The best lessons in building a business can be found in fitness
Written by Nicholas Mizera
Illustrations by Robert John Paterson
Fitness movements are changing the way that people look at the world. Calling themselves clubs, crews, packs, teams, and tribes, these collectives have attained almost cult-like status among athletes and average Joes by pushing the boundaries of health and wellness, making the act of self-improvement about so much more than individual achievement.
Once a verb conjugated in the singular, exercise is now a squad of bikes spinning in synchrony, or a crowd of runners threading through rush-hour foot traffic. Harnessing group energy to motivate, inspire, and excite, their chosen few define themselves through the activities they share, the beliefs they espouse, and the lifestyle they live—forget a gym membership, this is a religion.
It’s this type of fervent dedication that brands and businesses can only dream of achieving among their customers, though we’re seeing more of it every day. Simple brand recognition, once a hallmark of success, is being outmoded by a new definition of customer loyalty where consumers don’t just consume, they live, breathe, and self-identify with a company’s core values. In other words, they’re true believers. Looking to the fitness world for inspiration, here’s what brands and businesses stand to learn about earning cult status.
There’s a reason the euphoria of exercise can be habit-forming. Our brains release endorphins during physical activity, stimulating some of the same pleasure centers as our favourite mind-altering substances—or retail therapy. Going beyond chasing the runner’s high, however, are movements such as SoulCycle in New York and the Vancouver-based Ride Cycle Club. Like many fitness trends, the relatively new phenomenon of indoor cycling often emphasizes the pack (everyone’s doing it) and aims to make adherents feel good with positive affirmations.
Importantly, it couples these hits of endorphins with an experience that goes beyond simple sweat service. The result is something that’s part full-body cardio and part mindful inspiration. “The xperience is powerful both physically and mentally. Riders lose themselves,” says Gabby Etrog Cohen, SVP PR and Brand Strategy at SoulCycle. “They come for the workout but stay for the breakthroughs.” When a brand goes beyond a logo or a product and becomes a contagious experience that customers want to repeat over and over again, they’ll win hearts, minds, and sometimes even souls.
Some of the most popular fitness movements—the big billboard types—aren’t just something you do: they’re where you go, what you wear, and how you think. Enter the 360-degree lifestyle brand. Appearing in every corner of our lives and tapping into who people are or want to be, they’re a social shorthand that helps willing followers define their lives. In the case of Lululemon’s company constellation—which encompasses everything from clothing, to yoga classes, to community hubs—the success can be partly attributed to consistency.
Whether in social media feeds, on the backs of brand disciples, or even in the tone of a yoga instructor’s voice, the look and feel of Lululemon is unmistakable. It’s a slightly expanded take on the formula originally hit upon by superbrand Nike, whose swoosh has been largely unchanged since the early 70s despite appearing on everything from shoes to personal electronics. According to a 2000 company study still touted today, sticking to the formula has earned Nike a 97 percent brand recognition among Americans.
Framing activity as healthy competition can be a greater motivator than even the best coach, and an excellent way to keep people engaged with an activity or brand. Movements like CrossFit have long asked individuals to raise their personal expectations, making competition a cornerstone of their practice and giving members the opportunity to vie for the honour of being the fittest on earth (their words, not ours) at the international Crossfit Games competition, now in its 10th year. And this approach works.
According to a 2016 study in Preventive Medicine Reports, individuals who engaged in competition during fitness classes are motivated to log nearly twice as many gym hours as their non-competitive counterparts. Similarly, involving customers with contests engages them on an emotional level by asking them to invest time to interact with a brand directly. According to the Harvard Business Review, these emotionally engaged customers are twice as valuable as highly satisfied ones: they buy often, keep up with brand news, trust a company’s advice, and more.
It’s us versus them. There’s a lot to be said about being the best, the most expensive, the most luxurious. Upscale gyms have long used the promise of bragging rights and status to motivate new members to sign up, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that luxury fitness chains like Equinox took the concept out of the country club and made it...well, still quite inaccessible. But it goes beyond slapping a biometric entry on your front door to keep the rabble out (though that certainly helps). Not being for everyone is a psychological tactic that plays on our need for prestige and self-fulfillment—needs that conveniently sit atop Maslow’s hierarchy—and are two common reasons why we join fitness movements in the first place.
In the marketing world, we see this in the purchase of luxury products. Yale colourfully terms it “snob value” in a 2014 study of the topic, noting customers buying into exclusive luxury brands like Tiffany and Co. can be motivated by a two-pronged desire to associate themselves with traits that these labels symbolize—taste, wealth, power—and to differentiate themselves from groups who don’t. Paradoxically, it seems, the more exclusive the club, the more we want to fit in.
“Everyone can be part of the tribe” is the affirmational message behind social fitness movements that find strength in numbers and pride themselves in being accessible at all levels. These groups are often built around the element of community—who you sweat with is as important as how hard you work out. But that’s not to say you’ll get off easy. Confirming a long-held suspicion, a 2012 Annals of Behavioral Medicine study found that individuals who partnered up experienced the best results during aerobic exercise, especially when they pushed one another (and pushing one another is a signature trait of these groups). Multiply that by a crew the size of Nike Run Club—or independent run groups like Parkdale Road Runners and Tribe Fitness—and you have the motivation necessary to get the masses moving. “Our runners continuously inspire each other,” says Heather Gardner, Tribe’s founder. “People feel valued and they know they matter, and that's what keeps them coming back.”
Oh, never heard of archery tag? You’re not alone. But that won’t stop its adherents from pledging loyalty to the brand-new arena-based sport (until the next thing comes along, anyway). Consumer fickleness can be both a good and necessary force. In the fitness world, fads have long played a role in pushing the industry forward and fomenting the innovation that keeps people exploring new ways to be active. (Consider that one of today’s most widely accessible pastimes—jogging—was thought to be a passing fad back in the 70s.) Beyond fitness, being on the bleeding edge of a new trend is also a powerful motivator. A 2015 study by innovation research firm Lab42 confirms that even just the perception of newness is usually enough to make a new concept appear “cool,” and as many as a third of individuals will adopt it to appear innovative themselves.
But trends don’t always mean innovation, if the resurgence of organized dodgeball teams and ultimate leagues across the continent is any indication. There’s also something to be said about the cyclical nature of fads that drives participation (just ask the fashion industry). A 2015 Jinan University review of nostalgic marketing notes that making the old new again is a particularly successful way to encourage an emotional response from consumers.
No matter how difficult it is, no matter how cool it is, no matter how it makes you feel, what really matters is if a movement gets people the results they want. For many, that can mean losing weight and boosting sex appeal, but among the most popular fitness movements, there’s a common refrain that the benefits go beyond physical health. Confidence, resilience, goal making, perseverance—not to mention better decision-making and a better social life—are all measurable benefits to most, if not all, social fitness movements. “You want to eat better, you want to get more sleep, and you start making healthier choices. We have seen incredible and inspiring transformations,” says SoulCycle’s Cohen. The concept is a cornerstone of good business: a product that delivers on its promises creates customers for life, independent of marketing efforts.