Faaez Samadi
Jan 10, 2017

One Championship: Winning the MMA fight with authenticity

One Championship is Asia’s biggest home-grown sports property, valued at over US$1 billion. According to its marcomm chief, its success has nothing to do with trendy marketing concepts.

Loren Mack of One Championship
Loren Mack of One Championship

It’s been just over a year since we last caught up with Loren Mack, senior director of PR and marketing at mixed martial arts (MMA) brand One Championship.

In that time, the company has continued the phenomenal growth trend that goes all the way back to its inception in 2011. Now valued at more than US$1 billion, it is Asia’s biggest sports property; its reach extends to 118 countries and potentially 1 billion viewers, having added Thailand and, significantly, China as new markets in 2016.

But through all this, Mack tells Campaign Asia-Pacific, the marketing and communications strategy has stayed the same. And it’s not complicated.

“Nothing beats our hard work,” he says. “You know, I sit at these conferences and listen to the latest and trendiest verbiage, and I’m just not that type of guy. A lot of people would dispute, saying I’m wrong and it’s all about the trends and stuff, but I’ve seen nothing more powerful than hard work and passion."

To Mack, it’s not about driving marketing through sprawling presentations or the latest predictive modelling. For him and his team, it’s about getting the basics of marketing and communications right, and then pursuing them relentlessly.

“Because why would I get up at 3.30 in the morning, see my daughter for 25 minutes, feel guilty, and then go to work?” he asks. “It’s passion; it’s not a trend. There’s not some new technology we caught on to and all of a sudden we’re big. You’ve met [One Championship founder] Chatri [Sityodtong], he’s as passionate as I am.”

The aforementioned numbers show the strategy is working, as do the accolades. One Championship was a finalist at last year’s CNBC Asia Business Leaders Awards, and was nominated for a SixCap Unicorn Award. Such recognition is only propelling more willing sponsors into the brand's arms.

One Championship already counts Under Armour, LG, Monster and several others as brand partners, and recently took on an eight-figure investment from Temasek-owned Heliconia. Mack is confident this is still early days from a marketing perspective, because of what One Championship can offer over other sports brands.

Loren Mack & Angela Lee at the CNBC awards

“Our distribution is gigantic, and brands realise if they want to get into Asia, whether you’re an Asian brand like Air Asia, Tune Talk, or global like Under Armour, we’re going to provide tremendous infiltration throughout Asia, and we have our global broadcast,” he explains.

In terms of its marketing strength, Mack says One Championship’s greatest asset is its fighters, several of whom are home-grown Asian stars that have built up significant followings precisely because they are local.

“We are a global brand, but we’re locally relevant,” he says. “What we’ve done that no one else has is create an international sports platform, but we’ve always known there’s been local talent. The secret has been promoting and developing that talent through the platform.”

That talent provides an incredibly diverse and rich history that is primed for storytelling, Mack says. Leveraging those stories through One Championship’s own channels, as well as external digital and traditional media, has been key to the brand’s growth.

“A lot of people don’t have quite the right level of understanding about these athletes,” he says. “So when you have the right channel to tell their stories, you’re hitting the mainstream in such a big way.

“Take [fighter] Bibiano Fernandes. He lived in the Amazon jungle with a hunter-gatherer lifestyle; no electricity. He got hit with malaria so had to come to the streets of Brazil as a little kid. He cleaned houses so he could eat and go to jujitsu class. Now he’s one of the highest-paid athletes in Asia, and an inspiration to every poor kid.”

Mack says such material is perfect for creating branded content that, most importantly, is authentic and relatable. “People ask me all the time: ‘Do you media train the athletes?’ Absolutely not. I don’t want anything fake about our fighters. The more authentic they are, the better it is for One Championship because they are our best brand ambassadors.”

In addition, the fighters and their stories are helping the brand reach an increasingly diverse audience.

“So for example, you have traditionalists,” he explains. “MMA is one of the oldest sports in the world, so people love it for that authenticity. Then you see people who are fully into eating healthy and living right; they’re interested because our fighters embody that.

“Now, self defence and women’s empowerment is another big crowd. [One Championship stars] Ann Osman and Angela Lee are great fighters, but it’s something else that’s attracting these female masses. A lot of that is female empowerment. Ann Osman: Muslim, female, Asian. What other barrier can she possibly break? So we’re seeing that new influx into MMA.”

Mack says a growing part of the brand’s marketing strategy is cross-promotional campaigns, such as a recent training session with fighter Angela Lee and Singaporean Olympic swimming champion Joseph Schooling—“a very cool guy, very humble, and a big fan”.

Far right: Angela Lee; second from right: Joseph Schooling

Unsurprisingly, local and regional media coverage was huge. Mack followed this with a similar tie-up with Singaporean singer Nathan Hartono.

“From a marketing standpoint, that stuff is always great, and here’s the beauty of it: you don’t have to do much,” Mack says. “Nathan’s as big a fan of us as we are of him, so the synergy is there. The more we do of this, the better.”

For all the dismissal of the ‘marketing speak’ in the industry, Mack is firmly aware of making sure One Championship’s message is broadcast on the right channels, and that some are more popular than others. But he again puts it down to common sense and paying attention, rather than chasing trends.

“A lot of people say ‘it’s digital, it’s all digital’, but I think they’re just trying to go with the trend,” he says. “We know in Asia, for example, that cable penetration is relatively small, so that’s why we target free-to-air. We’re now the most watched sport in the Philippines.

“What does that ultimately do? When people watch our sport, all of our digital channels go through the roof. So the traditional media gives me the opportunity to say ‘watch this’, and I spread that link digitally, and it takes off hugely. So it’s all interconnected.”

The brand's plan for 2017 looks just as ambitious as 2016, with One Championship targeting Japan, Korea and Vietnam as new markets. Given that in 2015 the brand had no real China presence, and now it’s targeting 10 Greater China events, has a team on the ground and has signed a partnership with pay-TV giant StarTimes, you wouldn’t be wise to bet against it succeeding.

As for Mack, his marketing and communications plan is almost the dictionary definition of simple but effective, and while he may tweak it as necessary, the overall strategy remains the same.

“We’re pounding the pavement every day, and I think anybody in a startup or established business would tell you that’s what you need to do,” he says. “Somebody come up with a better strategy than that.” 

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