- Today’s fitness companies have evolved from run-of-the-mill gyms to full-fledged lifestyle brands, appealing to Americans seeking new forums for community and social connection.
- As the market for boutique fitness grows more saturated, brands are experimenting with new tactics focused on personalization, vocalizing on social issues, and expanding into branded products.
- “These fitness brands have become a gathering place – both a community gathering place and a social gathering place,” Josh Ginsberg, CEO and co-founder of Zignal Labs, told Business Insider.
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It’s not enough to operate strictly as a fitness company these days. In order to stay truly relevant, fledgling boutiques and big-box gyms alike must now become full-fledged lifestyle brands.
Peloton, the popular indoor cycling company, perhaps knows better than most the importance of adopting a multi-dimensional business approach that goes beyond the bike. When the brand filed its S-1 brief in August ahead of its initial public offering, it described itself not just as an exercise company, but also as a technology, media, interactive software, product design, social connection, retail, apparel, and logistics company.
“We believe consumers are increasingly spending on experiences and are seeking meaningful community connections,” the brief reads. “Within the fitness industry, consumers have migrated to boutique fitness due to personalization, expert instruction, and the sense of community.”
In total, the words “connection” and “community” appear in the filing 58 and 41 times, respectively.
Today, the modern fitness studio is tasked with not just providing a clean facility, high-tech equipment, and a fulfilling workout experience. It also must double as a community hub for social activity, with extras like branded apparel serving as both a uniform and vessel for cultivating an aspirational following.
Fostering community in the era of ‘social fitness’
Ryan Junk – president of CycleBar, one of the largest cycling companies in the US with more than 200 studios in cities across the country – said the rise of boutique fitness programs is a response to consumers looking to untether themselves from mobile devices and forge new avenues for social connection.
“If you go to traditional gyms, the music is now turned down extremely low because everybody has their own headphones in and everybody’s plugged in,” he said. “Maybe you take some classes but even then in those classes, you feed back into a 40,000-square-foot or 20,000-square-foot big box. It’s not personal.”
Part of the appeal of recent fads like like SoulCycle and CrossFit is that they strive to prove fitness can be personal, with customized goals, “workouts of the day,” and occasional moments of near-spirituality. At CycleBar, Junk said, they often write the names of new riders on lockers, and employees go out of their way to make riders feel welcome. During class, instructors will yell out to newbies by name, shouting words of encouragement to pedal faster, work harder.
This courting technique has ultimately proved fruitful in capitalizing on a diminishing sense of community among overworked and hyper-digitized Americans. A 2017 study from the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health found that individuals who spent more than two hours on social media a day had twice the odds of perceived social isolation. At the same time, the popularity of traditional places of gathering has been deteriorating in recent years, including organized religion. A Pew Research Center report found that young Americans are increasingly failing to “identify with a religion, believe in God or engage in a variety of religious practices.”
In 2015, the Harvard Divinity School went so far as to claim CrossFit is the “new church,” positing in a report that fitness programs are taking the place of declining attendance to religious institutions.
“Churches are just one of many institutional casualties of the internet age in which young people are both more globally connected and more locally isolated than ever before,” the report reads. “Against this bleak backdrop, a hopeful landscape is emerging. Millennials are flocking to a host of new organizations that deepen community in ways that are powerful, surprising, and perhaps even religious.”
- Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
In response, fitness classes and fancy gyms are looking to use this void as a means of profit, but finding community often comes at a steep cost – a SoulCycle class goes for nearly $40 a class (not including shoes and water) and an Equinox membership can go for upwards of $300 a month.
“Companies like SoulCycle, Orange Theory, and Equinox have been really good at creating customer loyalty around this perception of social fitness – the idea that consumers really do feel a connection to a fitness or lifestyle brand, as though they’re a part of a community or something larger than just going to a spin class,” Josh Ginsberg, CEO and cofounder of marketing consultancy Zignal Labs, told Business Insider.
As the internet continues to find mechanisms for bypassing face-to-face human interaction – allowing us to work remotely, stream workout classes into our living rooms, and order meals into our kitchen from our mobile apps – Ginsberg said that gyms and fitness studios will increasingly become vital hubs of social activity.
“These fitness brands have become a gathering place – both a community gathering place and a social gathering place – in addition to just going to the gym to work out,” he said.
Our fitness studios, ourselves
As fitness studios and social lives become inextricably linked, gyms have inherently become an extension of one’s identity and personal values – which can be both a boon and bane to brands.
Last month, patrons of SoulCycle and Equinox said en masse that they would cancel their memberships upon learning of owner Stephen Ross’ ties to President Donald Trump. Boycotts erupted on social media as consumers decried the brands while competitors used the moment to stake a claim on the newly emancipated gym-goers in need of a new fitness outlet.
- ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
“They share that deep bond with these brands and want these brands to share their values,” Ginsberg said. “When that doesn’t match up, you see a really passionate and emotional reaction to it because they’ve become these community gathering places. There’s much more of a lifestyle brand than just a place you go to to sweat and burn some calories.”
Junk said that moments of turmoil against companies are also important in keeping owners and investors honest.
“At the end of the day, the consumer is not just buying the product,” Junk said. “They want to make sure that a company’s values align with their own values. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, personally think it’s a great thing because it actually holds business owners and entrepreneurs accountable to more than just profit.”
Walk the walk, look the part
As brands look to expand their clout and lure in more spandex-clad disciples, they’ve increasingly turned to branded merchandise and apparel – a lucrative move in a society that has become equally obsessed with athleisure and social media.
In an attempt to cash in on the activewear market, fitness companies are resting their laurels on collaborations with buzzy retail brands. In January, SoulCycle released a capsule collection with Lululemon, co-designed by cycling instructors. Likewise, in July, Barry’s Bootcamp debuted its own Lululemon partnership in the form of a 30-piece line called “Stronger as One,” while that same month Peloton teamed up with Outdoor Voices on co-branded activewear of its own.
Meanwhile, others like Row House and Flywheel have developed their own boutique collections, providing a uniform for their most devoted attendees. According to retail analytics firm Edited, women’s activewear offerings increased by 66% from 2018 to 2019 across mass retailers in the US and UK.
- Alli Harvey / Stringer / Getty Images
Ultimately, apparel fits into a larger emphasis on creating lifestyle brands built on aspiration. The more consumers share inspirational posts of themselves in SoulCycle apparel spreading the cycling gospel, the more likely others are to join the program.
“The continued interest in athleisure and fashion that transitions seamlessly throughout the day certainly bodes well for these boutique fitness studios and the athletic apparel as a category,” Edited analyst Krista Corrigan wrote in an email to Business Insider. “Donning companies like SoulCycle and Orange Theory are synonymous with a lifestyle and the consumer loves to communicate that through fashion.”