The landscape with MMA apparel companies is an ever changing one. There’s always the running joke of “Oh that guy wears TapouT, he must trane UFC” that pops up on several forums and news sites. But trying to be different, in a market that appears to have a narrow field of vision is tough. And while there have been several companies that have come and gone through out the years, all while trying to be different, the ones that are doing well are of interest to us. What makes these companies stand out above the crowd and more importantly, what makes them last.
The first glimpse we have of a company lasting, is Intimidation Clothing. At first glance of the name, the casual fan may or may not be aware of it. Yet a simple role call of fighters sponsored over the years, brings the name Intimidation Clothing to the forefront. Fighters like Jason Dent, Brian Rogers, and Jessica Eye to name a few.
But why is it that naming a fighter such as Brian Rogers, does one immediately remember that was sponsored by Intimidation Clothing? According to president Luke Jernigan, it has to do with the marketing strategy behind sponsoring a fighter.
“What we try to do it basically just brand it on people’s minds that if you see Jessica Eye, you see Intimidation Clothing. If you see Brian “The Predator” Rogers and his flying knee knockout and Bellator 61: “Oh, that’s the Intimidation guy, Brian Rogers. Okay, I remember him.” That’s our goal is ingraining that into peoples’ minds, and using our social media in such a way to remind people and make sure that they understand that our name is synonymous with certain individuals and promotions, etc.”
The way this is done is that Intimidation clothing separates out its e-commerce site and its promotional site.
“Intimidationclothing.com handles all of our transactual e-commerce type of work, then we have Intimidationmma.com, which is more of a blog, but I have a staff on the back end that basically runs it almost like a news site. “Intimidation sponsors Antonio Nieves in his boxing bout on December 29th.” Boom. Article about him. It’s just like a newspaper article written right there about Antonio Nieves and how we’re working with him for the second time in his four professional boxing fights.”
But it isn’t just limited to announcing that they have signed a fighter, or are sponsoring a fighter for an event. Each week, an update is posted on the website, promoting their fighters who competed that weekend, win or lose. And by doing this, it re-iterates that belief of branding the fighters with their brand.
Like most companies though, there is a learning curve. Jernigan was quick to realize this when he founded the company back in 2009 when he stated, “Well, I started the brand in 2009. I got involved in the MMA side from a little bit of media background where I own a site because I have a background in sports websites and online internet properties that are sports-related, and I really started falling in love with the sport of mixed martial arts. And we decided, like a lot of companies, to kind of, “Oh, we’ll just create a t-shirt company. We’ll make millions.” (laughs) You realize pretty quickly that this is a cutthroat business that is saturated with everybody and their brother trying to do the same thing and very few that can separate themselves. So what we decided after that was: How are we gonna do this? We’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do it right. We’re gonna be as unique as we can, so how do we go about doing that? So that was the big challenge in the early days. We didn’t really start it with the big business plan and come into it… It was one of those things where we went into it a little bit blindly, but luckily it didn’t take too many months. I’m fairly savvy and pretty smart, and I know marketing. So it was from there just trying to separate ourselves from other brands, and constantly try and get as much exposure…not necessarily to an MMA-only category on a regular basis.”
Jernigan over and over stated that he is savvy and smart when it came to marketing, but of course there were a few mishaps. Such was the case at Strikeforce Miami in January of 2010. Intimidation Clothing sponsored Herschel Walker’s opponent, Greg Nagy, in what they thought was going to be a home run from a marketing stand point.
“We sponsored Greg Nagy and we paid a premium to have the crotch of his shorts say Intimidation Clothing. And literally, I remember sitting by the computer, checking Google Analytics every fifteen minutes to see how many people had come through to the site. How many orders had come through and everything. I kept checking the traffic and I was like Where’s the traffic? Where are the sales? One sponsorship… This was supposed to make us all this money.”
Of course it didn’t make them all the money that they thought it would and was one of those early on lessons. Looking back Jernigan realizes several issues with the sponsorship and why it failed. “We paid a premium for a fighter who really wasn’t a big name fighter, just because of his fifteen minutes of fame, and Hershel sat on him for three rounds, and the logo hardly got seen by anybody, and he got punched out a bunch… And it is what it is. You learn from these things.”
Looking at the marketing of the company over the three plus years it has been around, several different strategies and ideas have been tossed around and used for how to best market the brand. But according to Jernigan, it is one thing that he has been doing right since day one that has kept him where he is.
“What’s been successful for us, from day one, is search engine optimization, and that’s because I have a background in that industry. So right away we optimized our site for “MMA apparel” and other key words around that, and we’ve been building links and doing everything that you do from a search engine optimization standpoint since day one. And we’ve consistently been on the first page of Google since day one for MMA apparel, competing with many, many bigger, bigger companies that are way bigger than us in terms of gross sales, but at the same time, we’re up there with those guys, and we look strong.”
The thing about running an apparel company in the mixed martial arts world, is that there are two sides. The selling of the clothes, and then the sponsoring of fighters. And the two co-exist together. Picking the right person to sponsor is a huge deal for Intimidation Clothing. While they have fallen for the line of “I’m the next best thing that isn’t signed to the UFC” a couple times, a constant evaluation of fighters with values and qualities that align with the company’s are what they look for when sponsoring a fighter.
“There’s two types that I’m really looking for. You want the up-and-comer. You want that. We got a guy named Isaiah Chapman, a bantamweight out of Cleveland, there on Akron: 4-0 as a pro, continually, gradually brought up by the NAAFS out here, each fight a little bit tougher and a little bit tougher, three finishes in his four fights, last two fights were very good, tough, right around the 500-mark kind of guys who, if they wouldn’t have fought such tough guys, would probably be 10-5, 12-4 kind of guys, but they fight such tough guys their records are 6-6, 4-4 type guys. But Isaiah’s 4-0 now, and he’s the perfect example of what we want from an up-and-comer. But he’s also the perfect example of the kind of individual and human being I want to be working with. Isaiah’s about as humble as it gets, about as loyal as it gets, and he appreciates working with you. We get a lot of guys who come to us like we should be honored to work with them, yet I haven’t seen them in the UFC or Bellator tournaments at any point in my life. And I never want to disrespect anyone that hasn’t made it to the “major leagues,” but you have to have a realistic perspective of where you have been or where you are in your career. I’d almost rather have the guy who’s 10-5, fighting on the regional scene, maybe a borderline XFO or NAAFS title-holder, but not necessarily someone that Bellator’s knocking on the door to come sign. I’d rather have that guy who can be loyal to me and charge me a little bit less to work with him every time that I know two years from now I’m still gonna be sponsoring him every fight – than that diva who thinks he’s worth $1000 right now on a regional fight. So we work for the good-quality individual human beings, but we also like to work with the higher-up side. But you don’t have to be the next Georges St. Pierre or the next UFC fighter in order for us to work with you.”
The best piece of advice Jernigan has for anyone looking to get into the apparel business? Learn as much as possible before spending any money. “Make sure you have a lot of capital, make sure that you have a lot of great contacts from day one, and learn all the lessons before you have a chance to experience them, and plan on tons of competitors from all levels, from all business experience levels around you in a saturated market… And if you’re ready for all that, then you’re fine.”
And of course the advice everyone gives is to do what they love and Jernigan does just that. “I really like what I do. I’m very fortunate – I’m blessed in that regard.”