Conor McGregor and the ultimate form of branding
“Conor, do you know what wrestling is?”
“I can rest my balls on your forehead.” It was this pithy retort from Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) superstar Conor McGregor that first brought this outspoken martial artist to my attention. That exchange with rival fighter Chad Mendes, who he would later knock out with a left cross to the jaw, was almost three years ago. Since then, the Irishman’s career has hit stratospheric highs. He’s gone from niche contender to two-weight UFC world champion, released a movie, and achieved global fame with a $100 million boxing bout against the undefeated Floyd Mayweather.
That’s the kind of stuff that gets your face onto the cover of Time Magazine.
But there’s one thing I can’t get over – his tattoos. His body is covered in them: a crowned ape on his chest, a tiger’s face on his abdomen and a helix of thorns up his spine. The number of tattoos increased as he went from victory to victory, as if each one storied another chapter of his inevitable rise. Whether you like them or not is a matter of personal preference, but there’s one that makes me uneasy – his name, emblazoned across his solar plexus.
He isn’t the only cage fighter to ink his surname onto his skin – a trait I deemed the traditional preserve of psychopathic meatheads whose thought processes rarely deviate from kill, crush and destroy. However, Conor is a smart businessman who’s well on top of his marketing game. He has his own lifestyle website and is about to release his own clothing line, so I was forced to rethink my original hypothesis. Did he want to be a walking billboard? Unlikely. Rather, I believe it to be the literal embodiment of the McGregor brand. Due to the perilous nature of combat sports, it is imperative that every fighter has complete self-belief in their abilities, and, to me, that’s what this tattoo symbolises.
Tattoos have a long and varied history. The ancient Chinese used them to ink the faces of prisoners, Maoris to signify a sacred rite of passage, and sailors to record their travels. And today, hipsters use them to accrue Instagram followers. Long gone are the times when a tattoo would signify a true rebel or “hard-man”. Anyone and everyone seems to have one, and some fans of body art have even chosen to adorn their skin with company logos. This in turn led me to consider whether tattoos are the ultimate form of brand expression. In effect, what could be more “on brand” than the literal branding of oneself?
But is this actually a good thing for a company? I wonder what Larry Ellison thought when it came to light that enthusiastic members of his Indian workforce were getting tattoos of the Oracle logo? Did he feel immense pride at his staff’s devotion or did he immediately get on the phone to his HR and PR departments? And does Nike want more brand ambassadors like this guy?
This form of indelible patronage does not feel like the apex of brand expression to me. Rather, I think the opposite is far more powerful – the unconscious permeation of a brand into everyday life. It’s the unwitting use of “Hoover” rather than “vacuum cleaner”, “Google it” instead of “use a search engine”, and other phrases such as “Nobody got fired for buying IBM”. None of these were overtly instigated by a brand. They emerged as organic expressions that solidified themselves in the vernacular because they earned the right to do so. And almost every time a brand attempts to “artificially” or forcefully embed itself in popular culture, it fails. I mean, when was the last time you shook your Tic Tacs at someone you fancied?
Not every athlete can get away with tattooing their name across their body like Conor McGregor. Former Newcastle United striker and recent jailbird Nile Ranger is a case in point. And when it comes to getting a tattoo of a corporate brand, all I can say is this – don’t. The company won’t like it and neither will your mum.