Michael Buffer: How to create catchphrases that kaching

When Midway Games – the creators of Mortal Combat – wanted to make a boxing videogame, they didn’t approach Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson. Instead, they approached Michael Buffer. 

Michael Buffer was 38 years old when he found his calling. He was just a model doing odd gigs when he saw a boxing match on TV with his 14 year old son. The ring announcer completely botched up the match results. There was no buildup. No excitement. No drama. That’s when Buffer’s 14 year old son spoke up: “Dad you can do better!”

Buffer took his son’s advice and sent out his resume and headshot to various places that hosted boxing matches. And as luck would have it, he was given a chance to announce boxing matches. 

Unlike other announcers, Buffer elevated the job. He suited up and dressed like James Bond. He added flair to his voice and made boxing even more exciting! Got people jumping up from their seats!

He was so good that when Donald Trump saw him, he made sure that Buffer was hired to announce all of the boxing matches held in his Atlantic City casino!

Even when Buffer increased his rates, people paid him. He became an icon. When Rocky the movie made its sequels, they hired Michael Buffer to play himself and announce the boxing matches in the movies! And when Midway Games made its boxing game, they came to Buffer to make him the face of the game!

For some title boxing matches, Buffer has earned as much as $100,000 to be the announcer! He has announced for over a 1000 boxing matches! And has made more money from the ring than most boxers – and all without getting punched in the face!

How did a model become a boxing icon?

Buffer had one goal: to make boxing as exciting as possible. Towards that end, a boxing tradition frustrated him. He would wind up the audience and get them all excited and announce the two boxers in the ring. And then, he would have to spend the next few minutes deflating his buildup – because he was required to name all the trainers and the judges and the state commissioners and who have you!

So Buffer thought: why not come up with a divider. A signal. A phrase that would convey to the audience that all the riff raff was done – and the fight would now begin!

And that’s how he came up with “Let’s get ready to rumble!” That one phrase and the way he said it – made him iconic. That one phrase made all the casino hotels and sports channels want him and only him to announce the boxing matches. That one phrase became huge!

And it’s actually that one phrase that made Midway Games come to Buffer for the deal. Because they wanted to name their games something that people would instantly recognize: “Ready to rumble boxing!”

Catchphrases make you irreplaceable

Do you know which fruit is consumed more than any other fruit in the world? “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” has made sure that apples are eaten more than oranges or strawberries or any fruit that is arguably healthier!

Catchphrases are powerful. They act like lightning rods. They win attention. They seep into memory and stick to your neurons.

Michael Buffer came up with his catchphrase after a lot of trial and error. He tried “man your battle stations” as well as “fasten your seatbelts” – but both bombed. He finally took inspiration from Muhammad Ali. Ali, in a pre match interview once said: “Rumble young man rumble!” 

“Let’s get ready to rumble” resonated! But even with a catchy phrase, Buffer stumbled. Because he would add unnecessary things before and after the phrase! “Let’s get ready to rumble for 12 rounds of boxing!” 

It was a not so well known singer – Jody Berry – who gave the advice that polished the phrase. “You know when you say ‘let’s get ready to rumble’, shut up after that!” Let the audience react! 

But it wasn’t just coming up with the catchphrase that was genius. It was how Buffer went about protecting his catchphrase. You see: he trademarked it.

How a basketball coach makes bank even when his competition wins

Pat Riley is a legendary basketball coach. Teams under him have won multiple championships. But you know what’s funny? Pat Riley made $300,000 even when his competing team: Chicago Bulls, led by Michael Jordan won the championship in 1993!

You see: Chicago Bulls won the championship three times in a row. And it was Pat Riley who had trademarked the term “three peat” in 1988 (when LA Lakers – the team he coached had won two championships back to back.) All the tshirts and hats sold with the word “three peat” earned Pat Riley a hefty bonus!

When Michael Buffer heard about Pat Riley’s trademarking, he went ahead and got a trademark for his “lets get ready to rumble” too! Over the years, products worth over $400 million using that phrase have been sold! Making Michael Buffer a very wealthy man!

So why do catchphrases work?

Catchphrases work because of the fluency heuristic. Our brains prefer things that are easier to process cognitively. Faster is better.

Catchphrases also work because when language flows like music, it skips the analytical part of our brains. And is processed by the pattern recognizing portions of our brains!

It lightens up your “right brain!”

So how can you create your own catchy catchphrases?

  1. Rhyme them. Research shows that people remember things that rhyme. Richard Shottom and Alex Thompson showed people 10 sentences. 5 of them rhymed. 5 didn’t. After a week, when they were asked to say which sentences they remembered, there was no competition. Rhyming sentences were remembered twice as often!

    But rhyming is difficult. Here are two tools to make it easier. Assonance and alliteration.

    Assonance means repeating a vowel sound. It’s coming up with near rhymes. It’s how Eminem rhymes words with orange: door hinge, four inch, storage, porridge, George.

    Alliteration means repetition of consonant sounds. The “R” in ready to rumble.

    But isn’t mere alliteration not rhyming the words? It’s actually not rhyming that matters. Its rhythm. Rhythm and patterns become memory with more ease.
  2. Shorten the phrases. It’s only when Buffer shortened his phrase did it really catch on. People have to put in more effort to remember long phrases, so short ones help. Edit and keep things short.
  3. Use the unusual. “Rumble” is a word not often heard. And so it caught on. People remember distinctive things.
  4. Prosody matters. How you say it matters a lot. Michael Buffer exaggerates the way he rolls “let’s get ready to rummmbbble!” 

Justine Cheng and his colleagues from Cornell University analyzed 100 movie catchphrases and what was common between them. And they found that catchphrases have a lot of front sounds, a lot of labial sounds. These are sounds that roll from your lips. They include m, p, f, v, b. The more your lips move, the more your memory grooves.

Action Summary:

  • Create a catchphrase to make your widgets irreplaceable
  • Pay attention to rhyme and rhythm. Its a shortcut to bypass the analytical parts of peoples minds and connect with the pattern recognition part.