Building Your Brand of Fitness in a Commercial Space

Kevin Mullins | 06 Mar 2018

One of the most unique qualities in the human experience is uniqueness itself. Each of us strives for a level of autonomy and recognition in our lives and are not content until we find it. Some find it with their fashion, others turn themselves into literal bodies of art, but so many of us push to fulfill this need in our career. This is especially true in the fitness industry.

It is not a big leap to claim that every fitness professional desires their own brand. Whether it is found on the social media platforms, at conferences and in the textbooks, or simply within the walls of your local facility – everyone wants to stand out from the crowd.

Building a following, though, is even harder when you work for a commercial gym. The corporate marketing, other trainers, the noisy space, and the usual restrictions on personal branding can make it incredibly hard to establish your presence. Yet, if you follow some critical principles and play by the rules, you’ll be able to navigate the waters and construct your own little island of fitness within your facility.

Firstly, understand that altruism and selfishness are not opposite concepts. You can do amazing things for others, such as guide them on their health and fitness journey, while still pursuing your own dreams and goals. In this, altruism, personal drive, and happiness are an inevitable experience for both you and your clients, a topic that Gretchen Wilson explores in her book “The Happiness Project”. You can serve yourself and serve others just the same.

What’s most important for you as you progress through the coming bullet points is that you never put your brand above your promise. What I mean by that is this: Your business is to do right, genuinely, by people who have placed legitimate trust in you. So, never violate this principle and never serve yourself in the absence of serving others.

Below are other critical considerations for building your own personal fitness brand while employed at a commercial gym.

Be the Same, Then Be Different

There are a lot of ways to differentiate yourself in the vast industry that is fitness. Yet, it is important that you come to understand and embrace the core tenants of human anatomy and physiology, biomechanics, bioenergetics, and exercise program design before you go off on a tangent. There are just certain elements of the process that aren’t up for debate.

It is important for you to represent the absolute best our industry has to offer prior to positioning yourself as a brand. If your claims can be easily dismissed by veteran coaches, or your methodologies don’t align with well-proven principles of kinesiology and program design, then your stay in the industry will be much shorter than you’d like.

I don’t say these things to scare you either.

But, let’s just call it what it is – if you can’t represent the industry by designing safe and effective workouts that acknowledge the tenants of an entire field of science and practice, then don’t expect much love from the industry. Sure, some clients might bite for a period of time, but every fish eventually learns the difference between hooked bait and real food.

So, before you go off and try to establish yourself as a radical “new” professional in the industry, be sure to match the core principles and methods of those who are already crushing it. The fitness profession thirsts for new blood and ideas like any other revolutionizing field. Yet, unlike computer technology, our “masterpieces” are human beings who could be damaged, permanently, by unskilled technicians.

Put simply, “Make sure your foundation is incredible before worrying about how you are going to decorate your house.”

Be Known for Quality

There are really only two types of successful commercial trainers.

  1. Busy all the time, has a full book of clients and a waitlist, but most clients do the same workouts
  2. Slightly less busy, high level of results, clients all have unique experiences built on common science

Which one do you want to be?

Sure, based off most commercial gyms, pay structure trainer number one is going to be crushing it. The more you train, the more you make – period. Or do you?

It is often the trainers who are busiest that burn out the fastest. For a short while, they are hotter than the sun, but like many stars, they burn out just as quickly as they came to light. These trainers can make incredible sums of money in a short span, only to walk away when they can’t do it anymore. These trainers can be equated to the “hare” from the classic tortoise and hare fable.

This trainer survives session to session. They have no time for anyone else and barely enough time to eat a real meal. So, they cut conversations short and only have time for you if you are paying for it. A great way to make money, but a horrible way to build a brand.

Meanwhile, the other successful coaches embodies the characteristics of the tortoise. Client by client, they build a steady business. Each individual gets individual treatment during their individual time slot while doing a program designed uniquely for them – the individual. The trainer manages their book and stays very busy by industry standards, but doesn’t concern themselves with being the top performer, selling the most packages, or even being the most talked about person in the gym on a given day.

They just work their hardest at delivering outstanding quality in every session. What is even more impressive is the quality of interactions they have with those who don’t even train with them. Whether it is a member on a treadmill, another trainer’s client, or the litany of employees that dot the landscape of a gym, the interactions are always of quality.

Just as we learned as kids, the tortoise always beats the hare. Be known for being a high-quality person, a high-quality trainer, and a high-quality conversationalist.

Be Everywhere

Another weakness of the “hare” trainer is that they are locked into the tens of hours they are training each week. They must be attentive, or should be, to the person paying their salary.

Yet, a successful brand is built by always being at the front of everyone’s mind. There are so many ways for a personal trainer to expand beyond simply training sessions that we could write an entire article on them. Instead, we’ll highlight just a few:

  • Teaching group fitness classes is an obvious example of how you can place yourself in front of a large group of people who could sing your praises if you do your job right. With each class, you’ll have exposure to a significant group of people, which research has shown are highly engaged in the community of their gym.
  • Learn all of the rules, regulations, and happenings at your gym. Have answers that other individuals in your position don’t. If someone wants to bring a friend on a guest pass, but they don’t have any left on their account, then do your best to accommodate them without pushing them to someone else. If something on the gym floor is broken, then be the person who takes the note to the maintenance staff – don’t push the member that way.
  • Do events that reward you with nothing more than people’s time. Cost is a barrier to access for people even if the dollar value is low. It’s the simple fact that we as people enjoy free things, and so don’t always treat your time as though it is worth your session rate. Educate members on a topic you are passionate about, run challenges, set up tables for brands to pitch food/drink at your facility – whatever you choose, do it with building your brand in mind.
  • Be the resource for management and your fellow trainers. As you continue to train hundreds into thousands of sessions, you’ll be seen as a veteran. This point of influence isn’t to be taken lightly. Set up seminars for your fellow coaches, or try to become a paid educator for your commercial brand. Moreover, be THE trainer that management asks tough questions to, assigns special clients to, or chooses to handle media outreach. By establishing yourself as a great trainer, a humble person, and an amazing human being, everyone on the staff around and above you will look to you for guidance.

Take note that there was no mention of social media in this section. There were no instructions on how to make better videos, or how to work with certain algorithms to be found sooner in a search. Instead, we focused on building your value in-person at your job. Pushing people to your social media account is like telling someone you meet casually that you’ll only date them if they find you on Tinder – it’s rude, narcissistic, and disheartening.

If you can’t build an in-person brand by doing awesome things at your location, then chances are your social media game won’t do much better. But don’t worry – there is plenty of space in the next bullet about social media and global branding – I just needed to get your priorities straight first.

Provide REAL DIGITAL VALUE

If I had a dollar every time I’ve seen a trainer post a video of themselves doing something awesome in the gym with a hashtag like #getlikeme, #beastmodeisonlyapurchaseaway , and any other stupid run-on word you can think of, then I’d be loaded and retired in Costa Rica.

Let’s just establish this: Real coaches build their brands on the work they do with other people and how they can change other people’s lives. The most successful people in the industry get to where they are by letting their work speak louder than their words.

No Mr. Squat 6 plates – people who scroll your feed don’t want to throw their checkbooks at you. They marvel at how crazy it is that you’re squatting a Smart Car and move on with their lives.

Sure, doing a handstand on a BOSU ball while eating a slice of chicken and hamstring curling a dumbbell looked awesome, but don’t use it as a sales pitch. It makes you look unattainable at best and a buffoon at worst. Neither of these things are great for a brand.

But, social media can be done right – if you follow these rules:

  1. Only post about yourself or your accomplishments once a month. This includes videos of you doing crazy stuff in the gym that only you can do. People aren’t going to pay you for YOUR workouts. They want to pay you and follow you for their own.
  2. Don’t use run-of-the-mill phrases that are proven incorrect in a scientific setting. Phrases such as “no pain, no gain”, “Beauty was eaten by the Beast”, or any other silly incarnation of “train insane” doesn’t make you look like a professional worthy of hard earned cash – it makes you look like a gym rat who doesn’t enjoy much else beyond your workouts.
  3. Avoid politics, religion, and sex all together.
  4. Post tips that people haven’t seen before. Don’t just post another squat video about how the knees shouldn’t be over the toes – go deeper – give us something we’ve never seen before.
  5. When giving props to your client’s progress, be sure to mention their hard work and not “your method”. There are no “methods” in this industry. There are just great workouts designed to move the needle and nutrition advice that emphasize positive eating behaviors while lowering negative ones. Compliment their actual success and not their ability to “stay with your plan”.

There are many other points to be made: Keep your clothes on, type using real words, don’t use 200 hashtags, don’t tag random celebrities or brands in your posts as if it helps you sound more legit, don’t steal other people’s intellectual property, and don’t correlate followers with “having a brand”.

If you want to build a social media following that accompanies your in-person brand, be sure to highlight the parts of exercise science that many people overlook – the small, boring details. Bring the same quality of interaction to every blog or social media post you make. This way, people will associate you with one of the great coaches and not another person in a hurry to get famous.

Be Authentic

Let’s close with a real struggle in our society – authenticity. It is scary as hell to show someone your wounds. It’s scary to admit that you don’t have it all figured out. So, most people don’t.

They put on a dog and pony show about how they can deadlift this much weight, they only eat broccoli, and how they were the star quarterback of their high school team until they hurt their knee. Truth is, they deadlift half that weight, eat more chips than broccoli, and rode the bench until their senior year.

How am I sure?

I was that guy for years. I wanted to WOW everyone I met with my credentials. I’d ramble on about being a Men’s Health Next Top Trainer, I’d talk about the articles I was writing and the certifications I had achieved. I’d talk about how hard my fastball was back in the day (it wasn’t), and I’d craft the person I wanted to be with every word I stated.

Want to know what happened?

One day I cracked. I wasn’t myself. People didn’t like me for who I was becoming. I was losing friends, making enemies, and finding myself being left out of activities that I used to be the first pick for.

Instead of showing the world the guy who was an above average athlete nicknamed “heart” by some old teammates of mine, I showed them a pompous liar. Instead of showing them a guy who had been on a big stage at Men’s Health and lost, I showed them a poor sport with an ego.

To spare you the long story of personal growth, I’ll skip to the takeaway: Authentic branding is the best branding. Coke is Coke because they don’t try to make tacos. People love LuLu Lemon because they aren’t going to try and take on Nike and Under Armour. And your clients, gym members, social media followers, and fellow trainers will adore you for being you – the good, bad, and imperfect.

Make fun of your love of a unhealthy treat, share stories about your darker times, write your blog posts with a sense of shameless audacity that says, “I’m here and I’m still figuring out how to fly this plane, but trust me, I’ve got you!”.

You’ll be happy to know there is no algorithm on being an amazing person who is authentic. It just takes the courage to leave your armor at home and be earnest in all of your efforts.

Closing

See, the real secret to building a brand isn’t about how you can get people to pay attention or how you can stand out in a crowd. It’s about how you can keep people’s attention, how you can captivate their minds, and how you can capture their loyalty.

Think of a street performer in a busy place such as Times Square. Every day, thousands of people see them. Most will walk right by, but some will stop and watch. Even fewer will throw a few bucks into their jar. What is worst though isn’t this reality...it’s the following one:

By dinner, most people will have forgotten most of the details about the street performer. It won’t take much longer for them to simply merge the street performer with the rest of the landscape of the city. The naked cowboy in Times Square soon blends in people’s minds with the skyscrapers, the overwhelming crowds, and the grayness that is New York City. All traits of the individual – gone.

Yet, think of the famous singer who puts on a show where everyone is there for them. They sing their hearts out and put on a performance that brought tears to some people’s eyes and plastered smiles on the faces of the others. It’s all the people can talk about for days and days after the event – each story being accompanied by multiple videos on their phone. Years after they’ll still look back and say, “Remember when we saw so-and-so”, and the memories come to life again.

Which one will you be?

  • Do you want to be the Naked Cowboy who captivates for a moment, but soon fades to gray?
  • Or do you want to be the higher quality, harder to access, but forever remembered product that changes lives?

I have faith that all of you reading this will focus on building yourself into the best version possible, which in turn will allow you to build the business of your dreams. Go get ‘em!

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Kevin Mullins

About the author: Kevin Mullins

Kevin Mullins, CSCS is a Tier 3+ coach for Equinox Sports Club in Washington D.C. A B.S. in Kinesiology from the University of Maryland serves as the scientific foundation for the following certifications - ISSA certified Personal Trainer, USAW Level 1 Sports Performance, and Precision Nutrition Level 1.

Kevin writes for multiple resources and has been featured by PTontheNet, the PTDC, Men's Health, Women's Health, the Washington Post, and local television outlets. He was selected as Men's Health Next Top Trainer in 2014 and 2015.

Kevin maintains his own site at KevinMullinsFitness.com

As a fitness professional, Kevin aims to listen and learn as much about a client in an effort to design training and nutrition programs that are personalized to someone's physiological, psychological, and sociological readiness. No two programs should look the same.

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