While visiting a client in Wisconsin, I was taken to a wonderful coffee shop where I was told that the coffee was much better than the Starbucks in town. Sure enough, the shop was bigger, more beautiful (with a glowing fireplace on a winter day) and served good coffee. One more thing — the coffee shop was almost empty and was planning to close after only 12 months in business.

Books talk about the importance of a good brand, but does the value of a brand name have the same effect in the club industry as it has in other industries? In other words, will more people be attracted to your club because of a brand name? And if that is true, then what can be done to successfully compete with a brand-name operation if you don't have a brand name?

What is a good brand? It is an image, an identification, a reputation and a recognition of who you are. A strong brand name can help sell a potential member on the perceived value of the service, just as Starbucks' reputation helps it sell a cup of coffee for $4.

A good brand name can add more value to smaller clubs that are less impressive than it can to larger, impressive clubs. For example, Curves is a 1,000-square-foot “non-club” but gets $39 per month. Competing chains trying to capitalize on the concept have not fared well. They have learned that without a brand-name reputation, their small, unimpressive facility does little to motivate people to join.

Why? Curves has created an image that less was more to a particular market segment. Women who walk into Curves have heard that Curves works, even though the facilitites do not look that impressive from a large club point of view.

On the other hand, larger clubs are not as vulnerable to brand-name competition although a brand can be helpful, especially for a new club during the pre-sales phase.

Once larger, quality clubs open, they have a better potential to project a more impressive image and earn themselves a positive reputation, whether or not they have a brand name. This is supported by owners of brand-name clubs that dropped their brand and continued to do well with their club and the additional facilities they opened.

However, brand names clearly offer strength when negotiating a lease and securing financing. Landlords prefer a known name as their tenant. Also, research has shown that when consumers have several choices, they are more likely to fall back to a name they know, simplifying their choice.

The message is clear. If a fitness facility does not have a brand name, it should act and look like it is a major brand. Clubs can project this image with things such as a contemporary logo, service, programming, uniforms, signage, promotional products, a Web site, marketing pieces and a beautiful club environment. Consumers like to think they are joining a state-of-the-art operation, and a well-thought-out brand can definitely communicate this better.

However, many brand-name clubs don't support their own brand well, a practice that weakens both the club and the overall brand. In fact, many franchise chains have eliminated locations that were weakening the brand.

Clubs that have focused little attention on their own brand are missing a necessary piece for their maximum performance. These clubs are ignoring a key component of their marketing effort and are more susceptible to competition. Clubs should objectively evaluate the image they project to their members, employees and marketplace. Following through with productive changes will strengthen their position in an increasingly competitive industry.


Bruce Carter is the president of Optimal Fitness Design Systems International, a club design firm that has created about $420 million worth of clubs in 45 states and 26 countries.