There's something about American Ninja Warrior.
The show's premise is simple. Gather a bunch of people to take on a crazy obstacle course and see who has the perfect mix of agility, grip strength, and mental toughness. In the show's nine season history, only two people have ever fully completed City Qualifiers, City Finals, and Stage 1-4.
So, what is it about American Ninja Warrior that encourages thousands of people to submit videos, wait weeks in the walk-on line, and build courses in their own backyards? In an era when marketing gurus emphasize nailing down a target audience, this show created a nation of ninjas that have no real specific age, gender, or background. It's for everybody.
Arthur Smith, executive producer of the two-time Emmy nominated American Ninja Warrior, explained it to me: "It was always about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. One day you could be watching it and the next day you could be on it."
I mean, I should know. I competed last year.
We don't have to get into the details, but I did the whole shebang - submission video, interviews, on-camera hero shots, you name it. Come 3 a.m. competition time (remember, the show is in the dark), I ran the course and then fell on the last step of the first obstacle. Lame, I know.
Everyone tells me to be proud of the fact that I surpassed 75,000 submissions for a chance to be on the show, but to me, that small mistake was like tripping on a totally paved sidewalk. Regardless, it was still the time of my life.
The Beginnings of American Ninja Warrior
Let's rewind a bit. How did Ninja Warrior even come onto the radar? The show is modeled after the original Japanese ninja warrior, Sasuke. It was getting a major audience on the small network that Smith was working for at the time and he decided to team up with a colleague to launch the American version.
"We believe in telling the story of the people so that when you're watching it, you're vested it in. You feel something for it. You care about it. Over the years, we've had amazing stories," Smith mentioned. ""It's such a broad range. On one show you'll have the CEO of Clif Bar and then you have a homeless guy and then you have a professional athlete and then a mother of three. It's kind of like the American dream."
If you were ever wondering how to tap into that 'everybody' audience category, this is it. Find a story, or in this case, thousands of stories, that resonate.
Build From the Inside Out
Let's take Jessie Graff, a seasoned veteran of the show and professional stunt woman by trade. She's usually competing in fun superhero costumes and absolutely nailing the course in the most effortless fashion.
"When I first saw people hanging from their fingertips, it was outside the realm of what I thought was possible for a human being," Graff told me. "That's the thing that inspires me more than anything else. Thinking something's impossible, trying it anyway, and finding out you can do more than you ever knew."
Many of the competitors do this for a living--starting gyms, owning training businesses, and most importantly, inspiring viewers to become extraordinary. In fact, all 50 states in America are home to at least one ninja warrior gym, making the show an unexpected forerunner to supporting entrepreneurship.
It's a simple trickle-down formula: Choose athletes from all walks of life, share those unique stories with everyone, and turn everyone into the next athlete. Then, add the cherry on top: Make them all friends.
None of this would be possible without the competitors being such big advocates. American Ninja Warrior has created the superfan by starting in its own ranks.
"This is the only show where the ninjas actually root for each other. You know that cliche, never judge a book by its cover? If ever there was a show that embodies that more, it's Ninja, because it's people who don't look like much and they do amazing things," Smith said.
"I think the community is tight-knit," Graff added. "And even if you phrase it differently, we're all on this mission to prove that we can do more than we think we can."
And that's it. Whether you're a TV show trying to create a community or a small business trying to develop raving fans, the final note is to create a brand that is genuine and relatable. You don't have to fit in everyone as your target audience, but find that key that will strike a chord in someone's heart. From there, conquering any obstacle course--ninja or not--suddenly becomes possible.