Fervent fans take to social with tales of swimming in ice

It's a grueling test of mental and physical strength with obstacles designed by the British Special Forces that include fire, water, electricity, and ice.

It's a grueling test of mental and physical strength with obstacles designed by the British Special Forces that include fire, water, electricity, and ice. The 10- to 12-mile events are held across the country, but you won't see ads about them on TV or in magazines. Most likely, you will notice men and women of all ages donning orange headbands or Tough Mudder finisher T-shirts. Those fans will tell you about their experiences.

Tough Mudder, which was founded in 2010, has grown immensely in popularity, garnering its one-millionth participant in May and going from 12 events in year one to 52 events across five countries in 2013. Plans are in place to expand to eight more countries next year.

While the company doesn't use traditional advertising, it is steadily increasing brand awareness through social media, word of mouth, PR, and Facebook ads.

PRWeek's Lindsay Stein emerges from Tough Mudder's Arctic enema stage, which is a pool full of ice, in August.
Passionate supporters
With a fiercely passionate fan base, Melissa Esmundo, VP of marketing at Tough Mudder, says communications comes fairly easily for the brand.

"We do a lot with our content to make sure it resonates and helps tell the brand's story," she says. "Also our fans' stories are important to who we are and how we are changing lives."

Tough Mudder, which supports veterans through charities including Wounded Warrior Project, posts content on the brand's social channels. The Tough Mudder Facebook page has more than 3.4 million fans.

Esmundo says the brand is building a community that, by leveraging social media, can create inside discussions and grow more organically and authentically than if the organization targeted broadcast or print media.

When the brand reached its one-millionth participant, the organization asked "mudders" to send in personal stories on millionmudders.com. More than 2,500 people wrote in to say how the challenge changed their lives for the better, says Ben Johnson, head of communications at the company.

When it comes to advertising, Facebook is Tough Mudder's primary channel and where it put half its initial business investment. In two years, sales increased 24 times and the brand received click-through rates five to eight times higher for ads in newsfeeds versus traditional display ads.

DKC, Tough Mudder's PR agency for the US, is focused on connecting with local markets that are hosting events, explains Phil Crimaldi, EVP in the firm's media, business, and sports division.

Local market outreach is an authentic way of getting people excited for the events.

"Staying true to the brand is what DKC wants to focus on," adds Crimaldi. "It's easy to hire celebrities and famous athletes to run the course and have them do PR, but we have never done that and we are proud of that."

DKC builds buzz three or four months in advance by engaging local radio stations and college newspapers and Tough Mudder brings broadcast crews out to see the course design.

Reliance on social
Fellow obstacle course company Spartan Race incorporates traditional advertising into its outreach strategy, but still heavily relies on PR and social media.

Renamed Reebok Spartan Race following a title sponsorship deal in January, the company works with three PR agencies, including CCB Strategies and Blumenfeld and Associates on major media placements, and Barbara Bishop Public Relations on local market exposure.

Spartan Race's key awareness-raising tactics include inviting reporters to participate in the races and interviews with CEO Joe DeSena. In September, team members from Fox 5 participated in a Spartan event in Vernon, NJ, which helped the brand gain media exposure.

Colby Balazs, VP of marketing for Spartan Race, says the brand is "more of a media company than you might expect."

At the Vernon event, Spartan celebrated reaching 3 million Facebook fans by having De-Sena pledge to do 10,000 squat thrusts in 24 hours. He started the pledge at midnight on September 7, and the brand live-streamed his efforts on UStream and posted updates on Facebook.

Spartan, with 60 events planned in 2013, also produces its own videos for YouTube, Facebook, and Spartan Race TV.

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