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Be incomparable

“It’s really hard to design products (…). Most of the time people don’t know what they want until you show it to them” - (Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Inc.)

What gyms can learn from Apple

The number of health club providers is steadily growing and fitness enthusiasts are spoiled for choice; but it is difficult for them to distinguish between the offers. Budget, club or premium supplier, every facility has a similar range of equipment and many offer the same courses. The product is interchangeable. As such, it is important for fitness clubs to distinguish themselves from the competition and to become incomparable.

A brand build loyalty beyond reason

Kevin Roberts, CEO, Saatchi & Saatchi

For new customers, membership pricing is confusing and the choice of a studio is already an exercise in itself because the choices are overwhelming. What does this mean for the fitness businesses?
In the modern world, fitness operators must develop a unique proposition and positioning in the market: they need to develop a brand. Operators should ask themselves these two simple questions:

  • What does my business, my club and my brand represent?
  • What are we doing to attract both new and existing clients?

In other market sectors this is happening regularly. Brands seem to have found a formula that makes them irresistible – regardless of whether the competitors’ products are better or not. Careful observation of such market leaders may provide valuable insights into how develop your own brand.

Apple’s philosophy

The American company Apple has made it: it has become a brand. But what makes Apple so special? What is Apple, after all? A computer manufacturer? A manufacturer of consumer electronics? Or a music distributor?
One cannot even say that Apple is an innovative company, as they hardly are the first in the market. Rather it is expected that they will join the competition at a later stage, but bring substantial improvements.

Certainly, there are suppliers whose products are better, and yet an Apple consumer will rarely exchange his/her product for another supplier’s, be it an iPhone or MacBook. So what’s their secret?
There is one definitive difference: Apple has a philosophy! “People do not buy the products and services offered by Apple, they buy the idea behind it.” Apple is not a brand just on paper. The company lives its brand, just like the Apple consumers do.

Contact points are available in every area, be it the packaging, the product itself or usage support. They live the brand and follow the “Apple gospel”. What distinguishes Apple across all its products and services is that the company always challenges the status quo, and chooses a different development approach than the others.
In addition, all products must have an outstanding design, must be easy to use and user-friendly. Thus, Apple first revolutionized the computers’ word, and then the music world, phones and credit cards and they will soon bring new challenges to the watches industry.

Brands in fitness

Apple is the best example of a successful brand strategy

How can a fitness studio become a brand? First and foremost, it needs to know what it stands for and what makes it interesting for potential and existing members. Research shows that fitness club operators interviewed about brand positioning primarily listed their defining points as functional training, course formats, spa, etc.

These criteria show only one side of the coin; they fail to take account of the emotional; so the risk of inter-changeability is perpetuated. It is a company but not a brand. This may have a material impact on the lead generation and the retention rate.

The simple questions – What do you do? Who are you? – are often difficult to answer. For the development of their respective mission statements one must, therefore, closely examine the company and its background. What is important here are self-image and public image.
The company must ask itself two important questions:
  • What am I? These include specifics of your own company and the differences between you and your competition. The background of the founder is also important. Is there a founding myth or a special story?
  • What do I want to be? The company must set goals for brand identity. However, the objectives should be limited to facts and figures, but also answer questions like: “Will the gym be focused on medical aspects, or on lifestyle?”

In Germany, McFit is an example of a successful brand in the fitness sector.

Questions like these cannot be answered at senior management level – the whole company should be involved in providing the answer. Opposed to the self-image (the brand identity) is the external image: the perception of the brand in the minds of the relevant target groups, and the condensed presentation of the targeted group.

What image does the brand have in the minds of existing and prospective customers? It is important for a fitness studio to also emotionally touch the (potential) customers, and to map the functional benefits of the brand.
The offers and services are interchangeable between most fitness clubs. For a non-expert, the range of equipment and the course formats are so confusing and interchangeable, that there is hardly a way to differentiate between them. Providers, such as Zumba, Les Mills, ViPR, TRX, etc. offer quick solutions for this problem, but do they reflect the corporate philosophy?

Meanwhile, almost every professional studio has included one of these systems in its programme. The risk: a studio quickly mutates into a supplier sub-brand and loses its own character. A distinction can, therefore, be achieved only through the symbolic benefits of the brand.

Best Practice: McFit

Equinox, a large fitness chain in America, advertises a way of life, not the equipment.
McFit, as a former classic discount supplier, shows just how to consolidate a market position with the establishment of an attitude. Instead of competing against other suppliers in a price war, McFit transforms training into a leisure event and offers its “Home of Fitness” as a second home for its members; a brand promise that cannot be beaten by a competitors’ two-month free offer.

In order to build and to maintain an attractive brand for the customer, the self-image (brand identity) and the public image (brand image) must be united. The value proposition and customer expectations must be met. The more unified the brand and the (potential) members are, the more attractive and emotionally binding the brand is.

It is necessary to consult with your members in order to raise the current image and the perception of the product performance. There are different methods: personal interviews, telephone interviews and online surveys. The biggest challenge is the address data; cooperation with market research firms has proven valuable in this respect.

The examples of Apple and McFit show how much hidden potential lies in identity-based brand management, even if you do not necessarily offer the best or most innovative product. It is important that you have a vision and know why you are doing something – and this vision is relevant to the target audience. This will allow you to set new standards and force your competition to adjust.


In a competitive market with interchangeable products and services a brand image/ identity has great potential and not only in the challenge of attracting new members. In the future, there will increasing competition for the best instructors and employees, so the brand will become increasingly important in recruitment.

A brand makes it easier to recruit qualified coaches, able to inspire the members. This in turn has a positive effect on your customers’ loyalty.

The creation of a brand can inspire and gain the loyalty of (potential) members and staff, it saves time and money and increases your visibility in the market.

So, in light of the above, ask yourself these questions again:

  • What does your business stand for?
  • What makes it appealing for (potential) members?


– Birgit Kuhne-Hellmessen, Christian Kaesmann & Lars Fieck

Birgit, Christian and Lars form the ‘Team of Fitness Experts’ with the independent owner-managed media communications agency of Hamburg & Munich. In their long-standing collaboration with several providers, including, among others, Fitness First, they advise companies in the fitness industry in all aspects of brand management: from strategic brand development, target group analysis, insight research, social media monitoring and the entire service spectrum of media strategies, from planning to purchasing and control in all types of media.

Contact:; [email protected]

There’s still room for improvement!  

Interview with
Ralf Loffler, Managing Partner, Institute for Strategy and Communications,

What significance does the ‘brand’ concept have for fitness studios?
The fitness studios market is now at a cross-road. New players, new devices and services are constantly leading the prospects to a vast offer and also to an excessive demand. A recognizable brand can play a crucial role and simplify the choices.

Do you see any strong brands in the fitness area?
A good example of a strong brand is the American fitness chain Equinox, which offers an emotional brand promise through the addition of product performance. The current campaign, “Equinox made me do it”, entirely ignores promoting the actual product benefits and the focuses clearly on the emotional benefits: “By training at Equinox, you’ll be more confident and develop your personal traits.” I think there is a brand for most providers in the global market, but there is still room for improvement.

How can one get a brand position?
I will try to explain this with a simplified five-point plan:

  • Contextual analysis of the current situation: What are the conditions? It is important to go beyond pure information? You have the motives, you have to identify the driver.
  • Self-analysis: What is our offer? What can we do better? Here it is important to discuss openly, honestly and critically.
  • Set the reference position: What do we want to be, and what can we be? What do we want to stand for? It is not (only) about factual factors! A strong brand position is rather about the emotional sphere. Unusual questions may help you reach a solution: “What would be missing in the market, if we weren’t here?”
  • Definition of the mark: If the position is found, it must be clearly described and defined so that everyone can understand it. As a test: a good brand positioning can be formulated in a crisp sentence.
  • Communication of the brand: How do we stand in contact with the interested parties? What are the right messages? What are the right touch points?
    This is, of course, a greatly shortened description of what actually needs to be done. However, it is necessary to make this branding step, because it will make things easier and more successful in the future.


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