be able to give it what I would call a consumable chunk. You know our content reaches over a billion TV households in 150 countries, and when we start to talk about some of our impact in the marketplace, whether it’s social media or whatever that might be, we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got content to feed that beast.

An example of how UFC uses its existing fight content on social media:

But here’s what I really get excited about, and it is how can the UFC impact the new generation, the next generation? And what we see is we are all witnessing an explosion in e-sports.

We have a long-term agreement in which we’ve created a product with EA sports in the gaming world, and as we’re looking at e-sports, maybe the next world title holder could be a young man, a young teenager from Asia, but he’s played against his friends from around the world.

So we see the new digital explosion, the next game, is all about virtual sport.

CMO.com: UFC has one of the highest concentrations of Millennial fans, right? What are you finding works best in terms of marketing to Millennials?

Cook: Well, the Millennial audience is again clearly in the digital space. The difference is to our more traditional elements. We’re more aware of who they are, we’re more aware of what they do, and we’re really trying to follow them 24 hours a day.

So what we do know is that we have a very clear mixed martial arts fan in our world whereby they understand your content, they know what it is, they know that they want to go get it, and they’ll usually seek you out and find you. We also know that our sports fan base is one that understands the joys, the sorrows, the emotions of winning and losing—and in the most fundamental form, which is two people in combat.

But the sports fan is in many, many different places. The youngest sports fan is using apps, and you’re able to follow his world. You have to do it sort of sublimely. You can’t be too direct, but in order to entice them into your ecosystem, you’ve got to find out where they are and what they’re doing.

The third one really for us is we actually look at the gaming community as sort of a new, very digital crowd verging on the Millennial, which is really an audience in itself, you know. We look at where this demographic is and whether or not we have a reason to be there. Like they say, “Fish where the fish are.”

CMO.com: What are some of your strategic marketing priorities for 2016?

Cook: Well, we look at our marketing in three forms because I’m a great believer in any time you are spending marketing dollars, 70% to 80% of it needs to touch the consumer. Obviously you’ve got to produce, you’ve got to create, you’ve got to develop, and there’s a cost of operating. But you really want to make sure that you’re facing consumers. We look at that in three phases.

The first would be our event marketing. So when we go into a city, we’re selling tickets, we’re telling stories, we have PR and applications where we’re close to our athletes. We’re giving access to our athletes for the fans wherever we go, and there are 41 events a year. So we have a rolling hamster wheel, if you like, of our event go-to-market plans and programs. And, of course, at all times you’re trying to not only tell the stories but create demand for people to go see the event, which truly are a great experience, and that becomes part of that fan experience world.

The second part for us is really around content marketing. Now that’s where it gets really interesting because we have several platforms on which we operate. The first one is pay-per-view, which as we know is, we’re one of the few left in that space. We also have our wonderful broadcast relationships. In over 150 countries there are over 70 broadcast partners, so we’ve got to create demand for people to watch, look, and see. We’re trying to get people to tune in.

The third one for us is really just sort of general brand marketing, which can vary from retail marketing in the UFC store to fan engagement and fan experience.

At every one of our events we try and create a fan village. We have a July event in Las Vegas, which is what we call International Fight Week. It is a week-long festival for those who are fans, so we sort of break our marketing into those three buckets, and we’ve been very effective in those so far. So those are our major initiatives.

One of the great things about this company is we went from being a wonderful fight promoter and took over a landscape that was vacant. We then became pretty good in media. As a media company we’ve created lots of variable content for consumption, including reality television, life events, and magazine programming.

The next phase for us is to become a great company, and being a great company means you have to have a social responsibility concept and initiative. That is the thinking behind our saying, “We are all fighters,” which is not only a great brand extension for us, it really enables us to redefine the word fighting because actually we all have to fight for something.

As we look forward, it’s more about being a great company. As we look at our present and the reasons for being, it’s staying focused on our core competency of events, content, and brand.

CMO.com: How do you measure success in marketing? Do you have some key KPIs that you guys look at? Is it all about selling tickets to fights?

Cook: As you get into KPIs, of course they become very tactical, but clearly we have [many events], and we have a maximum number of tickets available, and we try and continue to increase our utilization in that space. We have pay-per-view, which is clearly a metric that is relatively simple to get after.

We’ve introduced our new over-the-top network, which is called Fight Pass, and that’s about subscription. We have a similar version in Latin America and also in Brazil. So that’s relatively easy to measure, and it’s about how do you impact the returns.

But one of the biggest things for us is we talk a lot about audience, and really that enables us to have a robust CRM strategy. Part of that is because we need to continue to discuss our content and what’s happening in our world with our existing audience, and also to grow our audience. So when you look at the world the way that it continues to change, obviously social media plays a big part in all of that, but, at the same time, the audience growth and the audience development is a big one for us.

One of the things that is fearful of any brand, whether it’s Michael Jordan or Nike or Google or anybody, is the aging of your existing audience. What you really don’t want to do is just follow your audience along their pathway. You need to introduce new consumers, and that becomes the toughest challenge.

CMO.com: Could you provide a couple of tips about keeping up with the ever-changing digital landscape?

Cook: A caveat to your question would be if you find out, will you let me know also? Because I think the challenge is digital does change and not necessarily all for good, not all for better. Now we’re in a very cluttered place with the way things change.

Let me give you an example of a meeting that’s taken place last week. We were talking about the e-sports community and where they’re going, and I’m sorry to touch on that again, but as we look at the changing landscape, you know EA sports have hundreds of millions of consumers in their network. They once were a gaming company and now are a network, and then when they look further down the pipeline they’ve got an audience there that’s looking for more and more content.

So we were introduced to a company called Twitch, and what happens is it’s not necessarily the technology that changes, although it does, it’s actually the behavior that’s surprising. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Bob Ross, the painter? I’m not from this country, but I remember that type of programming back in the ’70s when people would just watch a guy painting.

Now that’s been launched, re-launched on Twitch and 7.9 million people have watched his content, of which there is now online available via Twitch to watch his content, they’ve signed the license, and they’ve put over 400 hours of his content out. Now how could you ever gauge for that? How could you ever gauge, if you want to go find an audience that that’s what they would be out there watching?

So I don’t think it’s necessarily the technology because we’re investing in a virtual reality model, which will be sort of a Universal Studios-esque type product that will be available in Las Vegas, and you can almost predict that that’s coming because it’s about innovation, it’s about technology, and it’s all of that.

What you can’t administer for is the way people consume and the way that they’re changing habits, and sometimes you stare at it wide-eyed, mouth open, and you go, “How on Earth did that ever happen?” I always think that’s the compelling part of the world that we’re in now.

CMO.com What keeps you awake at night?

Cook: Not only are we all fighters, which is one of our great maxims, but “be first” is a value that we adhere to here. We reference it all the time. How do you become a leader? So the thing that keeps us awake at night is how do you stay in front? Because while we continue to chase being one of the world’s leading iconic sports brands, one of the challenges is you have to be first, you have to deliver new, you have to be fresh, you have to be exciting.

One of the things that came across my desk this morning is what’s our presence in the adult swim network, and so then all of a sudden you’ve got to now go and look at what does that mean, whose there, why is it first, why is it becoming prominent? So you have to just always be first, and that’s the thing that scares me because, to your point and your great question earlier, if you don’t, if you’re not able to find out what’s happening and what’s going on, you’ll get left behind.

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