Mud, sweat and fears: Will Dean on the rise of Tough Mudder

Mud, sweat and fears: Will Dean on the rise of Tough Mudder

While the concept of running through mud for over ten miles, plunging into ice cold water and sprinting through a field of electrical wires might not sound enticing on the surface, for Tough Mudder’s participants, the opportunity to overcome their fears with thousands of other like-minded teammates appears to be too appealing a proposition to turn down.   

Since its inaugural event in Pennsylvania, USA in May 2010, more than 2.5 million people have taken the Tough Mudder challenge, which has attracted between 10,000 and 15,000 entrants for each event, making it one of the fastest-growing mass participation activities in the world.

When Will Dean, founder and chief executive of Tough Mudder, put forward the idea in a competition at Harvard Business School, judges questioned whether a team-centred, untimed obstacle course would be something that people would be willing to pay money to do. However, that principal focus on camaraderie has become synonymous with the event, creating a community of ‘Mudders’ within which over 10,000 people have already committed to a Tough Mudder tattoo.

Ahead of SportsPro’s The Brand Conference at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London on 28th September, Dean discusses the importance of the company’s digital strategy, the evolution of Tough Mudder since its inception, and how the event will continue to grow in the future. 

This year’s Brand Conference focuses on brand communication in an era of digital disruption. How have you at Tough Mudder used digital communication to your advantage?

Tough Mudder is about community. It’s about a tribe built through shared experiences and overcoming obstacles. We’ve used digital not for ‘communication’, but rather to foster and enable that sense of community.

For example, Facebook isn’t just a place where we as a brand push messages out. I wouldn’t even say it’s about a two-way conversation between brand and consumer. Facebook, for Tough Mudder, has been a multifaceted platform where we speak with Mudders, Mudders speak with us, and, critically, Mudders speak and share with each other. Tough Mudder’s use of digital is about enabling the tribe to exist and grow online as well as offline. There are incredible stories about Mudders finding each other and making life-changing connections through our Facebook page.

Tough Mudder’s focus on teamwork and camaraderie has become synonymous with the event

How integral do you see digital media as being to the rise of Tough Mudder? Is being able to share images on Facebook and Instagram crucial to the mass appeal among ‘millennials’?

More than 90 per cent of brand familiarity with Tough Mudder has come through social media. When we talk about word-of-mouth at Tough Mudder, we mean people uploading photographs to Facebook, posting statuses about events, linking YouTube videos, Snapchatting, Instagramming, Tweeting, blogging, and all the rest. We value all those channels in that they have a life and a community of their own. We spend a lot of money each year on Facebook advertising, but these platforms are amplified many times over by the network of users themselves. Social media acts as a connector of tribe members, but it means little without a shared story to tell.

When people share their pictures from Tough Mudder on Facebook or Instagram, they are sharing this experience because it says something about themselves. I think this desire to connect through shared experience is inherent within everyone, not just millennials.

Facebook and Instagram facilitate our ability to share and therefore connect quickly through images and Tough Mudder is lucky in that our brand is incredibly visual. Share a picture of your team in our orange finisher headbands and your friends will know you’ve completed a Tough Mudder. Share a picture of yourself running through our Electroshock Therapy obstacle and your friends will know you’ve overcome an obstacle at Tough Mudder.

How has your brand strategy for Tough Mudder evolved over the years as the event has grown in profile?

Innovation is the backbone of our culture at Tough Mudder. As they grow, businesses tend to be fearful of processes that cannot be simply broken down into their constituent elements. For this reason, they tend to be most fearful of all about innovation: why divert resources from what you know for a fact works to something that no one has tried before? The simple answer to that argument is there is never in life or in business a steady state. Change is the only constant.

Will Dean, founder and chief executive of Tough Mudder, developed the idea while studying at Harvard Business School

When we started Tough Mudder, we focused mainly on Facebook and Twitter for social media. However, over the course of the past seven years platforms like Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat have also become important, as well as tools such as Facebook’s Live video capabilities. What this means from a brand perspective is that we must identify how to articulate Tough Mudder on these different platforms and create content that thrives in those environments as well.

It would have been easy to say, “Well, Facebook works well for us,” but our ability to diversify channels and content has helped us reach new audiences. Additionally, it has also pushed our creativity and taken the brand to exciting new places. For example, our Coachified series began as a desire to grow Tough Mudder’s YouTube presence with engaging, episodic and longer-form content.

Tough Mudder is as much about the social side as it is about sport. What other events did you look to for inspiration when taking it to market, either from within sport or elsewhere?

When we launched Tough Mudder – and as we continue to build Tough Mudder as a brand, business and community – we really looked at brands that had created this tribe mentality rather than other events. Harley Davidson is a notable example of this and a company which we discuss a lot at TMHQ.

Harley-Davidson is the archetypal example of the way in which people can gather around the authentic values of a brand and have it say something enduring about who they are. Harley-Davidson had created part of that culture by creating covetable motorcycles in a time and place where freedom became synonymous with the open road. The rest of it, however, came from the company’s efforts to nurture community.

It sponsored Harley owners’ groups and affiliated chapters that not only organised events, rallies and weekend gatherings but also took part in some community service. When you buy a Harley, you are not just buying a motorcycle; you are buying membership in a community. One of the most gratifying aspects of what we have done is to see some of this kind of Harley-Davidson tribal spirit being created around Tough Mudder quite quickly in real time.

Tough Mudder challenges involve crawling through mud, plunging into ice cold water and running through a field of electrical wires

To what extent do you see mass participation as being crucial to the future of athletics and the marketing of those kinds of sports?

At TMHQ, we say experience is the new luxury good. Tough Mudder reflects the desire of an increasingly digital world to get outside and connect with each other, and a generation that attributes value to experiences rather than expensive material goods. Interestingly, social media enables and in fact propagates offline experiences in that it gives everyone a platform to connect, plan and share.

Tough Mudder’s focus on teamwork and camaraderie embodies these aspects of community, and our use of digital is critical there. The extent to which athletics and sports can leverage the importance of shared experience on their digital platforms will play a significant role in their ability to market and grow their brand. 

To find out more about SportsPro’s The Brand Conference, and to register your interest, please visit sportsprotbc.com.

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Craig Ballantyne

I love anything to do with Harley Davidson and have two beautiful children and a beautiful partner. In my spare time i like building websites and love anything to do with the internet.

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