Fitness brands need to limber up

From “This girl can” through the body positivity movement and on to lockdown-induced changes to exercise habits, fitness brands are having to redefine how they target a more diverse audience.

A recent Nike ad opens with a provocative question: “Can you be an athlete?” In keeping with the brand’s style, there follows a soaring soundtrack and motivational voiceover listing all the qualities that make an athlete: “Someone who moves… who gets it done no matter what… who defies gravity… who deals with the pain… who earns every single win.”

For many people, such words might summon up an image of a certain kind of athlete, one who fits a stereotypical body type, gender or race. But what Nike showed wasn’t so typical. The ad features women at various stages of motherhood, including black and Muslim pregnant women, another woman breastfeeding and another in a wheelchair.

The voiceover concludes: “Can you be an athlete? If you aren’t, no-one is.”

While Nike’s rousing film (above) promotes its maternity collection, its bigger purpose poses a question to the wider fitness industry: who does it serve and who else has it overlooked? While some brands have broken the mould, fitness marketing has been more typified by the likes of protein powder company Protein World, and its controversial 2015 ad, which asked: “Are you beach body ready?”

The bright yellow poster depicting a bikini-clad model sparked a social media furore, incited more than 370 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority and inspired London mayor Sadiq Khan to ban ads on the London Underground that “could pressurise people to conform to unhealthy or unrealistic body images”. Protein World became an infamous example of the kind of aspirational, unattainable and non-diverse images sometimes peddled by fitness marketers and highlighted the dangers of such advertising. 

However, like other sectors, fitness has slowly been waking up to the need to change – forces accelerated by the pandemic and recent diversity movements. As lockdown eases and gyms reopen across the UK, brands face a world where attitudes about fitness and expectations of the industry are shifting.

As with countless other businesses, those in fitness were forced to adapt amid lockdowns and pandemic restrictions. In the UK, the closures of gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools cost the sector £90m in revenue for each week of lockdown and caused 400 facilities to shut permanently, with more under threat, according to industry association UKActive. 

Meanwhile, the pandemic triggered a boom in digital fitness. With gyms shuttered and people forced to stay at home, fitness apps such as Strava and Freeletics reported sharp rises in users, while big gym chains and individual personal trainers alike moved their exercise programmes online. Wired dubbed this “the workout from home generation”. 

In the UK, the face of that generation was fitness instructor Joe Wicks, who, when the pandemic started, took on the mantle of “the nation’s PE teacher” and produced free, daily workout videos during lockdown. Wicks’ fame exploded and he released his own fitness app, The Body Coach, at the end of 2020. 

More than half of British people (52%) plan to continue using digital fitness services after Covid restrictions ease, according to an April survey by OnePoll and the British Chiropractic Association.

For some, a public health crisis has also put a greater focus on the importance of fitness: in a British Heart Foundation survey, 54% of UK adults said they were determined to get more physically active as a result of the pandemic.

Ditching the macho past  

But to attract a new wave of keen exercisers, gyms and fitness brands will have to shake off negative perceptions of the sector as an intimidating and exclusive space, advertising professionals say. “Most fitness brands have been more male-centric and macho in their marketing and communications,” Ete Davies, chief executive of Engine Creative, observes. 

Hannah Vatandoust, associate strategist at R/GA London, adds: “The [fitness] industry has a tendency to inherently consider women and their needs as an afterthought.” 

Other groups of people could make the same complaint, as Stylist journalist Billie Bhatia argued earlier this year when she accused the fitness industry of overlooking plus-sized bodies. It has also been rare to see diverse representations of ethnicity, age, disability, sexual orientation and so on in a fitness campaign.

However, one unexpected side effect of the rise of virtual workouts is that it opened up new – and potentially less intimidating – opportunities to people who did not identify with fitness stereotypes or were previously hesitant about visiting a gym or taking part in an exercise class. 

Bhatia wrote: “One of the positives to come out of lockdown was the shift from exercise being centred on the gym and classes to home workouts, something I felt wholly more comfortable with. For some people, gyms are a haven – a space dedicated to feeling good, a safe sanctuary of sorts. For me, gyms leave me in a tangled, intimidated mess.”

Even before the pandemic, the “macho” marketing that Davies describes and that might have repelled some consumers was becoming less prevalent as more brands embraced “body positivity”. The popularity of the body positivity movement grew with the rise of social media platforms and many advertisers jumped onto the bandwagon – take the example of Dove’s “Real women” campaign, which launched in 2004 and has been mimicked many times since. 

In fitness, Sport England released what would become one of the most influential “body positive” campaigns of the past decade: “This girl can”. The 2015 ad featured real women from diverse backgrounds and body types exercising in a variety of ways, from dancing to running to boxing, and included lines such as: “I jiggle, therefore I am.” 

Sport England overturned many stereotypes in fitness marketing, and other brands have followed its lead, with one agency leader saying they spotted clips of “This girl can” in an internal Nike presentation about its marketing. 

Even the likes of Protein World have caught on to the body positivity theme. Three years after asking people the infamous question about whether they were “beach body ready”, the brand released a campaign in 2018 declaring, “every body works”. 

But, more recently, some critics have questioned whether the body positivity movement, while important in championing a variety of bodies, has also fallen short. For one, “body positive” marketers and influencers have sometimes overlooked other types of diversity, such as ethnic minorities and disabled people. Last year, when Adidas ran a campaign with the tagline “embrace and befriend your body”, it received a backlash for showing only “conventionally attractive” models. 

The movement can also lack nuance, as author Kelly DeVos highlighted when she wrote in a 2018 New York Times article: “The problem with today’s version of body positivity is that it refuses to acknowledge that no one approach is right for every person.”

FCB Inferno, the agency that created the “This girl can” campaign, cautions that it is not enough for fitness advertisers to tout “body positivity”. 

“It’s too narrow and one-dimensional to talk about body positivity,” FCB Inferno chief marketing officer Sharon Jiggins says. “It’s been great in terms of marketers thinking about the images they put out, but there’s still a long way to go. The focus shouldn’t be on body shape – that’s only half the issue. It’s about how exercise makes you feel, not how
it makes you look.”

Closing the fitness gender gap

When FCB Inferno and Sport England were developing “This girl can”, they set out to close a “fitness gender gap” after finding that far fewer women than men were playing sport or getting active. This gap had a lot more to do with mental attitudes and emotions than physical barriers. 

“[Sport England’s] research was telling them 75% of women did want to exercise but clearly something was stopping them. It was rooted in this fear of judgment,”  Jiggins explains. 

“Women need to see women like themselves. What we had to do with our campaign was create a new aspiration: it was women who possessed what we called the ‘don’t give a damn’ attitude. That’s where we wanted to issue a wake-up call to the fitness industry.”

"Nothing will ever be the same. Working patterns will be different and the need for women to be creative in how to get active will continue. It’s a huge opportunity for the fitness industry"

Since its launch, “This girl can” has expanded to represent other groups and cover topics such as the menopause, disability and LGBT+ inclusion. The campaign has sought to delve deeper than body image and address some of the societal barriers that may prevent people from getting active. “There is a danger that we think it’s job done by merely showing authentic images,” Lisa O’Keefe, director of insight at Sport England, told Campaign in a 2020 interview. 

“This girl can” has also tried to “change the very definition of what constitutes exercise”, Jiggins says. In that way, the campaign was prescient – just a few years later, many more fitness brands would be forced to redefine exercise with the onset of the pandemic and rise of digital workouts. During lockdown, Sport England encouraged people to “#StayInWorkOut” and depicted set-ups such as a woman on a treadmill beside some house plants or a mother working out with her toddler.

Even after pandemic restrictions ease, this more open view of fitness is likely to persist, Jiggins says. 

“Nothing will ever be the same. Working patterns will be different and the need for women to be creative in how to get active will continue. It’s a huge opportunity for the fitness industry,” she says. “The worst thing the fitness industry could do is go back to where they were a year ago – they would miss out on all these women who have tried out new forms of exercise. Hopefully the fitness industry will see that they need to change to fit into women’s lives, as opposed to expecting women to change.”

What could supplement the body positivity trend is a more holistic, inclusive and personalised approach to fitness, advertising leaders say. For example, the previously mentioned Nike ad showed a wider diversity of women, but a month before that campaign the sports brand unveiled a “Cycle Sync” programme on the Nike Training Club App that helps women and people who menstruate adjust their training to the various stages of their menstrual cycle.

R/GA developed this product in partnership with physiologist Stacy Sims, who observed in her book Roar what she calls the “shrink it and pink it” approach in fitness: when companies take a product, gear or training programme that was designed for men, make it smaller and pinker and relabel it for women.

Keeping it real

“[Sims’] research revealed that studying [menstrual] cycles could maximise energy and strength, help guide rest and recovery and optimise performance while avoiding injuries. It revealed the need for a platform which helps people who menstruate plan with, not against, their body,” R/GA’s Vatandoust explains. 

“[Brands] need to recognise that the ‘female’ experience is not linear. To create products and tech which truly speak to women in the fitness world, real conversations with real people should take centre stage, so we can understand the nuanced truths of what it’s like to be someone who menstruates and what obstacles they face.”

Davies, who previously worked with Nike when he was managing director of AnalogFolk, says platforms such as Cycle Sync “follow a wider trend towards much more personalised fitness”.

“There has been a rise of a lot of physiologically-based training programmes and platforms that understand the fact that people are very different in their physiological make-up, and the way they respond to training is particularly based on factors such as gender, ethnicity and age. There is a growing trend in the fitness industry to become even more personalised around data and what we know of people,” Davies adds.

“A decade ago when the fitness trend was booming, it was a one-size-fits-all model. Back then it was much more aesthetically focused. It has gone from purely focused on your appearance to what your individual body is capable of doing, and how fitness benefits your overall health and mental wellbeing.” 

Now, helped by the popularity of virtual workouts, “people are starting to take more control of their own training”, Davies says, so “there’s a Pandora’s box that’s opened whereby gyms and other fitness chains will have to be quite inventive to get people to go back to them”.

One aspect that could be a draw is “community and culture”, Davies predicts. However, fitness brands will need to “build those communities
that are a bit more representative”, he says. 

Carren O’Keefe, executive creative director at AnalogFolk, says recent fitness innovations such as Cycle Sync “go beyond personalisation and moves into inclusivity”.

“The potential of this is far reaching, because this can benefit all types of different groups. It’s opening the door to go beyond the things that the majority of an audience would benefit from to normalise issues that athletes of any ability, background, gender, race and able-bodiedness would face,” she says. “If we can talk about women’s menstrual cycles and how it impacts training, why can’t we talk about men and testosterone issues? Or how this same issue affects trans men or women? Or any physical or mental issue a group experiences which affects their running  or training? This should just be the start.” 

A more inclusive approach was evident in a recent Gymbox campaign (above), entitled “Anything goes”, which welcomed the reopening of gyms in England in April. Created by BMB, the ads subverted fitness stereotypes with lines heralding the gym as a place “where powerlifters come to pole dance” and “where ballerinas come to box”. 

Such a tone of voice was important because “pre-Covid, we noticed something about the gym landscape: it had gotten increasingly more tribalised – the bootcampers, the yogis, the spinners, the crossfitters. Each with their own gyms, merch, language and poster image. It can feel very exclusive, and it’s not in line with a new generation’s more fluid mindset,” Mel Arrow, head of strategy at BMB, says. 

During the pandemic, Gymbox has been able to “open up to a new audience”, brand director Rory McEntee says – the UK-based chain has gone from operating in 11 clubs in London to having a digital presence in 75 countries through its online platform Out the Box. 

“Covid has been a period of experimentation, so the desire for a more liberating and inclusive exercise experience isn’t going anywhere,” Arrow observes. 

The Gym, another UK fitness chain, has also become increasingly aware of the need to “reflect a broad audience,” Kate Fitzgerald, head of marketing transformation, says. 

In 2019, the brand released a playful ad, by Who Wot Why, which depicted characters including a Sikh man, a Muslim woman, an older woman, a young woman with an artificial leg and a young man with Down’s syndrome in the gym explaining their unexpected motivations for working out. 

Their portrayals reinforced a sentiment that seems simple but still revolutionary in the world of fitness: “any body in a gym is a gym body”, Fitzgerald says.

Main image: “Me again. Again” (2020) from “This girl can” campaign

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