Jennifer Zanfardino

Why I heart Tough Mudder

Before going over my first Berlin wall and into the starting pen, I thought Tough Mudder was hot. By the time I finished my first challenge four hours later, I had a doodle-our-initials-on-my-binder, make-out-with-my-pillow brand crush on Tough Mudder.

This is because I believe in Tough Mudder. I believe in its values so much that they’re stuck on my refrigerator door. Because I’ve jumped into a dumpster full of ice, completely submerged my body and come out on the other side. Twice. Because when I’ve passed the 8, 9 and 10 mile-markers on the course I’m reminded that it is a challenge, NOT a race. Because by doing Tough Mudders I learned there is no quit in me. And because despite having done other obstacle courses, I think of myself first and foremost as a Tough Mudder, and would unequivocally tell anyone who wants to challenge themselves to get their orange headband.

So when I saw the list of speakers for Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored in New York, and Will Dean was on it, I knew I had to go. And when I sat in the second row and saw an opportunity to tell him how hard I’ve been crushing on his brand, I got his attention, climbed over some seats—in a dress—and introduced myself.

Some people get star-struck by actors or musicians. Not me. I get star-struck by entrepreneurs who have built successful businesses. Especially entrepreneurs who are building companies I think are awesome. When we spoke, he was super-pleasant and appreciative of my love of the brand, while I reverted to my awkward, thirteen-year-old self.

But that’s not the point. The point is that Will was there as part of a panel to discuss cult brands. And one of the things he said was that you don’t get to be a cult brand without building a culture. That, like so many of the other Tough Mudder experiences I’ve had, resonated with me.

If you’re committed to growing your business and developing a strong brand with a loyal following, you absolutely need to hire people who understand what you are trying to build. This should be non-negotiable because your employees are on the front line every day giving life to a company’s values and vision. Every great brand needs people who are relentlessly committed to fulfilling the brand purpose. And as Will pointed out during the panel when hiring it’s “so easy to make an exception…but it always came back to bite me.”

(For the record, that same sentiment was also echoed by Sophia Amoruso, Founder of Nasty Gal and James Freeman, Founder of Blue Bottle Coffee, who were also on the panel and have their own cult brands.)

In order to hire the right people you need to make sure you’re clear on what you’re all about. You need to be able to tell your brand story in a way that connects with the right prospective employees. People who get what you’re looking to achieve, genuinely want to help build your vision and understand their role in it. And that’s what cult brands like Tough Mudder—or Nasty Gal or Blue Bottle Coffee—have done. They’ve connected with the right people who are able to build a consistent brand experience that continually resonates with their customers.

And as a result, these organizations have established a special place in their customers’ hearts.

Jennifer Mudder (or JM, or Mrs. Jennifer Mudder)



Photo by Sherwin Huang, March 31, 2012