March 16, 2020 was a day that I will never forget. As a resident of Los Angeles, CA, you would think this day would stand out because this date coincided with the closing of all non-essential businesses, and the start of stay at home orders in the county resulting from the COVID-19 Pandemic. But for me, this was the date I received an email from Equinox Fitness communicating that all locations would be closed for the foreseeable future.
One of Equinox’s main catchphrases is “It’s not Fitness, It’s Life.” Like many of its members, I attempt to embody the slogan with the way that I approach fitness. I don’t just see it as a necessary evil to stay in shape, but truly a part of my lifestyle; I view it as an outlet to build mental fitness, as well as physical fitness. I also utilize it as an opportunity to better myself by engaging with a positive community environment where most of these experiences take place at the gyms themselves.
Almost immediately, I started to ponder what effects closures of all fitness brands would have on consumers and their respective relationships with these brands. In terms of responses, what we witnessed ranged the gamut. Some gyms were really at a loss and just focused on email communications to empathize with their customers while freezing membership fees. Others were able to separate their businesses by adapting their program designs and distribution to meet the changing needs of consumers which I believe will become part of the “new normal” for brands moving forward.
Challenges for Fitness Brands and Consumers During the Pandemic
With the mandate of closures for non-essential businesses came a few challenges for fitness brands including:
- Engaging with consumers whose previous primary brand interactions were at physical gyms and retail locations
- Motivating consumers to stay physically fit within the constraints of being at home with limited equipment/resources
- Keeping internal employees/trainers engaged as well by providing support to help them engage directly with their supporters/clients
Some brands were able to evolve from these challenges by focusing marketing efforts towards engagement through digital means to allow their customers to work out in the confines of their own homes, while others were not as quick to adapt. Some brands already had competitive advantages in that they had digital distribution available through their mobile apps, but others were also able to evolve in creative ways to meet these new consumer demands.
Separation by Pivoting to Digital First for the Consumer
Equinox made an interesting strategic decision to push up the launch date of its digital app, Variis, which allowed its current members to access the app and its massive content library for free. During these trying times it was a great move to help bridge the gap for consumers while access to physical locations wasn’t available. True to its brand as well, Equinox had a large focus on the production value of its workouts and armed its trainers with great tools and environments to make the workouts appealing and doable at in-home environments.
Two other interesting examples I observed were with Peloton and a local Triathlon-themed club based out of Southern California, called Trifit LA Club and Studios. Peloton – known mostly for its indoor cycling based digital classes, made a pivot with its digital app and acquisition offer. Instead of offering a 30-day free trial, Peloton extended the offer to 90-days as it realized more people would be home and in the market for more content available at home. Ironically, this change was announced on March 16th. Additionally, Peloton evolved its content library to feature at home workouts at its trainers’ homes; this was a great pivot to connect with consumers during the pandemic.
Trifit Studios is an example of a predominately physical gym that was able to adapt in a different manner. TriFit didn’t have a digital app in its near-term strategic plans, but launched a weekly series of engaging Zoom fitness sessions to its member base; this was an extremely effective way to maintain engagement with members during the lockdown and allowed for some level of interaction between members to simulate a community environment.
The lockdown during the pandemic has been very trying for fitness brands and consumers, as all parties have had to adjust to the new barriers. Adapting the availability of fitness content, coaching, and nutritional guidance has been crucial during this time, and will continue to be greatly important in the future. Even as physical gyms re-open, many consumers will continue to split time between working out at home vs. at the gym. Consumers have become accustomed to working out at home over the last few months, and fitness brands will have to evolve by providing quality distribution of their fitness platforms in both environments to keep customers engaged. Additionally, I believe a huge opportunity exists to align content focus with fitness leadership, trainers, and influencers as well to build or maintain brand awareness. During the pandemic, a huge trend for consumers was to participate in individual workouts with trainers during live or pre-recorded Instagram sessions. Trainers who were able to build up large followings from these activities should be leveraged to help enhance a fitness brand to further provide access to content that meets consumer demand.
For more information about thought leadership Merkle has produced in Health and Wellness, please see more content here.