Battle of the Brands: Who is King of the Mud?

OCR Obstacle Race Mud Run Brands

OCR Event Companies Battle it out in the Mud

“Give the People what they want, and they’ll show up.” 

The famous quote often attributed to Red Skelton (referring to movies), applies to obstacle racing as well.  I attribute the rise of obstacle events to the ability of event producers to give us something we didn’t even know we wanted.  Take the primal nature of mud runs, along with the challenge, then add Facebook’s easy image sharing to the mix and you get the recipe for a new sport.  But with any physical endurance challenge or extreme experience, event producers must keep upping the ante, making things more difficult, or more dangerous to keep drawing people back….. Unless, people identify so deeply with the core of your business that it becomes their lifestyle.  That’s where the power of branding comes in.

Marketing guru Seth Godin’s definition of brand is “the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer (whether it’s a business, a buyer, a voter or a donor) doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer. “

In my recent interview, Spartan Race CEO Joe DeSena went so far as to say that the Spartan brand was the secret sauce of Spartan Race, and the key to their success.  I totally agree.  When you watch the movie 300, you want to be a Spartan.  When you cross the finish line of a Spartan Race, you are a Spartan.  I am a Spartan.  There is great power in saying that.  Spartan Race gives you a chance to be tough, be a warrior, and identify yourself with the first elite military bad-asses in history.

Does Spartan Race have the best customer service? Probably not.  The coolest obstacles? Nope.  The best after-party and festival area? Sorry.  The most physically demanding courses?  Absolutely, and that challenging brand message is what appeals to the masses.  Crossing the finish line of a Spartan race gives you the right to call yourself a Spartan and it wouldn’t mean so much if it weren’t really, really, ridiculously hard (you know I’m all about that Beast…. ’bout that Beast…).  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not getting paid to write this, and I’m not drinking the Spartan cool-aid, I’m talking about powerful brands like Ironman, Nike, Pepsi, and Chevy.  Spartan is no-where near that…. yet, but it is a potentially global level brand.   What about the other event companies?

Spartan show steady rise

These plots show the Historical Perspective of the “Big 3” w/ Warrior Dash jumping off the line, only to crash, Tough Mudder having a size-able lead (’til now), and Spartan having the most steady rise overall since 2010. Note the seasonal peaks and valleys when Obstacle events are less popular in the winter.

Ironman was similarly built on brand.  You don’t walk into a bar and say, I’m a long-course triathlete.  No, you say, “I’m an Ironman.”  At the time of it’s creation, the Ironman made every other endurance challenge on the planet look like child’s play.  People said they were going to die and they were crazy for even trying it, but the resulting brand perseveres decades later, when other triathlon companies have come and gone.  Tough Mudder actually stated way back in 2o12 (at least) that they wanted to be the next Ironman, and if you count participants, they’ve crushed it, but does their brand measure up?

Tough Mudder blew up when their version of Tough Guy came stateside and gave lazy Americans a reason to conquer their fears, help each other out, and drink beer.  Four years later and they’ve struggled with retention (repeat customers) because Tough Mudder seems like a bucket list item to average people.  They’ve recently redefined their obstacles, added new ones, and dubbed multi-Mudders “Legionnaires” in an effort to increase retention and it seems to be working.  The greatest thing Tough Mudder has going it for it right now is brand recognition.  Most people in North America have heard of Tough Mudder and so when you walk into a bar and say, “I’ve done a Tough Mudder,” or wear a TM t-shirt (not anymore!) people will know what you’re talking about.  That wasn’t the case just two years ago, but you still wouldn’t say, “I’m a Mudder” and get the kind of acknowledgment that being an Ironman gets.

What about the other brands?  Warrior Dash’s trajectory through the obsta-sphere (you like that? I just made it up) has been more like the fad fun runs that have come and gone.  While seemingly on top in 2010, with a bangin’ after-party, a cool fuzzy viking hat, plenty of mud, and 50+ races around the globe — the brand has failed to capture long term loyalty.  Though it still has it’s place as an easy entry point into obstacle racing and mud runs (it was my first too!), it captures only a fraction of the attention of “The Big 2.”  That’s right, TM and Spartan are so far ahead right now, that no one else comes close.

Warrior Dash loses Big 3 status

Here’s how Warrior Dash trends against the other 2nd tier events over the last year. Sorry WD, you’ve been demoted.

Which brings me to BattleFrog.  I love me some BattleFrog.  Fun, challenging, great atmosphere, great employees and management.  But…..  BattleFrog has a big BUT.  They have all this great stuff going for them, but can people identify with their brand?  Navy Seals? Check!  Tough as nails, elite warriors; navy seals have got it goin’ on! But, that’s not their brand (Bone Frog has Navy Seals too).  A big cartoon frog is their brand.  If they’re going after a youth demographic, which could be powerful, the toon frog with attitude is very strategic, but do people get that tattooed on their bodies?

Brand can be a powerful motivator and identifier.  Superhero Scramble was such a strong brand at one time that over 100 people actually tattooed the the SHS logo on their body, permanently, in exchange for free races for life.  The Tough Mudder creed was famously tattooed on Ray Upshaw’s back, earning him free Tough Mudders for life, and instant recognition among the early Mudders.  Simply tattooing the Tough Mudder logo anywhere on your body was enough to at least earn you a free race.  However, people get Spartan tattoos without the promise of anything free.  BattleFrog….  not so much.

Warrior Dash, Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, Battlefrog

Looking at this graph, we see Tough Mudder and Spartan Race significantly ahead of Warrior Dash and BattleFrog over the last 12 months.

In fact, I wrote this entire article after being  inspired by ORM’s editorial about BattleFrog joining the “the Big 4”.  The article makes some compelling arguments which include, strong financial backing, excellent product, leading the OCR industry in some great innovations, and A MILLION DOLLARS in prizes this year, but I cannot agree that BattleFrog has joined the ranks of the Big 4.  They’ve got to get way more traction to be considered in the same breath as Spartan and Tough Mudder.  They have a great pro team and a great reputation inside the OCR industry, but there’s a long road to becoming a household name.  Even Rugged Maniac and Savage Race have stronger brands as of this writing.

BattleFrog, Savage, Atlas, Rugged Maniac

Here’s a look at the brand interest of the middle packers since 2009

This is not written in malace or as a criticism.  I’m hoping that BattleFrog grows and pivots their brand into something a little more identifiable to the everyman story.  Seth Godin writes in his blog about brand story “We love the memory we have of how that brand made us feel once. We love that it reminds us of our mom, or growing up, or our first kiss. We support a charity or a soccer team or a perfume because it gives us a chance to love something about ourselves.  More than ever, we express ourselves with what we buy and how we use what we buy. Extensions of our personality, totems of our selves, reminders of who we are or would like to be.”

What are you, and who would you like to be?  A Ninja, a Warrior, a Mudder, a BattleFrog, or a Spartan?  This is the power of a brand.  These brands provoke in our minds an image of power, toughness, endurance, and bravery.  The one that does it the best; the one that shows us our best selves, will be the brand to win.  For those of us in the industry, we don’t care that much.  We love OCR.  We bleed Red, Orange, Blue, and Green.  We’ll show up to whatever event looks fun, challenging, and wherever a bunch of our friends are going.  For us, it’s the community, the competition, and the challenge (don’t forget the beer!).  However, there are arguably less than 5,000 of us really hard core into OCR who care about who wins in Temecula this weekend, check our phone during church to see  who’s leading at WTM, or have a special rack that fits all our finisher medals (plus a fuzzy viking hat).  So it’s the other 2,000,000+ participants that drive our sport week-in and week-out, and how they see themselves will determine the future of OCR.