Media Planning and Buying Marketing Health

Gyms have worked out a new way to market themselves in January but will they see gains?

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By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

January 12, 2023 | 10 min read

The fitness sector has long capitalized on our best-intentioned New Year’s resolutions, but many gyms are flexing away from these tried-and-tested market tropes. The Drum explores.

Gym marketing

Gyms are working hard to stand out in January, many reel against fad exercise

For gym and health brands, it’s a crowded market in January. After a month (at least) of holiday excess, many look to get back into a fitter, more fulfilling life, which for years has resulted in a surge of interest in gym memberships. That’s evidenced in this Google Trends graph (from 2004). You don’t need me to tell you which month is January in each year.

Trends

But this burst of interest in the sector quickly wanes into February and it may be foolish to create a brand that fades just like that. While many gyms wrestle for this market share, some have diverged from the norm this year to stand out and win.

And they’ve done it by sounding a bit different. But if many do it, does it just become a new norm?

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Equinox

equinox manifesto out of home

Arguably the loudest, most against-the-grain campaign comes from luxury fitness company Equinox. It went big with an out-of-home campaign, claiming ‘We don’t speak January’, calling the month a “farce”. It instead promotes long-term commitment to one’s fitness goals. Actions speak louder than words, so the gym banned new sign-ups in January.

This one proved controversial but arguably seized media headlines, created a sense of exclusivity around the premium brand and rewarded loyal customers who stuck with their routine (or membership).

Gymshark

Next is not a gym but a gym apparel company. Gymshark has come out of the gates this year with some uninspiring stats. It says 80% of resolutions fail because they are too big. Its January advertising campaign urges people not to adopt unsustainable workouts. For February, it asks potential customers to ‘Dream Small’. It’s not the first brand to put down New Year’s resolutions. It won’t be the last either, but there’s something refreshing about its honesty. This is information that’ll help people stay the course in the long term.

Peloton

And then there’s Peloton, the at-home fitness brand, which is out to prove it’s not just a pandemic flash in the pan and that the sector is here to stay. Its latest campaign dispelled a couple of commonly held beliefs about the brand: that people don’t stick with it; that it is just for elitists; and that the home exercise equipment serves as a clothes horse.

The spot is very much focused only on consumers’ perception of at-home fitness and its success will make or break the fortunes of the following gym brands on this list.

Gymbox

Gym

In its mission to stand out, Gymbox built upon its ‘Anything Goes’ end line in an out-of-home campaign just as we were all dragging ourselves back to work. It embraced a graffiti style that contrasts with the ‘the grunt and grind’ of traditional gym ads.

Rory McEntee, brand and marketing director at Gymbox, said: “When did gym culture get so serious and weird? AMV has done a great job at helping us cut through the bulls**t because there’s no right way or wrong way to work out.”

Planet Fitness

Meanwhile, Planet Fitness remarked on the low energy many feel after the festive season in a humorous spot. The campaign adopts the tropes of the American prescription drug companies, certainly helping it stand out.

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The Gym Group

And this one debuted in the final quarter of 2022 but likely serves as a strong recruiter for the brand as we move into 2023. It took an irreverent response with a banger song urging people to show their gym face, casting off fears they'll look silly. Everyone’s all about the gains after all. This one’s an earworm that sticks in mind for its message and savvy execution. Read more here.

Expert opinion

To explain the marketplace, The Drum invited Tom White, chief strategy officer at AMV BBDO to talk us through Gymbox campaign. And Danny Hunt, creative director at Lucky Generals talked us through the work from The Gym Group.

First, Hunt tells us The Gym Group “invented” the low-cost gym category and has a mission to democratize fitness. Much of that is about being “real” with audiences, being accessible and growing the category. He says: “We know how intimidating a gym can be and we offer a supportive and affordable environment for everyone.”

If you refer back to the Google trends image at the top of the article, you’ll notice that searches for gyms did drop during the pandemic. The lockdowns hurt the industry and it appears to have come back stronger and more confident than ever. Hunt says: “Consumer behavior has certainly changed post-pandemic. In a world of hybrid working, there’s a need for gyms to offer multi-gym access and more generally, there’s an expectation that a gym should work around our lifestyle, rather than the other way around. But the cost of living crisis feels like the most prevalent barrier to fitness at the moment, so we’re working with The Gym Group to do all we can to show people that we’re with them.”

He said: “‘New year, new me’ feels like a really tired narrative that people are proactively trying to avoid.” For the Gym Group, there’s a real focus on driving sign-ups all year round. And as for customer retention, it urges exercisers to set realistic goals.

Next, Gymbox came to market with some provocative out-of-home work. White tells us that he believes that “gym culture can be an off-putting experience. A place to go to work up a sweat but sap your personality. It’s all reps, sets, and routine.”

Gymbox is conceived as “part fitness club, part nightclub” with locations built by the same architects who delivered Manchester’s iconic nightclub Hacienda. It needed to position itself as “an antidote to boring gyms.” White claims that gyms and fitness clubs in Europe lost 15% of their members and a third of their revenue during the pandemic as lots of people chose to work out at home. And he has seen spending on home fitness going down (sorry Peloton). He believes that positioning the gym as a social hub will serve as a winner for the brand.

As for the wider market, White argues that “motivational quotes are endemic in our culture, with Facebook and Instagram in particular riddled with ‘profound’ messages. But you can only be bombarded with these things for so long before they start to feel a bit cringe.”

Gymbox data (a survey of 2,500 Londoners) revealed that almost half of respondents (48%) cite outdated motivational fitness quotes as their biggest turn-off, followed by intimidating environments (21%) and body transformation images (16%).

The world was ready for a “more honest and light-hearted approach to making people feel more at ease when working out.”

How to do it wrong

When prompting people to pursue healthier lifestyles, some gym and supplement brands can cross the line into fat shaming. In 2016, Fit4Less and Gold’s Gym both dealt with backlashes on this front. And can we ever forget the most famous foot-in-mouth example, Are You Beach Body Ready?

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