Create and rejuvenate a distinctive service brand: Tough Mudder

This week I've been exploring a fascinating service business called Tough Mudder, prompted by this article in The Times. It's "a 12-mile course through which participants run, climb, crawl and swim their way across 25 obstacles, from barbed wire to fire, icy water and good old brick walls. Those who finish get beer and tattoos."

"Who the hell would want to put themselves through all that pain and mud?!", you may ask. Well, believe it or not, 2 million+ people have taken part in events since Will Dean created the company in 2010, generating $100 million in annual turnover.

Here are some learnings I took out from Tough Mudder.

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1. Re-invent an existing business

There were plenty of obstacle courses and outward bound events around before Tough Mudder, in addition to loads of sporting challenges, such as marathons and the like. So the idea was not completely new. What Will cleverly did was to re-invent the obstacle course.

First, "Tough Mudder puts camaraderie over finisher rankings and is not a timed race but a team challenge", as the website says. The idea is not who comes first, but rather pulling together to get to the end, a spirit captured clearly in "The Mudder Pledge":

  • I understand that Tough Mudder is not a race but a challenge.
  • I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time.
  • I do not whine – kids whine.
  • I help my fellow mudders complete the course.
  • I overcome all fears.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, Tough Mudder creates "safe, world-class obstacles you won't find anywhere else." For example, there is "Electroshock Therapy", where as a team you have to walk through a series of dangling wires that, yes, electrocute you.

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2. Tap into cultural trends

Tough Mudder taps into a couple of important consumer trends. First, the growth in digital devices means we spend  more time staring at screens rather than taking part in physical activity. Tough Mudder meets a latent need to react against this trend and get back out experiencing something real. Second, millions of us watch "torture TV" shows like "I'm a Celebrity (Get me out of here)", where semi-famous people are made to do horrible challenges in the jungle. Tough Mudder means you can now take on challenges yourself to test physical strength and mental grit.

3. Create replicable brand properties

A massive challenge with any service brand is building a proposition that can be replicated. Creating distinctive brand properties is a key to doing this successfully. First, Tough Mudder has a distinctive visual identity, with the orange and black colours, the logo and of course the mud.

More important are the obstacles themselves. Each of these has a distinctive name of its own, such as "Cry Baby", "Sewer Rat", "Everest 2.0" and "King of the Swingers". These obstacles can be designed centrally, and then rolled out around the world.

4. Remember and refresh your brand 

One of the things that really impresses me about Tough Mudder is their drive to constantly renovate their brand. "The company has an innovation lab outside New York to come up with ideas," according to The Times article. “We’re like a theme park, which needs to keep adding new rides," as Will Dean says. You can watch a video about the 2015 rejuvenation below on the blog, or here

In conclusion, Tough Mudder is great example of how to create, replicate and rejuvenate a distinctive service brand based not on a totally new idea, but rather by re-inventing one that already exists.