Our Brand Partnerships Manager Sam Johnson speaks to brand leaders, taking a look at how the pandemic has affected marketing for the wearables and home fitness sector in 2022.

If someone told me five years ago that the release of a ‘Sex and the City’ sequel/follow up series would actively and negatively affect the share prices of a piece of home fitness equipment in 2021, I would not have believed them. Whilst it seems an arbitrary point to make, it demonstrates a few things - namely, how ingrained culture, lifestyle, media and marketing have become in people’s buying decisions, and how blurred the lines between all those factors are becoming.

The Growth of Home Fitness

Home fitness equipment and wearable technology as a market has grown exponentially, likely fuelled by a number of things including an increase in hybrid / flexible working, increased pressure on body shape/image via social media and overall, a general better understanding and focus of personal health. Not just from a fitness perspective, but from a mental health and wellbeing standpoint too.

There are, of course, a few key players which are now household names. In the home fitness tech world, Peloton has the key market share globally. In the wearables market, Fitbit was likely the most well-known for some time, but the market has become very competitive with the likes of Apple Watch and other integrated mobile technology companies making the fitness wearables market a little more complicated. Consumers are opting to integrate some of the functions of monitoring health, wellness and workouts in conjunction with a device they already own (mobile phone/smart watch).

Understanding the market

What is interesting across the board, however, is how things have changed in terms of the wider marketing strategy - channels, audience and messaging. The last few years specifically have been a huge disruptor of the usual seasonality and trends of consumer behaviour. Below is a basic Google Trends graph looking exclusively at the UK and showing the prevalence of certain search terms over time (December 2019 – current day). I’ve used a few of the key players mentioned in this market who have considerable spend on marketing and shown an emphasis on social engagement. 

A graph showing the search trends of gym membership, Peloton, Fitbit and Apple Watch over the period of two years.

The most noticeable things here is the initial point of convergence clearly marking the point in March that the UK entered its first lockdown (A).

The next time we see a considerable spike is December 2020 (B). Gyms, still suffering lack of access and remaining pandemic imposed restrictions, barely move. Peloton, however, performs considerably better than it ever has. As does Apple Watch, this time outdoing Fitbit.

This trend further exaggerated in December 2021 (C) where searches for Apple Watches grow again. Fitbit sees a slightly lesser spike and Peloton start to do battle with searches for the gym.

There are a couple different ways you could interpret this, but one could be that both lifestyle and versatility are quickly becoming the most determining factors in our new year new me buying decisions.

Consumers don’t just want a bike trainer. They want to be part of a community and compete with real people.

Changing trends: Marketing Wearables and Home Fitness in 2022

Consumers don’t just want to know how many steps they’ve done. They want to monitor their health holistically, take calls, play music and download the apps they choose. Consumers don’t just want to do fitness they want to own it and share it with brands that are responsive to them, their needs and the ever-changing playing field.

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Marketing a fitness ‘Community’

As mentioned, this ownership and sharing of fitness experience, journeys and purchases has become complicit with the industry and different brands have embraced the use of community to both attract and retain customers.

Gymshark have been rewarded with exponential growth after what could have been seen as the ‘risky’ tactic of recruiting a team of influencers, or ‘Gymshark athletes’ to endorse its apparel through their own platforms and circle of influence. This, of course, paid off hugely and grew alongside the boom in social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok. It only takes a glance on their website to hear things like ‘join the family,’ ‘share your journey,’ and ‘support your community’ to see that this is clearly part of the brand’s DNA.

Gymshark Community

The key difference with Gymshark and brands who use similar messaging is that despite lots of success online, there always remains a concerted effort to have an in-person presence. Whether that be their recent flagship bricks-and-mortar store on London’s Regent Street, various events such as their UK Tour, or pop-ups in big city locations like New York. This makes their community more tangible, authentic and ‘real’ as opposed to purely virtual.

Peloton has built the idea of community into the very product itself. Users pay a monthly subscription and can join others in classes, real-life courses or live competitions. In a recent interview, Peloton’s CMO, Dara Treseder, stated that Peloton’s rampant growth during the pandemic largely stemmed from its loyal user base sharing their personal experiences with the brand. “The intentional cultivation of community is really focused on finding where the organic sparks of connection within our member base, and then kind of pouring fuel on that…shining a spotlight on these things.”

Someone rides a Peloton bike

Marketing strategies that respond to the audience

During the height of the pandemic in the UK when individuals were urged to stay at home, Gymshark changed their Twitter handle to ‘Homeshark’ in a tongue-in-cheek bid to encourage their community to do exactly that. They ran programs that gave personal trainers, unable to earn a living due to restrictions, a platform on twitch to run online classes. They quickly pivoted a lot of their content to suit work from home workouts and encouraged their community to take part in challenges like #Gymshark66.

It’s no mystery that the last 24 months has been hard on people’s mental health and general wellness. Lululemon’s recent marketing campaign ‘Feel’ played directly into this. The brand focussed more on the emotional side of their consumer base as opposed to the usual high activity, fitness centred messaging and imagery associated with the industry. At its centre is a two-minute spot that explores isolation, depression and how physical fitness may not be enough to overcome the first two. Whilst some may argue that leggings don’t cure depression, it’s a conscious move to respond quickly and recognise their key audience and make them feel seen. It might not necessarily hugely increase sales, but it will no doubt have a great effect on retention and brand loyalty.

Looking forward to 2022, I predict that ‘hybrid’ will be the key word. Partnerships, interactions and collaborations will be ever more present and important and brands that try to break down barriers and make this world more accessible to everyone will not only create more consumers in the industry overall, but curate a brand loyalty which will do them favours in the long run.

‘Hybrid’ opportunities for marketing wearables and home fitness products

Hybrid memberships; being part of a real, in-person community but with an online presence also. Going for a run outdoors somewhere serene and using the gym specifically for a circuit class on the weekend. Shared via your smart watch or Fitbit, to your gym app or fitness community.

I predict that the marketing tactics brands employ will reflect this hybrid nature too. As pioneered by Gymshark, they will cultivate an online community and social presence alongside an in-person experience that consumers can take part in and share. We will be competing via a running app to maintain a ‘score’ or ‘performance’ which will gain us entry to an in-person event, competition or challenge.

Jonathan McCourt – Head of Marketing at Umbro UK said the following when it comes to hybrid opportunities:

“Hybrid is interesting and a term I’m hearing a lot more not only from a physical POV, but also product and apparel. The lines are not only blurred between home/gym/fitness but also what we wear…”

“… I think brands are being more transparent because consumers demand it, and part of that strategy is actions like the Aldi and M&S example as they are adding a human element to their brand. Sustainability plays a part as well, with consumers being more switched and demanding that brands are more open about their business, product(s) and supply chain.”

“I think with ‘partnerships’ you will continue to see more collaboration between brands. The way I see it, is that it’s much more authentic for us to speak to sport consumers, let’s say via a Mundial or Soccerbible, as they already have an engaged audience and it can be delivered in a language and position that they like to see.”

New Balance demonstrated a very creative twist on this with their London Pub ‘The Runaway’ where the currency used is miles logged on Strava, these miles being exchanged for pints in the pub!

New Balance's London pub

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Boosting marketing performance with fitness industry partnerships

I predict more partnerships and cross-pollination between complimenting products and brands. For example, Peloton and Myzone, Fitbit and Nike Trainers, Apple Watch and Under Armour, Gymshark and TikTok. Why not use the communities and sphere of influence to increase brand awareness and push discounts/offers between those product sets that aren’t competing with each other directly?

Social media interactions between the likes of Aldi and M&S (Colin the Caterpillar), Burger King and McDonalds etc have shown how much consumers engage with brand’s conversing as personalities as opposed to big faceless corporates.

Companies like Castore have been trailblazing in their campaign of partnering with almost every sportsperson and sports club in the UK and beyond. A campaign tagline like ‘Better Never Stops’ works really well on the backdrop of a recent title win of a partnered football team, or a tournament winning tennis player.

A billboard for Castore

Marketing for mental and physical fitness

There are two main barriers to entry for fitness/exercise: Physical and Mental. With more varied gym offerings popping up catering to different boutique audiences, and more competition from Hybrid offerings, it is likely that gyms of all kinds are likely to be getting more competitive with each other. This is usually a good thing for the consumer, as it means more discounts, offers and price decreases to tempt users from one to another.

Mental barriers can take the form of anxiety around body image, imposter syndrome and motivation. There has been an increase in sharing more achievable goals, normalising of general fitness and wellbeing with campaigns such as ‘Couchto5k’, the ‘Run5, donate 5, nominate 5’ challenge that donated money for the NHS during the pandemic.

Brands such as Sweaty Betty have set the example in this area by running movements like #respectyoursweat where women share their unique stories on the website. Julie, who competes in para sports events having been born with a disorder that requires her to use a prosthetic limb, and Saf, the self-proclaimed ‘hijabi boxer,’ who had suffered from kidney problems and eating disorders in her younger years, now train with Olympic boxers and inspire young girls to follow in her footsteps.

I asked Rob Ellis, Head of Marketing at Everlast Gyms, to share his thoughts on the changing face of wearables and fitness product marketing below:

“January 2022 in the gym industry feels like the first time that the Covid cloud has truly lifted, with potential threat of restrictions impacting operation and business behind us. Competition amongst gyms has really heated up as the scramble to regrow membership numbers to pre-covid levels has such precedence. January has seen huge deals across the sector in a month where discounts are usually not at the forefront; gyms like JD Gyms have run “first month £5” and The Gym Group offering 50% off your first month."

“There is a shift in the philosophy of many gym operators coming out of the pandemic as to what a gym membership is anymore… no longer is it simply a monthly Direct Debit and a membership card. At Everlast Gyms, we are partnering with MyZone to not only jump on board the wearable technology trend, but also to turn a monthly gym membership into a form of gamification… ensuring you hit your MEPS (MyZone effort points), running in club competitions that result in free months memberships, clothing or gym accessories. This increases the number of average visits of a member per month and also offers a significant increase in member retention.”

“The national gym chains are also in a period of adaptation to accommodate the rise of training on demand and live streamed home workout platforms such as Peloton, The Body Coach and LES MILLS ON DEMAND. The pandemic caused many people to invest in home gym equipment and change their habits, adapting to enjoy and even prefer training from home. Rather than fight this, gym operators are all investing in premium quality home workout on demand and live streaming platforms and content, for those who still want the sense of community that comes from their gym membership without having to actually go to the gym!”

Do you agree with the predictions? You can join in the conversation and share your own opinions and insights by dropping me a message here. Or to find out more about The GO! Network and how we create brand-agency partnerships, take a look here.

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