Brand recognition has always been a huge part of the wrestling industry.
Many wrestlers used to supplement their wages during the territorial era by selling pictures, autographs and clothing. Most—if not all—independent wrestlers in the modern era do the same, although they have the advantage of the Internet to help boost sales.
Yet the real power of branding was first discovered by the WWE when the red and yellow of HulkaMania became a worldwide phenomena. Hulk Hogan, Vince McMahon and many others became millionaires many times over on the back of that movement, and this has led to every Superstar since then having his own brand.
The Hart Foundation is synonymous with pink—and those wrap around sunglasses—while lime green and black is instantly recognizable as a DX. Other wrestlers have logos or catchphrases that can be transferred onto clothing and sold to the masses. This is so important to the WWE that Ryback always wears his logo-bearing poncho to the ring—despite the fact that he rips it off on the entrance ramp on most occasions—so a t-shirt featuring the same design can be sold.
Even the minimalism of Stone Cold Steve Austin’s bald head and black trunks can be sold on t-shirts in its silhouette form since this image has become iconic.
So it is an incredibly brave decision by the WWE to send The Shield onto its programming without an obvious brand of any kind. Of course the group has a unified look—in either black t-shirts and jeans or flak jackets—but these pieces of clothing cannot be easily transferred onto the merchandise stalls outside the arenas.
The Nexus invasion a couple of years ago showed t-shirt sales for a hot new group can pick up very quickly—even if the group is heel—which means this decision is costing the company money.
Yet this choice to leave The Shield unbranded is smart.
Appearing on television without an insignia really encourages the idea that these three men really are appearing through their own volition, and not because the WWE decided that it was time for them to be promoted.
Being outside the normal processes of the WWE adds validation to the group’s claims that it has come to right the injustices that it perceives. Alternatively, it adds credence to the idea that CM Punk or Paul Heyman have hired these three behind the board of directors’ backs to assist the champion in his goal of maintaining the belt.
More than anything else, being so different adds a sense of mystery to these men which would not have been in place if they were engraved with a logo like everyone else on the roster.
Such an idea has come about once before, when another faction spent its first few weeks on wrestling television without a brand. This was the NWO. Of course the famous black and white shirt that was spawned when the group became official was the biggest selling design ever in WCW.
Such popularity would be a rather over-ambitious goal for The Shield in WWE, but it does indicate that holding back on specific merchandising can build the desire that leads to better sales.
The same delaying tactic was also used by those behind the CM Punk t-shirt during his hiatus with the championship belt, and that became the biggest selling shirt during the latter half of last year.
Sometimes small decisions have a key impact, and the WWE’s choice to delay the immediate rush of sales—which a Shield t-shirt surely would have provided—in favor of a more engrossing storyline could be one of those cases. It is certainly heartening to see the product being put ahead of all other concerns.