Brand it like Barkley

What does the world’s toughest trail race teach us about branding and brand experience? Run along for 3 key lessons from the Barkley Marathons.

3 lessons in branding from the world’s toughest trail race.

Every year, ultrarunners from all over the world come together in the deep wilderness of Tennessee, USA to compete in The Barkley Marathons. 

Totalling around 160 kilometers and 18.000 meters in elevation, the race forces contestants to cover the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest. Twice. In only 2,5 days. Yet it is the sadistic way in which the game is played that gets people to their knees. 

There’s no doubt that Barkley is one of the most cruel races on the planet. And next to that, it’s also a brilliant branding example. 

Run along for 3 reasons why.

1. A story with soul

Apple, Ford, Levi Strauss … great brands have great origin stories. They take us back to a time when billionaire owners were just average Joes with a big idea. And that, we can relate to. And it’s why stories work so well – because when people can relate, the brand gains belief. 

Barkley is another great example.

Its origin story travels back to 1977 when James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr., escaped prison and fled into the Tennessee woods. It took the police just under 60 hours to retrieve Ray, who had made it only 12 miles far in the dense forest landscape. 

“Pathetic!” is what Barkley’s founder, Gary Cantrell, must have thought. Bragging he could do at least 100 miles, he started the ultimate trail race, as a mockery of this famously failed prison flee. Since the first edition in 1986, only 18 people ever finished the race.

Intriguing, right? Again, it’s a simple story that draws you in. But it turns ‘just a race’ into ‘that one race’. And that’s what you want for your brand as well, to be that one. So spread the story. 

2. A perfect aim

Great brands know exactly which people they are aiming for, and which they are not. Not only does it help allocate marketing efforts more efficiently, it also makes conversions go up and churn go down. 

And it’s another example where Barkley shines. 

Quick question: Who’d you say their target group is? Ultrarunners? Extreme endurance athletes? 

Nah. Barkley doesn’t give a single *beep* about how good of a runner you are.

Who they really look for, are what you call ‘thrillseekers’. Madlads, perhaps. People who love to push their physical and mental limits far beyond their normal threshold. 

Of course most participants are well-trained, but crossing the finish line isn’t about a sporting win. Far more than just that, it’s about self-transcendence. Victory over your own body and mind. That’s the real drug all adrenaline junkies want, and Barkley just keeps them coming back for more. 

So next time you decide on your target group, look for what makes them tick. Then get ‘m hooked. 

3. An only-you experience

And I’m saying only-you just because I get tired of using the word ‘authentic’. But it is in fact what building a memorable brand is all about: to let people experience something so uniquely you, your name gets lodged into their memory forever. It’s like marking brain-territory with your brand. 

And when it comes to authentic experiences, Barkley takes home first price once more. 

There’s absolutely too much absurdity going on to cover in just one clever b2b blog article. But just to give you the gist of it, a few things worth mentioning: 

  • The registration process is a black box
    Allegedly, people “in the business” just find their way to Cantrell’s mailbox on a need-to-know basis, throw in $1.60 and a dirty sock and then receive their official condolences letter, confirming entry.
  • No one knows exactly when the race starts
    Instead runners have to wait for Cantrell, the organizer, to light up a cigarette. From there on, it’s just man versus nature. 
  • The course alternates directions with each loop
    And with only a compass and a map to navigate, it makes orientation even harder for the sleep-deprived, dehydrated or even hallucinating contestants.

The lesson here is that every piece of the puzzle feels on-brand. It’s extreme. It’s a little sadistic. And it all adds to the notoriety, or the ‘only-you’ of Barkley as a brand.

How to win the branding race

If you think about it, building a brand is a bit like running an ultramarathon – you’re competing in the long run. 

So what makes some brands come out on top? Obviously, you don’t have to be as bold as Barkley. But a lot of brands would do good by playing it a little less safe. 

So next time you’re doing a campaign, launching a new product or just putting your brand out there, ask yourself: 

  • What’s your story? And is it spreading the soul of your brand?
  • Are you aiming for a specific enough audience? Or are you just shooting at everything that moves?
  • What does your brand have that’s only-you? And are customers experiencing it on every touchpoint they come across?

Do you want to brand it like Barkley? Let’s get you up and running! Send us your challenge at

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