The importance of branding is becoming increasingly more evident in the world of retail as many businesses strive to build a cult following.
Some have excelled in building their brands over the years and many can learn from legendary Canadian wrestler Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart on how to create an image and maintain it for years.
Hart, who today is a retailer himself as he sells merchandise on his lasting image through his website, has developed a worldwide following of millions of people with his moniker, his trademark attire that includes the shades and the bright pink tights, and his famous calling card – “The Best There Is; The Best There Was; The Best There Ever Will Be.”
“Everything’s tied into my wrestling persona – my wrestling character from years ago,” said Hart.
“I was lucky in the sense that I got to be a hero on Saturday afternoons when people turned on their wrestling shows. It’s an incredible thing. There’s so many diverse wrestling fans. You can be a professor at a university, a skateboard kid. There’s real ranges of people that love wrestling, that grew up with it, that love it, that never grew out of it, that are still fans today.
“I was lucky that I got to be a television hero. Just like Gunsmoke or anybody on a TV show. I was a hero and got to be a champion. People got behind me in my battles with justice and ditching out right from wrong. I got to play that hero and all the things that came with that – my logos, my ring music and my sunglasses and my image, including toy figures, wrestling cards.”
While Hart retired in 1999, he remains a celebrity as everyone knows the Hitman. His fans still love him and of course it’s the image that has fueled his popularity to this day. Retail merchandise based on that image continue to be sold.
The image starts with the name and there’s an interesting story behind how Hart came up with the name Hitman. Years ago, Hart had to come up with a nickname and he was under the gun to do so. At that time, Thomas Hitman Hearns was a well-known American boxer who lost a decision in a match and then retired.
“I was actually in the Detroit airport and thinking I’ve got to come up with a name and saw a little story on him in the newspaper. I remember thinking about it. Hitman Hart. There’s my name,” says Hart.
“I was a bad guy. I just needed a name that was going to be cool or something different. Hitman just sounded good and had a little bit of history with the boxer. I just thought it was applicable for me the way my style was. I was kind of a very skilled technical wrestler and that’s how I portrayed myself. It sounded like a good name and I just went full bore with it. I did meet Hitman Hearns years later and he told me that I did good with the name. I always took that as a compliment.”
The bright pink colour in his attire came when he was tagged up initially with his partner Jim ‘The Anvil’ Neidhart and they were called the Hart Foundation. The wrestling establishment really didn’t have any plans for the two initially. But after they got off the ground, the nickname Hitman stuck with Hart and about a year later the two had a big TV match on Saturday Night’s Main Event. They decided to order some new wrestling gear.
“The woman that used to make the wrestling gear said she had this really hot pink and that it looked really good. Really bright and really flashy. She suggested the pink. The Anvil told me he didn’t like the idea of pink tights. It got to the point where we had to make a decision so I called her again. I asked the Anvil again if he was interested in the hot pink and this time he was all thumbs up and told me to order the pink,” said Hart.
He said he remembers wearing the bright neon pink tights for the Main Event and he was in the catering room when Vince McMahon (the wrestling organizer) saw them in a lineup with their food trays ready to get something to eat.
“I remember Vince McMahon came up to me and he called out from behind me. He said ‘don’t move.’ I remember he walked around me three or four times and he goes ‘that’s it. That’s what you guys have been missing since you came here. You never had any colour. That pink is perfect. Don’t ever change it. I want you to wear pink from now on.’ And that became our colour. I’ve always said it was never my favourite colour but it was my lucky colour because within a few months of that we were world tag team champions and we got kind of a big push and got pushed on mainstream TV.”
The sunglasses were all part of the image too. Hart used to wear mirrored sunglasses. At one point, the wrestling organizers asked him to stop wearing the glasses on the TV shows. But Hart told them he didn’t have much of a gimmick at the time. It was the only gimmick he had and he was going to keep wearing them.
The wrestling establishment succumbed. In fact, they came up with the idea of their own wraparound sunglasses tied behind the back. They asked Hart to wear them and hand them out to the kids in the audience.
“It was just a funny thing because they were just ready to kibosh the whole thing with sunglasses the day before and then all of sudden it’s like we’ve got these toy sunglasses that we’ve got to promote,” said Hart. “I started to walk out to the ring with those. They had a nice look to them. That was a big step in sort of making me popular with kids.”
The glasses would come off when he was in the ring and Hart would give them to the first kid he saw.
“I remember the very first time that I did that. I dropped down to give them to a kid and everybody ran. They were scared of me because previously I had been a bad guy. It was like feeding squirrels in the park. Slow and gentle. The kids would take the sunglasses if I handed them to them really slowly,” said Hart.
“A few weeks of TV where they had me giving the sunglasses away changed to within a few months of kids racing to the corner of the ring on the floor there for me to give them the sunglasses and the lucky kid that won I would put them on. It was a big boon to my career because it made me seem like a nice guy.
“All these little things, one thing after another that helped build my character and my image.”
That image was solidified with his excellence in the ring and his championship belts and the coining of the phrase still used today that is associated to Hart: “The Best There Is, The Best There Was, The Best There Ever Will Be.”
That too has an interesting story. Hart said the phrase is actually from the movie The Natural. It was initially a phrase he used with the Hart Foundation on a wrestling television talk show on cable in the U.S. During the interview Hart described the Hart Foundation in that language.
“Then over a period of time that became a moniker for myself in single matches as was the Excellence of Execution. That was another one. They ended up being sort of monikers that were identified only with me,” he said.
“But that whole moniker was kind of a real life thing. Long before I became champion, became the big star that I was, I was considered the wrestling expert. They weren’t just labels. They were real life labels. Even Hitman. After a while I was the Hitman in the dressing room. People didn’t call me Bret. They didn’t call me other names. They called me Hitman. It became a real life thing for me.”
Hart comes from the first family of pro wrestling, having been trained in the infamous Hart family dungeon by his promoter father Stu Hart.
The Hitman has been awarded the Order of Canada and in 2004 was voted one of the top 50 Canadians of all time on CBC’s Greatest Canadian.