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Marketing With Positive Body Image

Increase membership leads and sales by using positive body-image messages in ads and marketing strategies.

As a writer of promotional material for fitness professionals, I was recently asked to consult on an advertisement for a chain of fitness clubs. The ad’s headline referred to shedding pounds, and below that was a photo of a super-slim woman—captured from midriff to mid-thigh—wearing only a bikini bottom and a tape measure around her waist.

Body-beautiful advertising, however reminiscent of the 1980s thin-is-in fitness mentality, is still ubiquitous in today’s fitness industry. Why? When I questioned the hard-hitting, hard-body image in the ad described above, the designer
defended his creative intent, saying, “This is what gets people’s attention.”

Is it really?

These messages are so overused that, if anything, they lack potency. Perhaps an opposite and unexpected headline about being fit at any size would draw more attention. True, images of thin, attractive people—and promises of how to be more like them—obviously sell. But aren’t the fitness consumers most likely to respond to such messages already members at our facilities?
For most older or deconditioned consumers, however, the prospect of achieving such a “perfect body” seems virtually impossible. Yet, we often rely on this style of advertising to sell to this market, too.

“It alienates a large group of people who don’t feel they can even enter the doors of a fitness club,” says Sandy Franco, owner of Franco’s Athletic Club in Mandeville, Louisiana, whose “Fit, Not Perfect” campaign is leading the way in savvy and forward-thinking advertising using body image.

A New Approach
Brings New Markets

Marketing your club using positive body-image messages helps both current and prospective members feel accepted as they are, which in turn improves well-being and possibly self-confidence.

Helping others in this way should feel good on a humanitarian level, but how does it benefit your business? Those people exposed to your ads may now feel just comfortable enough to set foot in your club or recommend it to a friend. “People want to hear that it’s okay not to be a size 6,” says Franco, who was shocked several years ago to hear a woman explain that she would join a fitness facility only after she lost weight.

“Many women feel that they have to already look a certain way in order to join a club,” says Carrie Myers Smith, author of Squeezing Your Size 14 Self into a Size 6 World (Champion Press, 2003) and a fitness coach in Landaff, New Hampshire. “I’ve had clients who refuse to go to a gym because they’re too embarrassed and feel too out of shape to work out there. But this is
exactly the kind of client clubs should be trying to draw!”

“If we want to grow as an industry, we must reach the deconditioned segment,” stresses Franco. “We [as an industry] are suffering from an image problem—one that we brought on ourselves through hard-body advertising. We have alienated 80 percent of our population.” Smith agrees, saying, “Fitness in general has become too prepackaged and commercialized, and many clubs have fallen right in line with promoting this image.” Like the deconditioned market, attracting the expanding older-adult population with body-beautiful ads simply won’t work.

But even younger, already fit people may not be sold on hard-body advertising. As consumers become more educated about fitness in general, they are also more likely to reject the fit-equals-perfect cliché, rendering this type of
ad less effective in all markets.

Maintaining the
Emotional Element

Even though fitness consumers may reject or feel alienated by perfect-body images, the truth is, people care about how they look—and they aspire to look good. So, wouldn’t advertisements that cater to those aspirations—Look better! Lose weight! Get ready for swimsuit season!—ultimately garner more members than ads without the same emotional resonance? Not necessarily.

For many people—especially women, who have been targets of perfect-body advertising for decades—ads that advocate acceptance at any shape and size do strike an emotional cord. The message that they will feel a sense of belonging in your fitness club can have a strong impact. FitCity for Women in British Columbia, uses the motto, “Where Fit Doesn’t Mean Perfect” in all club promotions, including ads, T-shirts and on its Web site. “Our members tell us they’re grateful for our noncompetitive, positive messages, and we’ve definitely seen more larger women sign up since we started the ‘Fit Doesn’t Mean Perfect’ campaign,” says Catherine Pasion-Fox, the club manager at FitCity’s Richmond, British Columbia, location.

When it comes to convincing club owners that positive body-image advertising sells, Franco talks numbers: “Since Franco’s Athletic Club introduced the ‘Fit, Not Perfect’ philosophy [in 1996], we have experienced a 250 percent growth rate and retained 83 percent of our members, which is an 18 percent increase over past years. Forty-nine percent of our population belongs to our club—that’s 14,000 members,” she says.

Writing Ads With
a Fresh Approach

“The goal in advertising is to get attention,” says Franco. But as discussed earlier, if your ad emphasizes the perfect body, chances are it’s like a sea of others—including your competitors’. Be unique.

One of the first steps in developing ads that stand apart from your competitors’ is to resist writing headlines and copy using phrases that automatically spring to mind, such as “Look good, feel great.” They’re easy to
come up with because they’re overdone. Crafting positive body-image
ads requires you to take time communicating fresh ideas in new ways.

Focus on how fitness makes people feel as opposed to how it makes them look. This can be a challenge since
so many people are drawn to exercise
at least in part for aesthetic reasons. How can you extol the appearance-
enhancing benefits of joining a club without falling back on a get-a-hard-body formula? “Ask yourself if your
ad will feel motivating or defeating
for the people who see it,” suggests Franco. For example, does it promote the feel-good benefits of weight loss—more energy, confidence and enhanced ability to perform everyday tasks—or does it provoke anxiety and guilt about a less-than-perfect physique? Usually, get-fit-for-bathing-suit-season and work-off-holiday-eating campaigns
fall into the latter category. See the
“Ad Writing Worksheet” sidebar for more on creating feel-good ads.

Finally, remember that your ad
will seem insincere if the headline and copy say one thing, but the visuals imply another; back up positive body-image text with photos of real club members and staff in place of professional models.

Supporting Positive
Body Image in All
Aspects of Your Club

Advertising with a new spin on body image is the first step to attracting a more diverse clientele, but to make a genuine and lasting impression, your club’s whole marketing scheme, including how your staff look and communicate, must follow suit.

Franco didn’t stop at a few ads when she created the “Fit, Not Perfect” concept; it was just the beginning. “In adopting this philosophy of welcoming all sizes and shapes, we experienced
a total transformation in our facility, from staff to instructors, to the equipment and programs we offered,” Franco notes.

To make sure the attitude you advertise is supported throughout your facility, Franco advises giving your club a marketing makeover. Start by asking questions such as: Does our pro shop stock clothing that’s bigger than size
8 or 10? Do we offer shorter and/or mild-intensity classes for deconditioned and older members? Does our equipment accommodate people of all sizes? What images are displayed in the club? What tactics do sales staff use to sign up new members? How do instructors and trainers dress, and how do they deal with body image issues?

The Evolution of
Fitness Advertising

The fitness industry is always evolving and its advertising and marketing must do the same. Just as you have adapted to new equipment, programs and a greater diversity of clientele over the years, updating the way you advertise fitness will increase your membership base and boost the health and well-being of fitness consumers.

Positive Body-Image Marketing and Advertising Checklist

Consider these points when marketing your club with size acceptance and positive body image in mind.

  • Use advertising images and copy that consistently support positive body image.
  • Seek diversity when hiring staff.
  • Avoid ‘before-after’ advertising that suggests fitness is a means to an end.
  • Eliminate class names that reinforce a perfect-body mentality.
  • Post images of a variety of healthy-looking people.
  • Implement programs for diverse levels and interests.
  • Reward members for achievements other than just weight loss.
  • Organize body-image seminars/workshops for staff and members.
  • Ensure that all staff reinforce the club’s philosophy through actions and words.
  • Sell larger-sized clothing in the club’s pro shop.
  • Check that equipment fits people of all sizes.

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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