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It's Time to Rebrand the Fitness Industry

Last month at the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) 2010 convention and trade show, Malcolm Gladwell, author of “Blink” and “Tipping Point,” offered a keynote address in which he called for a revolution in the fitness industry through a rebranding of exercise.

I support Gladwell's call. Fitness facilities attract just 16 percent of the population, and many of those members are recirculated from other clubs. For many of those members, exercise has become a way of life and something that some of them actually enjoy. However, “enjoy” and “exercise” are not words that go together for the rest of the population. And health clubs have a bad reputation among many in the deconditioned population that years of improvements have yet to erase.

So, how do we rebrand exercise and fitness facilities? When businesses in other industries rebrand themselves or their products, they do so with the help of a large branding company and advertising agency with lots of creative people and research behind them. Who would pay for that in our industry? Some people might point to IHRSA, but IHRSA represents only a segment of the fitness industry. Nonprofits, hospitals, universities and city rec centers make up much of the rest of the market. Based on past disagreements among these groups, I don't see these entities sitting down together to determine a new brand.

What if we don't need a branding company or an advertising company? What if we already have the new brand, but we just haven't marketed it well enough? When I interviewed Patricia Laus, owner and CEO of The Atlantic Club, Manasquan, NJ, for this month's Executive Insights, she mentioned that her company's mission is “expanding wellness, extending life.”

Wellness. What a soft and positive word. It's also a word that has popped up repeatedly during the past 20 years but for some reason has not caught on completely. Who doesn't want to be well? Many hospital health clubs use this term for their fitness centers. And, in my opinion, deconditioned people are more likely to join a fitness facility associated with their hospital than a for-profit facility.

Wellness also encompasses more than just the physical. It encompasses the mental and spiritual as well, and more people today understand the importance of taking care of all three areas.

Of course, just calling your club a wellness center isn't enough. You actually have to deliver on the promise of wellness through programs that teach people how to eat right, how to relax, how to connect with others and how to take care of their bodies. These centers would need to be low pressure and exude an attitude of service rather than sales.

Not every health club may be cut out to be a wellness center because they aren't set up to provide all these offerings, but a lot of facilities are. They just need to change their marketing to reflect that.

Gladwell said that to make any revolution happen, an industry needs people to bring it to life. Those people include connectors (people with connections to various groups who can put that revolution into play), and mavens (people who can take a complex issue and make it manageable). Club operators often have the connections in their community to do this. And we have plenty of people who can take the complex nature of fitness and make it manageable. We just need to start doing this one fitness center — or should I say, wellness center — at a time.

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