Q&A With Carol Kruse, New Global CMO of Tough Mudder

Exec Talks Safety, Community Building and When to Use an Ad Agency

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Carol Kruse
Carol Kruse

Tough Mudder plans to name Carol Kruse, the ex-ESPN and Coca-Cola marketer, as its global chief marketing officer, according to co-founder and CEO Will Dean.

As chief marketing officer at ESPN, Ms. Kruse oversaw the "It's not crazy, its Sports" and "This is SportsCenter" ad campaigns.

Now, she'll oversee the global marketing for a brand that might not be a traditional sport -- but sure is crazy. Touting itself as "Probably the Toughest Event on the Planet," Tough Mudder asks participants to complete 12-mile long military-style obstacle courses, filled with underground mud tunnels, high walls, icy waters and electrified barriers.

The privately held Tough Mudder has been on a rocket ride since 2010, attracting corporate sponsors such as Under Armour and growing to $75 million in annual revenue. The company is planning to stage 60 Tough Mudder events around the world in 2014, after holding 53 so far in 2013. It also has raised $6.5 million for the Wounded Warrior Project.

But Ms. Kruse joins the Brooklyn-based company at a critical moment. The safety of Tough Mudder is in question after 28-year-old Avishek Sengupta died at an event in West Virginia this year. He was the first fatality in the three-year history of the event.

We asked Ms. Kruse about safety, and how she'll pull off Mr. Dean's objective of turning Tough Mudder into a "global lifestyle brand." Excerpts:

Ad Age: Why join such a small company after working at industry leaders such as ESPN and Coke?

Carol Kruse: The expansion and the popularity of Tough Mudder is incredible. If you think about it, in three-and-a-half years, well over a million people have decided to take part in this unconventional life-changing event. It has really taken off. It's a brand that has such a passionate group of followers. We call it "Mudder Nation." It's really built on people's courage and their personal accomplishment. But also teamwork and fun.

Ad Age: Can Tough Mudder become a "global lifestyle brand"?

Ms. Kruse: I would say, right now, it is a lifestyle brand. It certainly has a lot of ardent, passionate, participants...I think there's a strong sense of community. It's not a global lifestyle brand in the way that Coca-Cola is yet. But I think it has the potential to grow into that.

Ad Age: What will be your advertising/marketing strategy?

Ms. Kruse: The Tough Mudder community has such a high amount of word-of-mouth. People can't not talk about their experiences -- and share it with their friends. In fact, there's a relatively high repeat rate of people who do the event once and then want to bring their friends along and share their experience. A lot of the marketing to date has been leveraging that word-of-mouth and the vast amount of videos, photos and user-generated content with some well-placed Facebook advertising.

Moving forward, we'll continue to work with the community and grow that and provide content. But as we grow into other markets, we'll make sure the brand is relevant in those new countries. … This is not a niche-event company. You see such a broad range of people who participate. You realize this isn't narrow like the number of people who do an Ironman. This is a much broader opportunity.

Now, the events are tough. It takes a lot of physical fitness and mental grit to get through an event. But there's also a tremendous amount of camaraderie and teamwork. Unlike other [events] there's no winner. It's not a competition. You don't get a time. Or come in a certain place. It's all about the accomplishment of getting yourself through the event. And your teammates.

Ad Age: Will you hire an ad agency?

Ms. Kruse: Right now we don't use an advertising agency. We're working with Edelman [for PR], working on our messaging, branding, media relations and how we talk about the brand as we go overseas. From a creative standpoint, we've been doing that all in-house. We will certainly work with media agencies as far as media placement, when we're looking at paid media. I believe in agencies. I believe agencies are important. . . . I like getting a little pushback and feedback and innovative ideas and new ways of looking at things. We will balance when we're best served in-house and when we'll work with agencies. . . . We are working with some media-buying companies to help us look at our paid media. We focus primarily on Facebook. But now we're looking at expanding that mix.

Ad Age: So will you start an agency search?

Ms. Kruse: I would say at this point I will not be looking at ad agencies in the short term.

Ad Age: Have you done a Tough Mudder yourself?

Ms. Kruse: Not yet -- but I can't wait. As I was interviewing, I knew this was the right company for me. Literally, my heart started racing. I couldn't wait. Then when I went down to Florida for the Tampa event, it was all I could do to not lace up my sneakers and hop in there. The will is there, but I actually knew I needed to train. . . . I did remind myself that it is 12 miles and there are a lot of tough obstacles. I need to prepare myself both physically and mentally. But I will, don't worry.

Ad Age: Anything you learned as the former digital marketing boss at Coke that you can apply at Tough Mudder?

Ms. Kruse: A lot of marketers really try to push a message down to their target audience. I certainly learned at Coca-Cola about building a community and being part of the conversation. . . . That Mudder Nation community is already here. It's very strong and vocal and passionate. I'm looking forward to jumping in, taking what I've learned and continuing to grow that community.

Ad Age: What about safety concerns? Will there be new safety standards? Will the events become less rigorous?

Ms. Kruse: Of course, I talked about that with the senior management and the executive team when I was interviewing. It's incredibly important and taken very seriously. The company has world-class safety experts in building these quality events. However, the events need to be tough and challenging. Because that's what people want.

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