What Is 'Mudvertising' and Why Are Marketers Diving In?

It's not about winning

Photos: Zach Hetrick

Most marketers wouldn’t want to have their names dragged through the mud.

But not some brands.

After years of prodigious growth, “mudventure” obstacle racing has oozed into the mainstream, with top brands like Reebok, Miller Lite and Advil jumping in. The sport, which barely existed five years ago, fuses strenuous, often punishing and on occasion even death-defying physical activity with team dynamics, social interaction and the meeting of tough challenges head on. And along the way, participants get as filthy as if playing in a pickup football game in a driving rainstorm.

Winning is not the objective here. In fact, many events don’t even track the times of the entrants. Rather, personal achievement and having a good time with friends and family are key. And while some serious athletes take part, the category’s success and its growing attraction for brands have more to do with the enthusiastic participation of the average person, testing his or her physical limits and sharing the experience with others.

“While most people will never play NFL football, nearly anyone can participate in these action-adventure competitions, and participants in these events respect and support their sponsors,” says Darryl Ohrt, global creative director at content firm Mash+Studio and a prominent marketing blogger.

There’s big money in mud. Last year, the big three mudventure series—Tough Mudder, Spartan Race and Warrior Dash, which together hosted some 2 million participants—generated an estimated $200 million. When smaller races are factored in, the overall market could well rake in twice that much, according to experts, and this year could reach $1 billion and draw as many as 4 million participants worldwide.

Regardless of size, location or level of difficulty, the events (for which participants pay anywhere from $50 to $200) are known for activities like scaling walls, wading through pools of slime, crawling through pits of barbed wire and, in one case, dodging live electrical cables. As the name suggests, there’s always plenty of mud involved, and post-race parties.

On-site brand activations, signage and co-branded merchandise are fast becoming a part of the mix, too. The benefit for marketers is clear, as mudventure events attract demos brands crave. Participants generally fall into the 18-40 sweet spot, with an average household income in the $70,000 range. Some event series, including Tough Mudder, are male-oriented (the split is about 70/30), but the events are attracting more women. (There’s a female-only series called Dirty Girl.)

Meanwhile, for the participants who have made mudventure such a hot ticket, the events tap into our collective desire to escape, if only for a weekend, the shackles of buttoned-down, mechanized society.

“We feel cooped-up in our cities where hand sanitizer is everywhere,” says marketing blogger and pop culture pundit Ask Wappling. “We want to run barefoot with our feet in the mud like we did when we were kids. We want to push ourselves and see how far, how fast, how sweaty we can get. We want to laugh, scrape our knees and win.”

It also feeds into our social media-centric lifestyles. “A Facebook photo of yourself competing in a mud run is the ultimate humble-brag. It clearly shows that you’re fit, fun and adventurous. And since you’re covered in mud, the pic has a tinge of self-deprecation too,” explains Jonathan Ages, founder and editor of Blood, Sweat and Cheers, a daily email that helps people discover activities to do with friends.

Adds Alex Patterson, chief culture officer at Tough Mudder: “Experiences are what people want these days. They don’t just want goods … now that everyone is their own content-generating brand.”

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