In my last article on Behind Sport, I took you through the basics of athlete branding. Everything from what it is, how it works, and the role it will play for fans and stakeholders across sport in years to come. I cited some brief examples of athlete branding and partnerships done well, so here’s a more in-depth breakdown of how it should be done using one of the UFC’s biggest names, TJ Dillashaw.
How TJ Dillashaw monetised his audience using free content
A lot of you reading this may not know who TJ Dillashaw is, so here’s some background:
TJ Dillashaw is a two-time UFC Bantamweight champion, who made his UFC debut in 2011 and has had 16 UFC fights since. Not only is he a great fighter though. In my opinion, he’s one of the most business-oriented fighters in the sport, if not one of the most business-oriented athletes in the world.
As well as owning a portfolio of business ventures (I’ll introduce you to these shortly), he’s a rare type of athlete who truly understands the importance of athlete branding. His strongest platforms are Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, he has his own website and has invested time into constructing a defined visual identity for his brand. Not only is he consistently posting valuable content, he replies to comments on each post to provide extra value for his audience.
In each of his appearances on the Joe Rogan Experience, he told a variety of stories explaining how sport science is at the bedrock of his performance in training and competition. Whilst this is a great marketing tactic because of the free attention, this helped TJ Dillashaw to position himself as a fighter who takes a highly scientific approach to his training and development as a fighter and an athlete. On top of this, he creates a wealth of highly valuable content with a focus on educating his audience on the subjects of nutrition, training, fitness and recovery, weight cutting and more. The use of sport science is becoming far more prominent in Mixed Martial Arts and I think the MMA community will consider Dillashaw as a pioneer of this area in a number of years with hindsight.
So, how does he use this content to monetise his personal brand’s audience?
Step 1 – Driving traffic
Dillashaw’s long-form written content lives on his website, so he needs to drive his audience from his socials to his blog posts.
Dillashaw has a facebook audience of approximately 460,000 fans, so he has a healthy quantity of attention to drive to his site. As for the copy of the post which can be found in its entirety here, it follows a format which piques interest by posing a question and goes on to explain the benefits of coffee to create a desire to read the full content. He also has a call to action with a link to make the process as frictionless as possible for his reader. In short, the preview does enough to give his audience a reason to click that link.
Step 2 – Delivering value
Now that his audience is on his site, he has to provide value to build a relationship with his community.
This is all about understanding his audience.
What do they want to know? What problems do they have?
Well, as I said previously, TJ Dillashaw is known for investing in sport science and takes being a fighter to a new level of athleticism. He’s communicated this before, and it has become a key value of his brand. Because he’s built his brand largely around this concept, he understands that a large segment of his community cares about fitness, nutrition and sport science, so he knows this content will solve problems and provide value to his audience. Plus, he’s produced lots of content before this piece – so he can use the feedback to constantly ideate and improve new content.
Remember – a personal/athlete brand is effectively a reputation. As I said, he has a reputation for being innovative and scientific in his approach. His audience is going to trust his knowledge and content because in building this brand he’s made a promise to his brand; he’s the figurehead of cutting edge innovation and science in Mixed Martial Arts.
This is where Dillashaw reaps the rewards of athlete branding – he can partner with brands in the fitness industry, e.g. CBD, supplementation and much more. Dillashaw’s audience are the target market of these brands, so Dillashaw can enable these brands access to a very specific and defined audience. Additionally, the audience trusts TJ Dillashaw because he’s built his personal brand, so he doesn’t have to sell a partner’s product to his audience – he can simply align their brand with his with simple messaging to build brand equity for the partner brand.
Step 3 – Selling his own products and services
Athlete branding isn’t just about brand partnerships – athlete’s can set up their own ventures too!
Before I break this down – here’s some context. TJ Dillashaw owns his own spice production company ‘Flavor Republic’. It produces organic seasonings which are low in or free from sodium. This plugs into the market beautifully because it meets a real need for practitioners of martial arts. MMA fighters ‘cut weight’ before a fight – the idea being, fighters dehydrate before the weigh in to make themselves deceptively light. They can rehydrate after the weigh in, thus giving them more size and weight in the fight. The issue is, sodium in their diet means they retain more water, so fighters have to resort to cutting seasoning from their diet, making food boring and tedious. See where I’m going with this? Flavor Republic solves this problem, and it seamlessly aligns with his key brand value I mentioned – his passion for innovation in science and nutrition for fighters.
Because the content is on Dillashaw’s official website, he owns this media directly, which means he can ‘bake in’ his own ads into the content. I love this tactic because it fits into his overall branding and marketing strategy so seamlessly. This is a great way for him to ask for the sale without having to make a pitch – he can explain the benefits of the product whilst continuing to educate his audience on the subject matter.
This is another example from a separate blog post. He embeds this ad into another one of his products, his ‘Fit and Fight Ready Course’. Not only does he embed this ad into a blog post, he regularly posts short tutorial clips breaking down an MMA technique, predominantly on his IGTV and Facebook.
Just to round things off, he has a wide range of merchandise. Apparel such as t-shirts, and equipment such as gloves, shin insteps and handwraps. All of which feature his logo and various elements of his brand identity. The depiction of a snake on his products is, in my opinion, excellent branding.
It taps into MMA culture and conversation which means his audience will relate. What I mean by this is, it’s a nod to his appearance on ‘The Ultimate Fighter 22’, on which Conor McGregor labelled him a ‘Snake in the Grass’. This was in reference to Dillashaw switching gyms. This nickname stuck, and Dillashaw obviously took note of the noise this generated in the MMA community of social media. It became a part of his brand, so he embraced it. It’s now an iconic moment in TUF history and it still crops up on my social feeds from time-to-time. This moment has inevitably racked up millions of impressions so it makes sense for Dillashaw to incorporate the snake into his brand for this reason, too.
Step 4 – Engaging with questions and feedback
As I always say in my content on LinkedIn and Instagram, engaging with comments is the easiest step an athlete can take to start building a brand and community.
At the end of each blog post, he features a comment section for fans to ask questions. Not only can he build on the value he’s given already, but can further inform his audience about his paid products. Above all, it shows his appreciation for his fanbase. He’s obviously someone who’s incredibly busy and important, so for him to take the time to reply to comments will mean a lot to the people who support him. Imagine the memory made for this fan who got to talk to one of his favourite fighters! He’s building a relationship with each fan. I’m sure a large portion of the fans he responds to take a screenshot, send it to their friends and post it to their stories on social media, which puts TJ’s name out there even further. One thing I notice consistently, the fighters who make the effort to talk to their fans in comments, have significantly better engagement rates than those who don’t. Which has an upside for the athlete and potential brand partners.
So, that’s a fairly extensive breakdown of the branding and marketing strategy of TJ Dillashaw. The purpose of this was to take you through the sales funnel of an athlete, and how important branding and content can be to athletes who want to monetise their brand beyond their sport.
In my next post, I’m going to take you through some ways an athlete can build on something like this to take their brand to the next level.
Thanks for reading, and be sure to follow the links at the top of the page to follow me on my socials for lots more content on athlete branding!
To read more from our Insight series click here.