Ep. 43 – How Nobull challenged Reebok (and won), Is Pickleball the next great American sport?, and Liquid Death fuels up to go mainstream

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🏆 How Nobull challenged Reebok (and won)

What they did: Nobull is an interesting case study of a challenger brand that’s been successful in a small segment of a much larger category and is now trying to expand into the mainstream.

Nobull is an athletic footwear and apparel brand that launched in 2015 with a focus on Crossfit – a segment dominated by Reebok and Nike. Seven years later they’ve become a true rival in the Crossfit segment, even bumping Reebok from the title sponsor of the Crossfit Games. Over the last couple years they’ve started expanding outside of CrossFit and into more mainstream sports like golf and American football. They’re still very much a challenger in these segments: they’re attempting to change the category, but haven’t succeeded yet, but they’re using the same strategy that proved successful for them in Crossfit.

  1. They’ve identified and claimed a point of different in the category. Nobull is about “no bullshit” training. It doesn’t pretend that you can get the results without putting in the work. Its ads show people sweating, swearing, and suffering. Sure that might turn some people off, but it stands out compared to a lot of the more “everyone can do it” communications that you see from many of the leading brands.
  2. They’ve gone ‘bottom-up’, not ‘top-down’ in their sponsorship and influencer approach. In Crossfit, and now in other sports, they don’t try to sponsor the biggest game or the most famous athlete right away. They focus on the up-and-comers, the micro and mid-range influencers of the sport. They get a better deal, dollar for dollar, with these sponsorships and get to ride the wave of their partners as they grow in popularity.

Nobull still has a long way to go to become a true rival in the footwear and apparel industry overall, but they have a smart playbook that’s worked for them once and, if they stick to it, could work for them again. Plus, a fresh round of funding on a $500M valuation can’t hurt their chances…

What it means for you: How can you focus on dominating a segment of your category and expanding from there?

🏓 Is Pickleball the next great American sport?

What they did: Pickleball – so hot right now. A few months ago we talked about Gary Vaynerchuk buying a Pickleball team on Punchy, and just last week Lebron James announced he’s now buying a Pickleball team. If you haven’t been following Pickleball’s rapid ascendance towards become a mainstream sport, we’ll catch you up…

Pickleball is like a cross between tennis and paddleball that’s usually played with mixed doubles. It’s also “the fastest growing sport in America” (this is according to Major League Pickleball itself, but still…). Fans include Bill Gates, Kevin Durant, and the Kardashians, and team owners now include Drew Brees, Gary Vee, and Lebron James. Pickleball expects to have 40 million players by 2030.

Sports is a category that we don’t think of as changing all that much. You don’t see different sports going “out of business” or new sports coming into the mainstream all that often. But just like any category, it’s constantly changing. 100 years ago boxing and horse racing were some of the most popular mainstream sports (in America at least), and now they’re much more niche. Baseball and cricket are both struggling to maintain their fan base as faster, more exciting sports take their viewers and advertisers. There’s no reason why a challenger can’t come along and change the category.

Here’s a little Pickleball highlight video for your entertainment (and education, of course).

What it means for you: What do you assume to be fixed about your category that could actually be changed?

🚰 Liquid Death fuels up to go mainstream

What they did: We’ve covered Liquid Death before, but we can’t not cover them again with the recent news that they raised a new round of funding that VALUES THE BUSINESS AT $700M. Yes, that’s two zeros and an M.


We’re the people who get the value of brand the most, but this is water in a can, people.

Go check out some of their advertising. They’re doing a lot of things right and executing many of the plays from the challenger playbook well. They’re clearly connecting with and delivering value for a specific community and have found a point of differentiation in a crowded industry. But a $700M valuation means their investors think they can translate that community value and category disruption into broader mainstream value and a redefinition of the category. That’s the part we’re skeptical about.

I mean, comparing them to Tesla reminds us of WeWork claiming they were a technology company when they were just selling real estate.

“Like Tesla moved drivers toward better-for-the-planet EVs through sleek a great product and brand that became part of culture, Liquid Death is moving people toward healthier and sustainable drinking options”

But hey, the value of your company is what someone is willing to pay for it. Best of luck to Liquid Death!

What it means for you: What category conventions can you challenge in your advertising?

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