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Brand Identity Confusion

With the pressure to know multiple class formats, now more than ever group fitness instructors can benefit from personal branding.

You probably know on some level how your participants would describe you and your classes. Maybe they see you as highly dynamic, caring, safety-conscious, well-educated, fun or humorous. Perhaps you’re the hip cycling instructor who plays really cool music, the tough-love teacher with the hard body, the gentle yogi or the step instructor who feels like a friend.

Have you ever considered, though, how the impressions you’ve created in group exercise amount to your personal brand as an instructor? This article addresses how adopting a brand identity can make you more marketable and memorable in the world of group exercise, especially considering the pressure that instructors face to adapt themselves to a wide variety of formats.

or Specialist?

Becoming a specialist makes many personal trainers more marketable in the fitness industry. However, the opposite seems to be true for group exercise. It’s almost a badge of honor for instructors to say they teach all or most formats offered at a gym. When it comes to getting hired, versatility is certainly an asset, because it makes the job of keeping classes covered easier for program directors. Specialists in just one format are appreciated but not necessarily sought after. “It is great to have someone who is highly skilled and an expert in one area,” says Geoff Bagshaw,
director of group exercise at Denman Fitness in Vancouver, British Columbia, and an award-winning international presenter. “However, as a group fitness director, I find it much more beneficial to have instructors who can teach at least a couple of different class formats.”

Most instructors do cover a few formats, but as more programs and weekend-long certifications flood the market, many instructors are accumulating an ever-growing roster of classes. Does being a Jack/Jill-of-all-trades water down an instructor’s ability to stand out from the crowd? If you cast your group exercise net far and wide, do you compromise your ability to leave a lasting impression in a more targeted area? At what point do you go from being able to teach a few classes exceptionally well to teaching a slew of classes reasonably well?

An instructor without passion for
a given format can, at best, teach a mediocre class, says Chalene Johnson, celebrity fitness personality and creator of such programs as Turbo Kick®, Turbo Jam® and ChaLEAN Extreme. “While an instructor who can teach multiple formats is useful, an instructor who has mastered and devoted [him- or herself] to just two or three is certainly more desirable for directors seeking to build classes and retain members,” says Johnson.

“Personally, if I see someone with 30 different certifications on their CV, I question how good they could be at all of these [formats],” says Fred Hoffman, MEd, Paris-based director of international services for The Club & Spa Synergy Group and recipient of the 2007 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year award. “I would prefer to see a few different class types for each activity, and fewer certifications.”

Still, he admits, instructors with only one type of certification (excluding very specialized formats, such as Pilates) are more difficult to hire simply because they are less adaptable.

Personal Brand
for Instructors

Unless you’re a presenter or fitness personality, you might not have given much thought to your personal brand in group exercise. “Branding may be something that just evolved over time and wasn’t necessarily intentional,” says Hoffman. “For others, it may have been built with clear intention.” Either way, cultivating a personal brand makes you more marketable because it helps people pick you out in a crowd. “Your brand is your packaging, your message, your essence, your personality, your skills and a showcase of your unique passion,” says Johnson. “Your brand identity causes people to have a strong feeling toward you or identification with you.”

A personal brand in group exercise might be tied to a specific format or piece of equipment. But it also involves the ability to deliver a quality experience, says Bagshaw. “Branding can come from [the format] you teach, but, more importantly, it’s about how you teach that format,” says Abbie Appel, IDEA presenter, master instructor for Resist-A-Ball® and master trainer for the Pilates Institute of America in Boca Raton, Florida. Appel says that when participants describe an instructor, they always refer to two factors—the format and some other quality. “It’s never just the format,” she says. For example, a participant might say, “Susan is that indoor cycling instructor [format] who is also a competitive outdoor cyclist [quality]” or, “Alan is the one who always tells funny jokes [quality] in his step classes [format].”

“We all know instructors who create such excitement that people are drawn from all over the city to take their classes,” Appel says. “It takes years of training to build this kind of reputation.” For this reason, new instructors should not expect to declare a personal brand right off the bat, if at all. “I believe that personal branding isn’t right or even possible for every instructor,” says Johnson. “An instructor’s brand is what makes people change their schedules around to take one instructor over another.”

Branding is about resonating with people. That means drawing attention to yourself, which takes self-confidence. Some people might not care for how you’ve branded yourself, and that’s okay. “A strong brand identity requires a strong sense, commitment to self and the understanding that you can’t be everyone’s cup of tea,” says Johnson. In the example above, Alan the joke-teller must be prepared for some participants to perceive him as not funny. You need a strong resolve when going for a strong brand, according to Johnson. “Before you spend time clearly identifying who you are as an instructor, understand that you can’t be all things to all people. The stronger your brand, the stronger people’s feelings—both positive and negative—will be toward you. Think Donald Trump—a very strong brand, but people either love him or hate him,” she says. As an instructor, you might have noticed that some participants love your classes, while others don’t care for them. This divergence becomes even more apparent when you assert a strong personal brand.

Refining Your Brand

Because asserting a personal brand takes confidence, some instructors may consciously or unconsciously copy another instructor’s style. “Novice instructors will often mimic their mentors until they develop their signature style and become comfortable in their own skin,” says Bagshaw. “However, doing something that doesn’t come naturally is going to be apparent.” Besides, adds Johnson, “branding allows you to be who you really are and more clearly define yourself so people who are specifically looking for an instructor just like you can find what they are looking for: you.”

If you are serious about building your own personal brand, consider what sets you apart from others in your market. What’s different or special about you as an instructor? Is it your personality or what you say? Your athletic background? Your teaching style? A unique format you teach? Johnson says branding for fitness professionals can include the following:

  • attire
  • type of classes or formats people identify you with
  • in-class personality
  • the market or type of students you target
  • what your class is known for (e.g., intensity, fun, complex choreography, an educational experience, etc.)
  • your body type and level of fitness

Consider, for example, an instructor whose target market is highly fit 30-somethings looking for an intense drill-
sergeant–style workout, says Johnson. “Your in-class personality, your choice of attire and even your level of fitness would all be brand identifiers.”

Another approach is to establish yourself as the “go to” instructor for a particular class category. “To become more marketable, an instructor could become proficient at several different strength training modalities that could be taught in a group setting,” says Hoffman. “Some classes might be equipment-based, others not. [The instructor] might teach a traditional sculpting class, become an ‘expert’ with stability balls or create a Body Bar® class.”

Branding yourself in group exercise may encompass a combination of your best skills and qualities, but it doesn’t mean trying to please all participants and program directors all the time. It’s about showcasing your own uniqueness.

Leverage Your
Skills and Qualities

To increase your value, analyze what makes you and your classes memorable in a positive way. People come to work out with you for a reason! Hone in on your unique self-brand as a way to inspire yourself and others. “Branding makes fitness even more rewarding!” says Johnson. “By reaching the people who most closely identify with your brand, you broaden your impact.”

Amanda Vogel, MA, is a fitness professional in Vancouver, BC. In addition to teaching and presenting on group exercise, she owns Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for the fitness industry. Reach her at http://fitnesswriter.blogspot.com.

The Fine Line

It seems there is a fine line between teaching too many class formats and teaching too few. How can you negotiate this conundrum and still get hired? First, don’t try to be everything to everyone at the expense of your personal brand as an instructor. Second, stick to your scope of knowledge. Mind-body fitness is popular, but if you don’t have ample experience and training to teach it, let it go.

“Don’t teach a format just because it’s the new craze,” says Abbie Appel, IDEA presenter, master instructor for Resist-A-Ball and master trainer for the Pilates Institute of America in Boca Raton, Florida. “Teach it because it’s the new craze and you love it.” Go for activities you’re genuinely interested in and would participate in just for enjoyment. “Extreme diversity sometimes appears as being scattered,” says Fred Hoffman, MEd, Paris-based director of international services for The Club & Spa Synergy Group and recipient of the 2007 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year award. “It is always nice to see a common thread and/or an evolution in what the instructors have studied and are currently proposing, even if they have numerous class types listed on their resum├®s.”

“The more you pursue your genuine interests, the more you foster your unique style and personal brand as an instructor. By limiting yourself to formats for which you have passion and talent, you increase your personal fulfillment, deliver a higher-quality class and lessen the chances of burnout,” says Chalene Johnson, IDEA presenter, celebrity fitness personality and creator of Turbo Kick, Turbo Jam and ChaLEAN Extreme.

A bonus: instructors who dodge burnout while delivering high-quality classes may prove to be the most valuable members of a group exercise team in the long run.

Amanda Vogel, MA

Amanda Vogel, MA, is a fitness professional and the owner of Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for fitness professionals. She writes for IDEA, Health, Prevention, and Self, and has co-authored books on postnatal fitness and yoga. With a master's degree in human kinetics, Amanda has worked in the fitness industry for more than 15 years, including time spent as a program director and vice president for a chain of all-women clubs in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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November-December 2020 IDEA Fitness Journal

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