Tough Mudder: Brown Mud, Blue Ocean

[Cache – #116]

A shocking number of people want to be electrocuted.  This is just one of the many things I learned from watching last weekend’s Tough Mudder race north of Toronto, in which 20,000 people paid good money to run a 15-kilometre military-style obstacle course up and down a mountain’s black-diamond-steep hills in brisk temperatures.

As you might extrapolate from the name, this event involves mud.  Lots of mud. Over the course of 20-25 obstacles with names like Arctic Enema and Electroshock Therapy, participants alternately run through freezing muddy water, slide into freezing muddy water, jump into freezing muddy water and fall into freezing muddy water.

Then there are the 15-foot walls to clamber over, the wires to crawl under, the tubes to crawl through and the piece de resistance, the aforementioned Electroshock Therapy, in which participants make a final lunge for the finish line through a 20 foot-across curtain of electrical wires that zaps them without mercy.

And these people love it.


How in the world do you get 20,000 people – maybe 4,000 of them young women, by the way – to subject themselves to this torture?

It is the product of astute brand positioning and storytelling.  On the matter of positioning, Tough Mudder is very tough – absolutely no question about that – but according to the Mudders I spoke to last weekend who were also marathoners, “Tough Mudder is no marathon.”  So Tough Mudder can be undertaken by someone who doesn’t have the time, interest or ability to run a marathon, but who will still get the full bragging rights of surviving an extreme experience that looks like the toughest test imaginable.

The fact that Tough Mudder is not a marathon is precisely the goal of its positioning, which is in fact a classic example of Blue Ocean Strategy – that in which a brand makes the competition irrelevant by bypassing the red (bloody) oceans where everyone else is locked in head-to-head conflict, and then creates an ocean all of its own – a Blue Ocean.  Think of Cirque du Soleil (see Cache #99), which is not a circus, not a Broadway show…so what is it?  It is Cirque du Soleil, period.  Same for Tough Mudder.

If brand positioning makes people want Arctic Enemas, so does Tough Mudder’s highly compelling brand storytelling. The course is derived from the training of the British Special Forces. A portion of the proceeds, for a total of more than $5-million so far, is donated to The Wounded Warriors Project, which supports U.S. soldiers returned from the battlefield.  The military theme is most present at the start line – which is actually a wooden pen in which the Mudders are enclosed – where a benevolent drill sargeant leads countless roars of HOOORAAAAH!!!!, U.S. Marine-style. (You really have to see this video)

The extreme nature of the experience is reinforced through the fun names given each obstacle and through cheeky signs along the route that push Mudders to push themselves (“You SHOULD be running right now” was one sign seen at the top of a very long uphill).

Mantras such as “There is no whining. Whining is for children.” bring to mind the persuasive power of the Lululemon Manifesto and its dictums like “Do one thing a day that scares you” and “Mediocre is as close to the bottom as to the top, and will give you a lousy life.”  And we’ve seen the incredible buy-in to Lululemon, capitalized at $190-million in 2006 and now at $9-billion – a growth factor of 47 times, for those keeping score.

Nine billion is a long way off, but Tough Mudder is experiencing stratospheric growth nonetheless.  The first event was held only three years ago, and already 500,000 people worldwide have taken part.  Multiply that by an average entrance fee in the area of $130, and you have a business that’s generated $65-million and counting.

Next year they’ll be able to add an incremental $130 to their coffers, from me.  I resisted the goading of my Tough Mudder buddies this year, but inspired by their experience, I’ll be getting zapped right alongside them – and apparently, I will love it.


Brand: It Ain’t the Logo is Number One on the Globe and Mail’s list of business bestsellers for the month of March.

In case you missed it:  my short interview on CBC Radio One about IKEA’s horse meat problem.

Also in case you missed it:  My BNN interview re. Lance Armstrong’s brand (starts at the 3:30 mark, after the ad).

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