Building a brand from the ground up

Companies will create wealth from the conversion of raw intangibles -imagination, empathy and collaboration- into finished intangibles -patents, brands and customer tribes. Marty Neumeier

Alex Patterson cut his entrepreneurial and marketing teeth as the 4th employee of Tough Mudder, a company and brand that truly established a modern-day tribe. After practicing for 2 years as a tax attorney at the international law firm of Davis Polk in New York, Alex joined Tough Mudder as their first legal counsel.

In classic startup fashion, he then wore a number of hats including CMO, Chief Creative Officer, Chief Culture Officer, and VP of Brand as the company grew to over half a million Tough Mudder participants per year, and 125 employees.

Each one of those roles exposed him to the intricacies of building and maintaining a brand that people loved, and cemented his many insights into how to build a tight-knit and even fanatical community of customers. Ultimately he concluded that branding and product are completely symbiotic.

“All the branding on the website and marketing that goes out to customers, that’s one part of building a brand — that’s what you’re promising and communicating — the dream that you’re selling.
But ultimately that must be grounded in what your product actually is. Great product development is at the heart of any great brand.” — Patterson

Getting it out of your own head

Cut to the reason why he left — to face a bigger challenge of building a brand from scratch. Rooted in his experience with one of the major tribe building brands out there, Alex saw a gap in the marketplace. He wanted to take the insights of teamwork from Tough Mudder and apply them to create a modern team-building company for the many corporate teams that can’t stand another bowling night or HR workshop. He thought, “Tough Mudder is a brand that challenges customers…so why don’t we challenge them to do something different?” But what the product would be wasn’t so clear.

Entrepreneurship is an incredibly adaptable process requiring ‘Getting Out of the Building’ to talk to your customers — Steve Blank

Alex’s first attempt was a half-day adventure sports mission called Thrill Shark. He set about to build the brand, from logo to voice to conceptualizing and presenting the product. Companies that he contacted, however were biting on the concept, saying it was too physically challenging and took employees out of the office for too long. Deciding whether to continue onwards, or to pivot, Alex consulted a core group of informal advisors, both business and personal, whose personalities he understood and whose opinions he knew would be honest, and which he trusted.

“When you’re creating something new, the most important thing — and often the hardest thing — is to get it out of your own head. An idea for a company is like a sailboat design, and customer feedback is like the wind. You need to get the boat into the wind to see how it sails.”

Iterating on feedback

In response to the feedback, Alex is now pivoting to create a more mental and less physical corporate team experience; one that could be completed in under two hours. The process has been one of iterating a brand and its messaging alongside envisioning the experience his product will bring and how to make it as valuable as possible. This is where his time at Tough Mudder taught him some essential foundations to creating experiences.

“Focus on every chance to surprise a customer, as it’s often the little things — executed well — that make the difference between an OK .” — Patterson

Alex is trying to weave adventure, challenge and teamwork into unique experiences that redefine workplace culture and teams. One iteration of his concept has a team finding a brief case with a code that leads to breaking into a safe, which quickly escalates to a full blown 3 hour event combining adventure theatre and escape rooms into a storyline. Another has a team given only 60 minutes to defuse a fake bomb that will splatter paint on all participants.

The next step

For now, Alex is still busy testing. He’s got his first client company lined up for late April, testing the idea of bringing adventure games to the corporate world, challenging co-workers to work together and fail or succeed together. And ultimately his aim is to build not just a product, but a brand that will resonate with customers, create a community around team building and adventure, and scale into a business that will changes people, and teams, for the better.

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