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A Lesson from the Golden Arches

I'm generally not a big fan of McDonald's. Despite the fast food chain being part of my childhood, it has little allure for me today. Of course, I don't have kids who beg to go to McDonald's every time they see the golden arches in the distance. That cry for McDonald's from the back seat of the SUV occurs because McDonald's is a master of branding, and with their Happy Meals, toy giveaways and playlands, they've done their job well. In fact, they've done it so well that a recent study from the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital found that a majority of 3- to 5-year-old children who were presented McDonald's food in McDonald's packaging rated that food as tasting better than McDonald's food packaged in a generic wrapper. For that masterful way of creeping into the psyche of children, I applaud the company.

If only the health club industry could do the same. Just think of it. As hundreds of parents with children in tow drive down your street and see your club's sign, the children cry out in unison that they want to go to your gym. Better yet, think of delving into the psyche of adults deep enough that when they see your sign, they smile and think, “Ah, I must go to the club and get in a good workout today.”

Unfortunately, too many fitness facilities don't know what their brand is, and if they have defined it, they often haven't effectively marketed it. That's why one club seems like the next to most people. McDonald's stands apart from other fast food chains because they defined their brand long ago — they are an affordable, fun and family-friendly location for fast food. Club owners who can't define their brand in one sentence need to remedy that and then ensure that their staff can also define their brand using the same sentence.

So how do club owners effectively communicate their brand? The Stanford study found that the more TV sets children had in their homes and the more times they ate at McDonald's each week, the more likely they were to rate the food packaged in McDonald's wrappers as better tasting. It seems exposure is the key.

Take the equipment in your club. In addition to your research on your equipment choices, you probably chose your equipment based on the brand of the manufacturer. That brand was developed through the ads you've seen, the articles you've read and the exposure you've had to the company at trade shows. You'll stick with them until another manufacturer convinces you of their superiority.

Advertising in a local newspaper or on TV can be a great way to communicate your brand, but it can be expensive and reach a broader group of people than smaller club chains or single club operators need to reach. For these club owners, direct mail may work better. But for clubs of any size, you can't beat just getting out there and speaking with community, religious, government or corporate groups about fitness. The personal touch does a lot to distill fears about fitness facilities that many people harbor, and your professional representation of your club with all its branded marketing materials and brochures helps to build your brand in their eyes. Sponsorship of local charity or community events also helps sear a brand image into the minds of the public.

Most club owners don't have the millions in ad dollars that McDonald's has, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't create a brand and market it so that everything inside your packaging seems a bit tastier than the competition. After all, survival depends on standing apart from the crowd.

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