Building a Great Brand in 2024: Six Lessons from Ten Thousand’s Josh Muhlbaum on Community, Loyalty, and Focus

Jared Mintzlaff

February 21, 2024

In an increasingly crowded and noisy marketplace, building a distinctive, relevant brand that forms lasting connections with customers is more challenging than ever. However, according to Josh Muhlbaum, Head of Brand Strategy at leading athletic apparel company Ten Thousand, there are strategic ways for both new and established brands to cut through the clutter.

Josh believes that in 2024 and beyond, brands must move beyond just pushing products out to transactions-obsessed marketing funnel models. Instead, they must focus on crafting emotional connections and loyalty by building engaging communities and “worlds” that target customers want to actively participate in.

I sat down with Josh to lay out six key strategies he employs at Ten Thousand to create standout, cult-like branding in the competitive activewear space. Applicable across industries, these tips will help brand marketers, designers and copywriters learn from Ten Thousand’s success engaging hardcore fitness enthusiasts without losing their brand identity.

Before we dive in, check out the full episode here:

Focus #1: Prioritize Visual Storytelling

Josh stresses that visual storytelling should often take priority over copywriting, especially on fast-paced digital platforms. With extremely short attention spans on sites like Instagram, the right hero imagery and video that instantly convey the emotion and energy of your brand are critical.

“On those paid channels and those performance marketing channels where you really are competing with every other brand in your set and you have half a second to communicate, I would say marketers should really be doubling and tripling down on the quality of their visuals and the quality of their visual storytelling,” Josh advises.

Ten Thousand puts this into practice with every new product launch and campaign. Their focus is always on leading with dramatic, inspiring imagery of serious athletes pushing to their limits while wearing and testing Ten Thousand gear. Taglines, while still extremely important, take a backseat to showcasing both the breakthrough athletic achievements being enabled by Ten Thousand apparel as well as the gritty and self-improving mindset of its loyal community.

Focus #2: Build Loyalty Through Iteration

In the past, activewear brands would aim to capture customers through frequent releases of entirely new product drops, designs and updates. However, Ten Thousand prefers to take an iterative, customer-centered approach focused on building loyalty over releasing the shiniest new gear options.

As Josh explains, “A lot of brands will just kind of work in a silo, they’ll create products for a given use case and they’ll use their notions or their experiences to build and design those products. We don't leave anything to chance at Ten Thousand. We take very, very seriously the feedback of customers, collect it, sort it, and cut it down into usable morsels that we can then use to inform the future of product design.”

This process of rapid field testing with both pro athletes and everyday hardcore enthusiasts allows Ten Thousand to make constant measured improvements. As customer reviews rave, the result is versatile, durable gear truly optimized for training instead of chasing temporary hype. While Ten Thousand does still introduce brand new categories and products, they balance that with building core year-over-year loyalty through enhancing staple favorites like their best-selling Tactical Short.

Focus #3: Facilitate Participation In Your Community Both Online and IRL

Transitioning from one-way, product-focused messaging to facilitating interactive communities represents the next level of loyalty building. And brands must endeavor to create welcoming communities in the digital and physical world.

As Josh says, “I think you'll see a lot of brands start to utilize AR and VR for retail spaces where you can go and look at the product and see it sway in the breeze. You won't be able to feel it in your hand yet but you will be able to enter a space that's fully curated and fully immersive in the world that a given brand is trying to, you know, convey and create.”

He adds, “I think there will always be a desire for real world experiences. Even when we have digital worlds that we're able to enter at the drop of a hat, I think it will still be important how you show up in the real world where people can come and touch and feel and be with you and share in that camaraderie of a shared experience.”

That’s why Ten Thousand actively cultivates both global virtual community spaces online while also hosting regional customer events like runs, races, conferences and gatherings for their loyal fans to connect in person. They enhance the IRL experiences with special activities and promotions catered specifically to their audience of fitness devotees pursuing self-improvement every day.

Focus #4: Identify Potential Brand Advocates First, Then Equip Them

In terms of finding influencers and ambassadors, Ten Thousand turns the usual model on its head. Instead of recruiting celebrities or even elite athletes first and working down, they deliberately start by identifying lesser-known yet highly engaged micro-influencers already aligned with their ethos.

As Josh explains, “Our ambassador program is more of our grassroots approach to community and kind of trying to tap into these call them, I call them athletes, but many might call them micro influencers who have a unique perspective on training and training culture.”

He continues, “We try and become the support system for them. So we provide them with gear and we help them pay for entry fees for competition. And that's how we have built our ambassador program—by being there as a support system.”

This allows Ten Thousand to harness the creativity and authentic voices of their most passionate fans who live the “better than yesterday” mindset every day. Instead of dictating content from the top-down, Ten Thousand empowers their ambassadors to continue pushing their own fitness limits while spreading brand awareness. The associated discounts, access and gear they receive further strengthens emotional connections to Ten Thousand.

Focus #5: Construct “World Building” Through Holistic Brand Integration

Josh stresses that modern branding must focus on always-on world building across every consumer touchpoint. This expands beyond individual products and ad campaigns to craft the look, feel, sounds, smell and texture of the idealized lifestyle your brand represents.

He points to iconic examples like Ralph Lauren evoking pastoral Northeast Americana luxury without even needing to display the clothing itself. For Ten Thousand specifically, that ethos centers on a viewer always feeling like they are witnessing the moments of all-out exertion, exhaustion and subsequent elation that come from rising to overcome your fitness limits.

Josh emphasizes that new technologies will provide infinite possibilities for interactive, multi-dimensional brand storytelling via VR/AR. Yet at the same time, brands should never abandon tangible, IRL experiential events where people gather to partake in a shared community. Combining the digital and tangible elements of efficiently scalable world building will be the ultimate realization of brand loyalty marketing for future frontrunners like Ten Thousand.

Focus #6: Spotlight Your Core Customer While Maintaining Some Exclusivity

Finally, Josh advocates that new D2C fitness brands avoid the temptation to appear maximally mass market inclusive. In his view, trying to appeal to everyone often waters down the distinct identity and community cultivated by Ten Thousand. Still, he believes diversity and inclusion of all people who share the mindset and psychology of the driven, Type-A personality attracted to the brand.

As he concludes, “Find a subset of customers that lights you up, right? An audience that really aligns with your values and double or triple down on them and make them the focus of your brand.”

Of course, brands must still ensure ethical representation and access in 2024. However, having the courage as an organization to nail a clear perspective on who your prime audience is will bolster marketing efforts. For Ten Thousand, not losing sight of their founding community while allowing some room for aspirational newcomers to join has been crucial in becoming a beloved brand.

In closing, by focusing manically on visual storytelling, loyalty-building iteration and direct customer input, facilitation of online and offline community participation, grassroots brand advocacy development and comprehensively integrating the brand ethos across every consumer touchpoint, Ten Thousand sets an example for other brands aiming to make a mark in 2024.

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