If you read business books and articles, you're bound to be familiar with "branding" — the idea that consumers can and should immediately recognize your business, its logo and what your business stands for. What's special about your company?
If you have a unique selling point — what makes your health club different from the competition — and you are honest with your customers and consistent with that one message, then you are already "branding" yourself even if you didn't know it.
But which companies have intentionally and successfully branded themselves in our industry, and how did they do it?
Best of the brands
One of the best and most-recognizable branding efforts ever in our industry was engineered by Gold's Gym. Are you old enough to remember the muscled bald guy holding the bended barbell? It was on their walls, signs, letterhead and merchandise. Everyone who worked out knew that name and that logo. And Gold's gyms were all about lifting weights.
As Gold's has progressed through the past few decades, they have done away with the old logo and image (which was not modeled after me, by the way), and they have gone more mainstream with their services, club designs and marketing efforts to target the "average" consumer. Their clubs are well designed, with plenty of cardio and top-notch entertainment systems, luxurious locker rooms (tile showers) and great classes. And their ads portray these new services as being for everyone, not just bodybuilders.
Curves is another example of truly great branding. The company targets deconditioned (curvy) women who want a non-intimidating place to exercise. The clubs are small, for women only and typically owned/managed by women. The equipment is simple, easy to operate and arranged in a circuit to encourage social interaction. The clubs are often only open a few hours a day (mid-mornings after the kids are dropped off at school and early evenings after dad gets home to watch the kids for a spell).
Their logo is the word "CURVES" in a wavy (curvy!) font. The company uses regular people, not models, in their ads. When you see that name, you immediately know what it represents.
Planet stands out
That said, fewer and fewer brands seem recognizable in today's market. The two largest players in our industry are Life Time Fitness and LA Fitness. Neither has a distinct logo, nor is either recognized as having a special or unique selling point in the eyes of the consumer. Both run large, well-appointed facilities, but does anything specific come to mind when you hear either of those names?
Planet Fitness is an exception. Its color scheme — purple and yellow — jumps out at the consumer, and everyone knows that the Planet Fitness name represents a $10-per-month membership. The clubs are designed to accommodate large numbers of "regular" people with almost no free weights (no bodybuilders to intimidate people) and lots and lots of cardio equipment. They offer free pizza once a week, because who doesn't love pizza? They are all about the average person who just wants to come in and walk on the treadmill for a while. And they convey their image forcefully, with "JUDEGEMENT FREE ZONE" emblazoned on interior walls.
You might be disappointed to learn that we didn't put any special effort into branding our own company when we started, but we did do some things right, even if it was by accident. We did not, early on, choose a unique name meant to convey something special to the customer. Elevations was the name of the club when we bought it, and we figured that it was already well known in the community, so why change it and create confusion for the consumer?
We did immediately change the logo to a "smiling barbell," which matched up with our slogan as "the friendliest club in town" — a slogan that came from an ad guy who designed a print ad for us. The smiling barbell and the marketing phrase "the friendliest club in town" helped establish us as a club where the average person, who maybe has never worked out before, would feel comfortable.
We also offered not one but three orientation sessions designed to help integrate new members into the club. We trained our staff to be "aggressively friendly." Say hello to everyone, and when you see someone who looks lost, ask if they need help. Our goal was to make sure that our marketing efforts matched up with our services when consumers walked in the door. We were building our reputation.
A logo with legs
About 10 years ago, as the club had grown in membership and we were ready to expand our services, we decided we needed a new, cleaner, more professional-looking logo. So we hired a local marketing firm and paid several thousand dollars to design our current logo — the running man — something that said to our customers: we're about being active, and we aren't a fly-by-night gym.
A few years later we discovered that the image was clip art from the internet — not an original design (a funny story now; not so funny then). But it has served us well. At the same time, we added and upgraded our services to match this new image. We added a pool and expanded our class offerings so we could appeal to a larger population with services that were about being "active," rather than just losing weight or bulking up.
So while branding can be an important concept, you'll find that if you do one thing really well — better than other clubs, if they do it at all — and if you shout it from the rooftops, people will associate your business with that reality. Your brand will register.
This article originally appeared in the July | August 2017 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Build the brand that best reflects your business image" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.