Branding a business is not necessarily advertising (not by itself, anyway) a catchy slogan or even a hot logo. Many believe that branding is more of an active endeavor than just placing an ad or slapping a logo on stationery. While these are most certainly steps toward building a business' brand, the real key to branding is developing a personal relationship between members (or potential members) and the business (in our industry, the health club). Moreover, the brand you build is itself a name that conveys expectations and lets members know what they can expect from one club over another.

This distinction between advertising and branding is important in an industry such as fitness with very few major national brands. It means that small and mid-sized clubs can compete with the larger chains without having to go dollar for dollar in the advertising world.

“In reality, the big guys in fitness don't do that great of a job when it comes to branding, when you compare them to leaders in other industries,” says Jim Tenuto, CEO of Renaissance Executive Forums of San Diego, which builds executive forums on various business and marketing topics. “Which makes it possible for small and mid-sized companies to have a real presence in their markets.”

But just because smaller clubs are on an even keel in terms of branding with their bigger competition doesn't mean they should try and think like them. According to Linda Talley, a Houston-based business coach, and author of Business Finesse: Dealing with Sticky Situations in the Workplace and the Daily Win, if you follow the competition, you won't make your club appear unique.

“Most businesses think branding takes big bucks and high-paid consultants. It just takes imagination, innovation and guts,” says Talley. “You can try to play in the big-money arena, but it isn't the way to go. You have to play in the service and personality arena and set yourself apart from the crowd.”

Making a Name

To build a name you will, of course, have to do some amount of advertising, be it the local phone book, newspaper or other paid vehicle. But there are many low- to no-cost ways to get your name in front of potential members.

One of the easiest ways is to do what you do best — teach people about fitness, according to several branding and marketing experts. This can be done in several ways — from speaking engagements, through public relations, etc. But first, warns Dave Crowley, principle of Resonate Inc., a Denver-based speaking and consulting company, know what the brand is before you build it.

“My suggestions for any business that wants to create a brand that customers recognize and associate with good things is to make promises and keep them. Every successful enterprise, including health clubs, becomes “known” for certain things. They consistently deliver over a long time so customers know what to expect,” says Crowley. “Once a health club knows its promises and consistently deliver them, all the word-of-mouth advertising begins to play a major role in attracting new members.”

Now that a direction for the brand has been established (i.e. high-end boutique, certain age demographic, sports-specific, etc.) the club is ready to get out there and let people know it not only a place to take an aerobics class, but a place where they can get high-level information and service as well.

One of the most cost-effective and low-effort ways of establishing the club and its staff as experts — and getting free exposure to an interested group — is to search for speaking engagements. In fact, local, state and national groups create over 100,000 opportunities every year to speak in front of potential customers, according to Vickie Sullivan, author of Speak to Sell.

“Speaking in front of another organization's group serves three purposes at one time,” says Sullivan. “First, it allows your organization to stand out as an expert from a third-party endorsement. In other words, you're not just blowing your own horn. Secondly, you move publicity and outreach into the hands of the third-party. You get all of the exposure the event does without any costs or time from you or your staff. Lastly, you are building a database and relationships with only a time investment.”

But, warns Sullivan, remember to speak on the topic, not using the time to promote your club only. “One of the biggest mistake a speaker can do is not have faith in the information, turning the engagement into a chance to pitch from the podium,” she says. “The backlash from that can be huge. People see it as a waste of their time and money, hurting your brand rather than helping it. If you provide them with quality information they'll learn your name.”

Pitching during a presentation is also a black mark when utilizing public relations (PR), or earned media, to make your mark, explains Brian Pia, vice president of Birmingham, AL-based Luckie Strategic Public Relations. This can be damaging to an overall branding campaign because, although not as effective as advertising for building frequency, PR can be far more impactful for building a brand on a budget.

“Using PR is a way to compete with the bigger advertising budgets of some larger companies, without investing anything more than some time and good ideas,” says Pia. “Every major daily has a health editor, and so do local TV stations. And believe me they are hungry for ideas to fill space in the paper or a segment on a two- or three-hour morning talk show.”

The good ideas, adds Pia, may be the hardest part of this equation.

“The key to getting placement in a paper or on a TV show is making sure the story idea you are pitching is newsworthy and prove to the editor or producer that the audience will get something out of it,” he says. “Once you can prove that you will still have to prove how the club can help facilitate this with its unique perspective and knowledge — show them your stuff.”

Teaming Up

While striking out on your own through speaking engagements, PR, advertising, etc., teaming with a more established brand — either local or national — is another way to help get the club's name to a wider audience.

“There are plenty of natural partners available for the health club industry such as sporting goods stores, nutrition stores, even medical facilities,” says Nancy Padberg, vice president of promotions at The Phelps Group, a Santa Monica, CA-based integrated marketing communications agency, which boasts clients such as Countrywide, Bushnell Sports Optics, and Pepperdine University. “But there are others that may not be so obvious, so you need to look for strengths and weaknesses, similar target markets, customer lifestyles, etc. You have to keep your eyes open for any fit that will help get your brand out to more people.”

In fact, Padberg says that The Phelps Group helped pair the unlikely duo of her client Petco, the nations largest pet store chain, and Bally Total Fitness.

“At first the pairing of Petco and Bally seems like a stretch, but a closer look shows it's not,” explains Padberg. “Petco has partnered with 122 companies that target the lifestyle needs of pet pamperers. The average Bally customer fits that demographic — they are active people that want to workout and take care of their pets, assuming they have them. Conversely, the Petco customer wants to take care of their pet, and may want to workout.” Padberg suggests looking for local businesses catering to the active lifestyle market such as clothing stores or adventure travel companies where overlaps exist with health clubs members.

In fact, Don Elfant of Elfant Marketing tracked a similar trend of seemingly unrelated companies partnering successfully over the last few years while he was co-publisher of OnSite Fitness magazine.

“Over the last year we saw hotels and resorts taking existing brands and integrating them into their business,” recounts Elfant. “The hotel's restaurant may be a Bennigan's as opposed to its own. The theory is that the restaurant company knows its business and has a name brand. And the restaurant gets the benefit of being associated with a well-known hotel brand. That can easily be done with a major or local health club providing its name and expertise to a hotel, corporate, apartment or any market where a fitness facility exists.”

Follow Up

Regardless of the method chosen to build a brand, experts advise having a continuity plan in place to fully take advantage of the buzz your name is creating.

“If you speak or do any kind of a promotional event a big mistake is not having a logical next step,” advises Sullivan. “Always have a list of workshops or other events to invite people into your facility. You have to capitalize on the opportunities these events bring by focusing other marketing tools around your appearances.”

Luckie Strategic Public Relations' Pia agrees that it is important to provide a place to go for the reader or viewer of a TV segment.

“It is the editor's or producer's natural reaction to advance the story and leave the audience with something more,” he says. “This is a great place to get a plug in for a workshop, program, seminar at your club without having to pay to advertise it. And, it flat-out beats advertising for getting an audience through the door.”

No matter how much exposure you are building for your brand, don't expect a floodgate to open each and every time you get some exposure. Building a brand takes time in planning, executing, and finally awareness from the masses.

“It can take up to two years to really get your brand to become synonymous with the service you provide. The key is not to stop too soon with branding efforts,” says Talley. “You have to slap your logo/brand on everything, and keep plugging away with your message. It won't happen in six weeks, but if you are involved and consistent it will happen.”

PROMISES, PROMISES

Dave Crowley of Resonate Inc. says the key to building a brand is to make promises to customers and potential customers — and keep them. What are examples of health club promises? Crowley says to “Forget ‘quality service’ and other generic descriptors that ‘everyone’ uses and get specific.” Here are some ideas:

  • Convenient (close to demographic, early/late hours, quick check-in, towel service, lockers for everyone)
  • Knowledgeable (experts for weight loss, muscle toning, work out plans, library services)
  • Safe (secure from parking lot to door, provide instruction on safe use on equipment)
  • Clean (showers, equipment, facility in general)
  • Family-oriented (bring the whole family, games available, day care, sports teams for everyone, special classes)
  • Nutrition products (supplements, diet and nutrition advice, refreshments)
  • Socializing (planned events, leagues, singles events)
  • Specialized (diet clinic, running clinic, aerobics clinic)
  • Exclusivity (catering to upper class, expensive, high-end everything, power lunches/dinners)
  • Comfort (extra towels, valet service, personal lockers, saunas, massages)