Written by Chris Kneeland, CEO of Cult Collective and Brad Kallet, Editorial Director of Spartan
Anyone who spends 10 minutes with Spartan founder and CEO Joe De Sena quickly learn two things: 1. He’s obsessed with fitness, and 2. He thinks BIG!
De Sena combined these two superpowers to create Spartan Race in 2007. Over the past 15 years, Spartan has become the leading endurance sports brand on Earth, with more than Ten million racers across more than 45 countries.
I recently met with Joe to evaluate Spartan and possibly honor his brand at The Gathering, an annual business summit recognizing the most cult-like brands in North America. Spartan, along with other fitness brands like CrossFit, Ironman, Orange Theory, F45, and Peloton, have been on our radar given the fanaticism and extreme loyalty that so many of their “followers” display. During the evaluation phase, I vet dozens of brands to assess their proficiency with eight specific cult branding principles. Most brands that are nominated excel at principles like Remarkability, Relatability, Culture, and Purpose, but only the best of the best are also wildly proficient at what I affectionately refer to as the “darker arts of cult branding.” These principles include Rites & Rituals, Temple Building, Indoctrination, and Picking Fights.
Frankly, I was impressed by what Joe had to share.
Joe has all the charisma and ambition I’ve come to expect from cult brand leaders such as Starbucks’ Howard Schultz, Airbnb’s Brian Chesky, and Under Armor’s Kevin Plank. But he also has a unique blend of humility and moxie, which I found intriguing. His enthusiasm and idealism are contagious. Though he’s clearly very smart and intuitive, it feels like he’s built his racing and extreme wellness empire simply through sheer willpower. I’m sure it’s that same determination and all-in-ness that drove De Sena to complete 50 ultra events and 14 Ironmans in a single year! I also discovered that the Spartan brand originated with the legendarily challenging Death Race. Billed as the hardest race on Earth, and held on Joe’s property in Vermont, the tagline is “You May Die.” It’s so grueling, in fact, that less than 20% of participants even finish!
I was thoroughly enjoying Joe’s stories, and witnessing his intoxicating passion, when our conversation turned to his latest venture. It was so over the top that my admiration for him, and his vision, instantly soared to new heights.
Joe’s respect for the origin story of his company’s namesake— Spartan — runs so deep that he is now embarking on an extreme way to uniquely honor his most loyal customers as well as pay tribute to the ancient Spartan 300, the brave soldiers who put their lives on the line in the fight for good against evil.
Popularized by writer/director Zack Snyder’s 2006 film 300, the soldiers of Sparta represent the best of courage, strength, camaraderie, loyalty, and commitment. De Sena is such a rabid fan of their heroism that he named his company Spartan and seeks to create a Spartan-like ethos amongst his employees and customers.
Over the past few years, De Sena has formed a friendship with Petros Doukas, the mayor of modern-day Sparta, Greece. Together they agreed to construct a first-of-its-kind memorial paying homage to the Spartan 300. Surrounding those 300 stones will be an additional 15,000, each engraved with the names of 15,000 current Spartan racers who purchase an all-new Unbreakable Pass club. This membership program is Spartan’s first truly global offering. It includes a digital NFT unlocking unlimited access to over 450 events worldwide, including access to every brand in the Spartan portfolio, like Tough Mudder, Spartan Trail, Spartan Combat, DEKA, HIGHLANDER, and more. De Sena even hopes that some Unbreakable Pass holders will take advantage of a quirky membership perk that allows them to have their ashes spread over the memorial after they pass on.
“I’m not surprised at all that Joe is attempting something so ambitious,” says Richard Baker, the CEO and executive chairman of Hudson’s Bay Company. “I’ve known him for years, and he has this natural ability to create things people want to be a part of. This memorial won’t just immortalize the Spartan 300. It will immortalize all the people who have bought into what Joe’s company represents.”
“Creating in-real-life experiences is an impactful brand strategy. Spartan’s new Unbreakable Pass, and the ability to visit Sparta and experience the essence of where the brand was born, seems like an awesome way to amplify their customer experience.”
I’ve seen many brands tap into the cult brand playbook of creating spaces for fans to gather and revel in their togetherness. From Disney’s Disneyland to Apple’s flagship Manhattan store to Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown to Madden’s roaming esports tournaments, cult brand leaders have always sought ways to manifest their brand’s ethos in 3D. But erecting a giant monument to honor people who died over 2,000 years ago, and allowing customers to immortalize themselves in Greece for the rest of time, is indeed next-level.
“Creating in-real-life experiences is an impactful brand strategy,” says Nick Street, a 15-year veteran of Vans and current CMO of Zound Industries in Sweden. “We built a lot of skate parks during my time at Vans. Our goal was to help our customers do more of what they love. Similarly, Spartan’s new Unbreakable Pass, and the ability to visit Sparta and experience the essence of where the brand was born, seems like an awesome way to amplify their customer experience.”
Cult brands constantly find novel ways to make their fans feel like insiders and give diehard fans access to remarkable branded experiences. Spartan’s newest venture does that in spades. Of course, some will argue that De Sena has gone too far, but as someone who has studied and championed cult brands for years, I can’t wait to see how much farther he’ll go.
If your brand is looking to do something equally bold and inspiring to better engage its best customers, prospects and staff, get in touch with Cult.
Cult Collective Ltd.
We drive business performance by creating more deeply engaged customers, prospects and staff. We teach what we have learned from over a decade of researching the most cult-like brands on the planet, and we apply world-class research and analytics tools to improve our client's odds of success.