He was born in Connecticut in July of 1969. His youth was spent there, in Boston, Las Vegas and ultimately Maine where, in 1987, he graduated from Herman High School. While his childhood wasn’t spent in necessarily tough areas, he grew up to be a tough kid who had developed a love of boxing. After high school he went on to study at the University of Massachusetts – but stayed only two years before leaving.
During that time however, he had started a boxing program for inner-city youth and had also started a boxing based fitness business – boxaerobics. He did some boxing but spent more time training and managing others. It was the early 1990’s when he was approached by two men demanding a $2,500 payment – but when it came to telling him what the payment was for, they weren’t completely clear. The story goes that they were part of the ‘Irish mob’ looking for a cut from his business. He handled it brilliantly, leaving Boston and moving to Las Vegas.
There his interest in boxing continued. In Vegas, he reunited with a former classmate, Lorenzo Fertitta, who had become a multimillionaire casino owner. Together with his friend’s brother, they took a class in jiu jitsu which opened opened his eyes to a new world of competition – mixed martial arts (MMA). This new found interest led him to become the manager for two fighters just beginning their Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) careers – Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell.
The UFC was the organization which promoted MMA and the group he negotiated with on behalf of his fighters. He had thought of several things he would change – and others that he would implement – if he were in charge of the UFC. When he became aware that they were in dire financial straights, he approached his friend Lorenzo and together in 2000 they purchased the organization for $2 million. The Fertittas put up the money and he would be the president with a 10% ownership of the company.
Immediately he converted ideas into action. His first mission was to get the sport sanctioned in every state. The competition was considered too extreme for most state sanctioning bodies to approve, so he set about overhauling the rules (there weren’t very many to begin with) and placed a focus on fighter safety. Within a year he had driven the creation of the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts.
With those rules in hand, he began to visit state sanctioning boards and brought several UFC fighters with him. His purpose was to break down stereotypes by showcasing the intelligence and high character of the participants. It worked. He began to obtain the desired state approvals. He followed the same strategy when seeking a national television deal. That too was successful when in 2004 the UFC landed a deal with Spike TV – vaulting the sport to national attention.
Simultaneously, he focused on drawing a larger fan base. Fans were primarily young adult males so he advertised and promoted in magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Maxim. He had the fighters make appearances on highly rated sports talk shows to begin building a relationship with current and future fans.
Importantly he shifted the brand messaging from “There are no rules!” to “As Real as it Gets”. He introduced new look apparel to the sport – out were the t-shirts touting the violence – in were clothing lines stylish enough to be sold in fashion stores.
Today the UFC produces 40 live events each year with broadcasts reaching over 130 countries. They’ve set pay-per-view records for viewership and gross revenue and they have a national broadcast deal over free TV with the Fox Sports Network. Estimates for the value of the UFC exceed $1 billion. There are over 100 licensed UFC gyms, video game deals with all of the major players and annual online engagement with tens of millions of fans through social media and their website.
Behind the fearless brand that is the UFC is another fearless brand, the man whose vision and perseverance drives this success – Dana White.
Fearless Brands build fearless brands
Dana White is tireless in his efforts to continue the tremendous success of the UFC. He is undoubtedly the man in charge of the UFC and directs its strategy while overseeing tactical execution. He has a vision, knows what he wants and goes about making it happen. To many, he is a hard-nosed, abrasive bully – his own mother wrote an unauthorized biography in which her kindest description of him was being a tyrant. To others, he is a refreshing change in the corporate world – direct and no nonsense. He is constantly engaging with fans mainly through social media (he has over 3.3 million Twitter followers).
His passion is readily evident. His conviction is unwavering. That combination often results in communication which is direct, if not confrontational, and is seasoned with some salty language. He’s a tough guy who’s built a powerful organization in a tough world. While both the sport and the man can be confrontational, there is no denying the valuable lessons which can be learned from Dana White’s approach.
Your brand must be accessible – When Dana first took the helm of the UFC, events could only take place in two or three states and drew crowds of less than 2,000 fans. His plan was simple – but certainly not easy – create a national presence both via live events and television. As a result, the fan base grew exponentially and the UFC was well on the path to stratospheric success.
Your brand message must be relevant – Dana first focused on the intangible part of the UFC brand. What was the sport? What did it need to be to gain popularity – to be relevant? The essence of the brand had to shift from a focus on unbridled and unchecked violence to a sport which was a true and fair test of man’s most basic competitive nature. The tagline changed, the branded merchandise changed, the venues changed – all meant to upgrade the brand and meet fan expectations.
Your brand elements must be fully integrated – The UFC is consistent across all of its elements – the live TV, the pay-per-views, the live events, the gyms, the branded merchandise and the fighters. Every element of the UFC is in synch with its core brand values – authentic, high quality, fan friendly, competitive and ‘as real as it gets’. This integration makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Simply put, consistency builds trust which, in turn, creates emotional connection between brand and fan.
You don’t have to be a tough guy to build a fearless brand – but you have to be a fighter. Fight for authenticity. Fight for excellence. Fight to deliver your brand’s greatest value.