Randi Whitman, a classically trained and certified Pilates instructor, owns Frog Temple Pilates in Chicago. She has run a successful studio for over a decade.
When I asked her about her strategies for building a thriving Pilates business, she put it this way: “I [and] all my instructors are classical purists. Not only do we feel strongly about what and how we teach; we also strive to make everyone feel welcome. We establish rapport, promote a sense of humor and encourage a ‘family feel.’
“Our method of teaching is dictated by our philosophies and by what we feel is best for each individual. We do this because we have a genuine concern for our clients and want them to come back.”
Whitman’s initial response to my question did not address overhead costs, pricing strategies or studio aesthetics—all of which are important. Her reply described her brand: how she professionally identifies herself and her studio to the consumer.
Why Brands Are So Important
Brands live in the hearts and minds of consumers, and as a result, brands are very powerful. Think about how people love Starbucks. Plenty of other companies serve great coffee, but Starbucks has built a story around its coffee—and through that story makes a true emotional connection with consumers. We are willing to pay a pretty penny for Starbucks, not just because of the great taste, but because of how the coffee smells and what it feels like to be in a Starbucks coffee shop.
“Branding is essential for building an identity,” says Kerri O’Brien, EdD, MBA, CSCS, executive vice president/COO of Valley of the Sun YMCA in Phoenix. “In our case, it has become very important that each class is [introduced as being] ‘powered by the Y’ or ‘a YMCA program.’ After class, the brand is again reinforced by reminding the participant that this was a YMCA program. We are continually strengthening our reputation by conveying our values, purpose and passion to the community.”
Pilates, like Starbucks, is a strong brand that can bring certain thoughts and images to mind in your potential customers. They may think of core strength, strong posture or the reformer; they might even think, “Pilates is too hard.” Pilates instructors, meanwhile, have distinct teaching philosophies, instruction styles, specialties, places of employment and professional reputations.
Consider how a consumer perceives you upon hearing your name, driving by your studio, browsing your website or participating in your classes. These impressions are all components of your brand. No two brands are exactly alike. The key is to merge your unique qualities—your personal brand—with the wider Pilates philosophy.
The primary goal of building a brand is to encourage consumers in your target market to buy your services instead of someone else’s. Keep the following steps in mind as you perfect your brand:
Build Brand Image
Brand image is a picture—in a consumer’s mind—that molds perceptions, attitudes and actions. O’Brien recommends starting the branding process “by creating a personal philosophy or mission statement. This will be your foundation.” Next, she continues, “ask yourself why someone should invest in your Pilates sessions or take your classes.”
“Make a list of all the benefits you can provide to that person. Then, choose which items on the list are your true strengths, and use these items to support your image differentiation. Find your niche and be really, really good at it. Trying to be something for everyone will not distinguish you as an expert.”
For instance, Whitman’s brand image as a classical purist has been very successful. However, her story may not describe you, and that’s okay. Maybe you believe in adding yoga to your sessions, or perhaps you’re excellent at working with active older adults. If so, you’ll want to build that into your image.
Pay attention to your local competition. If two other instructors at your facility also specialize in active older-adult instruction, how is your brand standing out? It’s not. For success, your brand must be distinctive. Differentiation is the key.
Raise Brand Awareness
Your personal brand will succeed only if consumers recognize and remember it. Websites, advertising materials, business cards and even everyday interactions with clients should promote your brand. Update your website regularly, consider a monthly e-newsletter to spark continual interest, and give presentations in the community.
Get your brand in front of as many potential consumers as possible. Promote outside the fitness industry to pull in new clients—corporations, churches, local boutiques, libraries and so on. Potential customers are everywhere. Make sure your color, font and word choices correctly represent your brand. Diversify your marketing efforts and keep your message clear, simple and consistent. If not, it can be easily forgotten.
Invest in Brand Equity
Brand equity is the value of your brand. “One of the most common mistakes I see with branding at the business level to the practitioner level is thinking price is the brand,” says O’Brien. “Price is the cost. Brand should be associated with the value.”
Consumers will choose your brand over another if they feel your service holds more value than a competitor’s, even if the price is different—just like with Starbucks coffee. The challenge is that each consumer defines value in his or her own way. Your job is to anticipate what holds the most value for current and potential target customers and to build that into your brand. If you live in a family-oriented area with a lot of stay-at-home parents, schedule flexibility during school hours and offer postnatal programming. Consider adding services at different price points, as this can be extremely valuable.
On the other hand, branding that emphasizes Pilates for active older adults won’t hold much value in an urban, young-professional locale. Ask clients what they value, and jot down their replies. If patterns emerge, keep offering and promoting those services. Once you build equity, maintain it by staying consistent. Inconsistency weakens brand equity and encourages your customers to find a home elsewhere.
Nurture Brand Loyalty
In the minds of loyal clients, there are no options except you. For these clients, the decision to keep using your services becomes a habit. This brings you consistent income, excellent retention rates and awesome word-of-mouth marketing. It takes hard work and determination to gain loyal fans. Here are a few suggestions:
- Practice what you preach. Are you delivering what you said you would? If you advertise that your methods reduce neck and back pain, they’d better do it. Continually delivering on your promises builds trust that allows clients to buy into your brand message.
- Build custom relationships. Customers want to feel special. Individualize sessions, conversations and experiences. Show genuine interest in their well-being. Once a customer is personally invested in your brand, it’s difficult for that person to switch.
- Reward loyalty. Give perks to your most faithful clients. Lock in rates during price increases, create opportunities to let loyal customers try new equipment before other clients, and allow first rights to promotions and deals. Actions always speak louder than words. Give something back, and show them how much you appreciate their business.
After developing a branding plan, make sure your proposed brand conveys the correct message. Ask a friend or a close colleague to read your mission, take your class and browse your website. What is his or her perception? Brands need continual attention and maintenance. Once your brand message is out in the community, live and breathe your brand. Consistency is the key.
When your personal brand becomes well-known, positive and impactful, you too enjoy decades of success.
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