It was late 2015, and Mark Miller could sense his Baltimore-area health clubs were shedding their skin.
It had been 38 years since Leroy M. Merritt opened his first athletic facility in Towson, Maryland. And inside the clubs that still beared his name—Merritt Athletic Clubs—much had changed. Where Leroy’s first club was primarily a racquetball center, the nine clubs of today offered yoga, dance classes, swimming lessons, strength training and a summer camp for children.
Company executives such as Miller, the chief operating officer, had come to envision the business as more than a string of gyms. It didn’t take long before a spirited debate launched over Merritt’s very name and logo.
“At the time, we said wouldn’t it be really cool if we could just refresh the logo for the next 40 years of our existence?” Miller said. “To have something that is a little bit more modern, little bit more crisper, something that really stands out and pops?”
Miller and his colleagues took the idea to the company ownership, who loved it. By spring 2016, they were knee-deep in a full-fledged rebranding effort that would update Merritt’s name, logo, mantra, website and branding materials.
The verdict was ostensibly simple: Merritt Clubs. But at its core, Miller and Director of Marketing Donyel Cerceo agree the decision represented a bold re-commitment to the company’s culture and values.
“Everybody kind of thought of us as the athletic club, meaning you already have to be in shape to go there," Cerceo said. “We don’t call ourselves a gym because we don’t just have treadmills and strength-training equipment. We have so much more. We have something for every member of the family.”
The new name and logo—a blue-green uppercase letter M—were unveiled at the chain’s clubs as of 2017, marking the company's 40th anniversary. Also in place was a new company-wide mantra: "Fitness that matters."
"Fitness matters to me because I need to lower my blood pressure because I had a heart attack," Cerceo said hypothetically of Merritt members. "I'm a busy mom, and fitness matters to me because I still need to be in shape, but I need to have family time too, so I can bring my kids to the club, and they can have a great time taking dance class or swimming lessons.
It's important to Miller that each of Merritt's nine clubs develops a unique flavor, as demographics and expectations vary from area to area. For example, the suburban facilities will continue to make greater investments in children's programming. And a $17 million construction project at the Canton, Maryland, neighborhood club will add a rooftop pool and sun deck, complete with city skyline views.
The language and images used in club-specific branding materials also deliberately reflect the interests of those particular Merritt members.
It's difficult to estimate a cost for the total rebranding initiative, Miller said, as the rollout is still ongoing. However, he said the project will ultimately pay for itself.
"We never went into it looking at it as a cost," Miller said. "We went into it thinking everything we're doing is an investment, and it's an investment of the future.
"[The rebrand] will drive the energy in the clubs, which will drive member usage, which will drive member referrals," he said. "Staff energy buys loyalty [and] creates better member experiences, because they're more engaging and more happy and more excited about coming to work every day."
Miller attributed much of the rebranding's success to the way in which the project was handled internally. Company executives considered many viewpoints during the process, including market research from a Virginia-based branding firm. (It was this market research that affirmed Miller's belief that the public generally associated Merritt facilities with athletes.)
When the master plan was finally unveiled to employees in 2016, Miller emphasized the "why" behind the rebranding more so than the "what." Any proposed changes couldn't be carried out like a coup, he said. They had to genuinely resonate with both members and employees.
"You have to be willing to get out of the weeds and really start to think at a different level," Miller said. "Because it's easy for operators to get bogged down into what you have to do day to day. ... So you really have to take time away and think strategically about where you want to end up and where you see that going and almost work in reverse back to where you are today."
Merritt will eventually expand with additional locations, but company executives will be highly selective with acquisitions, Miller said. It's about keeping the brand, culture and values intact, he said. Plus, he said opportunities exist to grow within Merritt's existing locations, such as the construction project at the Canton club. (In addition to the pool area, the completed project will add refurbished locker rooms and a 200-space parking garage to the club.)
Miller also said Merritt's consulting services could be an asset for other club owners looking to give their brand a facelift.
"Having gone through this process now, if someone else needs it, being able to hire a Donyel to come in and help—we think that could be beneficial to people," he said. "It's not an easy process. ... And there have been some frustrating moments and times where we were just like, 'Wow, we learned so much.'"