The fitness industry has seen great growth over the past few decades. Millions of people are still joining health clubs each year, while many new fitness centers are opening up to meet the public demand.
Even though we are enjoying success as an industry, are we really enjoying optimal success rates in attracting new club members? What will our growth look like in the future if we keep following the same marketing methods? What percentage of the population is really using our clubs and what can we do to attract new business to optimize our growth in the far future?
Using the tribal brain hypothesis, this article approaches fitness marketing from a different angle and poses the question: Has our success so far simply been from targeting like-minded brains from within our existing fitness tribes and, if so, what do we need to do to attract non-like-minded tribes?
The Tribal Brain
Let’s face it: Physically, humans are not much to talk about as a species, are we? As part of the animal kingdom, we’re probably the slowest species. We’re probably also the clumsiest, walking upright on two feet, which allows for numerous balance and locomotion issues. While we’re on the topic of inadequacies, let’s not forget our limited senses. For example, how much of the visual and auditory spectra can we actually see and hear? The scientific term for that would be “bugger all” (Taylor, 2010).
To think that we have come as far as we have as a species is truly mind-boggling. Thirty-five thousand years ago our ancestors were far from the top of the food chain. We had many natural predators and environmental challenges to contend with. But through all this, we still managed to emerge as the dominant species that has literally changed the face of this planet (Adolphs, 2004).
What was it that allowed us to adapt and evolve into the dominant species on this planet today? Studies in the fields of social cognitive neuroscience (Ochsner & Lieberman, 2001) and evolutionary psychology teach us that over time humans developed a number of complex social behaviors such as communication, empathy, and awareness of self and others. These social adaptations allowed us to survive in the harsh environments in which we lived. We developed the ability to work together and learn from others, as well as the desire to improve tools, even if the tools we already used worked well. In short, we developed a social mind as a survival tool that has served us so extremely well that we managed to not only survive, but to thrive as a species (Tomassello, 2001).
From this understanding, we can hypothesize that tens of thousands of years ago, we had to band together to protect ourselves against the dangers in the world. Our strength in numbers also meant that we had to be like-minded. From a tribal perspective, being like-minded meant that we understood each other’s thoughts and actions and that we could imagine what someone else was thinking or even feeling. This enabled us to develop empathy and an ability to learn from one another simply through observation (Singer et al., 2006; Iacoboni and Dapretto, 2006).
We don’t need to use much imagination to conclude from this that being “very different” from the rest of the tribe may have been received with great resistance from other members, with potentially disastrous effects for the individual. The human need to belong to a social group is so strong that isolation from the group causes great psychological and physical pain. Recent research indicates that our brains use the same neural pathways to process social pain from, for example, rejection as they would physical pain, which shows us the existence of a strong neurological drive to belong and to be accepted (Lieberman and Eisenberger, 2008).
This sense of belonging enabled tribes to develop like-minded thinking cultures. Over the thousands of years that these tribal populations expanded, so, too, did their cultures and a natural resistance to non-like-minded thinking. While our tribes were still small and scattered, this threat response to “different" thinking probably kept us alive and enabled us to thrive as ever-growing groups (Alexander, 1989; Dunbar, 2004). Recent studies show that fear centers in the brain are automatically activated when people are approached by strangers. It is believed that this perception of threat is a function that occurs naturally before the brain will complete its standard perceptual functions (Phelps, 2006).
This means that, in part, our social evolution has shaped our brains to naturally have a negative bias towards things and people we do not know and that many of us may even perceive a different culture, concept, idea, or person as a potential threat that may be received with fear and resistance before it can be seen as something positive and potentially rewarding.
Genetically, we have not changed much as a species over the past 35,000 years, but our environment has. Now that humans are a global species, our brains are not restricted to tribal like-mindedness alone. On the contrary, our rapid population growth and globalization has forced these culturally like-minded tribes to continually expand until they began to overlap and become integrated with one another, which is the case in today’s society. Our global expansion happened so fast, that our brains have not yet developed the ability to naturally accept people who think and behave differently. One could say that we are still very much a tribal people stuck in a global environment with all potential complications associated with it.
For example, when analyzing another person’s behavior, we still tend to use our own brains and thoughts as a reference to make sense of what is going on, under the premise that we all think alike. The further away someone else’s behavior and thoughts are from ours, the less likely we are to gravitate toward that person, simply due to a natural defense developed tens of thousands of years ago (Mitchell, Macrae & Banaji, 2006).
How is the Tribal Brain Hypothesis Relevant to the Fitness Industry?
For our industry, awareness of the tribal brain perspective is potentially huge. For example, according to the Active Marketing Group's Health Club Industry Review 2007, in the United States an average of 15% of the population owns a gym membership, which may seem like a lot of people. However, when analyzing the data using the evolutionary tribal theory, one cannot but help ask the question, “Is it possible that the successful growth our industry has been enjoying over the years simply is a result of attracting like-minded people who naturally gravitate toward us simply because we are like-minded thinkers from the same “fitness tribe”? If that’s the case, then how much growth can we still expect in the future if we simply continue to focus on attracting like-minded people?
To ensure continued industry growth, at some point, we will need to find ways to tap into that part of the population that represents the other 85% of the non-like-minded thinkers who, at this moment in time, have no intention whatsoever of becoming part of our fitness tribe. What tools are we using today to reach out to that 85%?
On another note, the tribal brain hypothesis might also be applied in terms of membership retention and training adherence. Is it possible that many clients join a gym expecting to be part of a tribe they can relate to, only to find out that the gym’s leadership culture is from a different tribe than they are, thus causing a lack of relatedness to, and therefore disappointment in, that particular gym? If this is the case, then what can we do, as an industry, to ensure our clients are able to feel connected to our tribal culture of fitness?
Famed neuroscientist and organizational leadership guru, Jeffrey Schwartz (2011), once stated, “You cannot expect others to reflect on their behavior if you have not started to look dispassionately at yourself and to recognize where you need to change. After all, you are one of those responsible for painting a positive vision of the future, articulating the new possibilities in the collective mind, and calming the sense of upheaval.”
What this means is, if our current behavior is only geared toward like-minded people of our own fitness tribe, then to reach a broader audience, we need to ask ourselves whether we are prepared to change our own behaviors and attitudes so that broader audience can feel a sense of relatedness or connection with us. As mentioned earlier, we developed the ability to learn simply through observation. It is therefore plausible to theorize that creating behavior change in the “non-fitness tribe” is simply a matter of changing our own behavior and attitudes first.
Therefore, instead of expecting a population of people to relate to us, we must take the first step and attempt to relate to them first. One way to achieve this is through market research. Through research, a fitness center can identify the different “tribes” in its geographic area and discover what the center needs to do to develop a greater sense of relatedness with each of those tribes. Marketing campaigns can then be targeted to appeal to them.
In his lecture on "The Social Brain and Relatedness," Professor Dean Mobbs (2010) of the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit (CBU) explained that game shows, for example, purposefully use contestants that are similar to the viewing population, thereby kindling their likeability, familiarity, and kin-motivated responses. For one person’s brain to be able to relate to another brain, it must deem that brain as similar to its own. The closer the similarity, the more connected the brain will automatically feel.
How Similar Does the “Non-Fitness Tribe” View Us?
With this in mind, marketing campaigns must be targeted at specific groups with the intention to allow those groups to feel similar or connected with the campaign. Once a tribe can feel connected with the campaign, it will be more open to the idea of becoming part of our fitness tribe. For example, how connected will a 70-year-old woman feel looking at posters of ripped abs and sexy women? However, seeing images of a fit and strong 70-year-old woman might be much more inspiring.
Another interesting observation is the amount of effort typically put into developing marketing campaigns on weight loss. To this day, most marketing campaigns in the fitness industry are geared towards weight loss. Even though it’s a well-known fact that obesity levels are of epidemic levels with an even larger population of people who are overweight, this does not automatically guarantee that everyone wants to lose weight or will feel connected to a typical weight loss campaign.
In a 2009 survey by Gallup, six out of ten Americans are overweight, however, only 27 percent of those people are actively trying to lose weight. This means that only 27 percent of overweight Americans will be able to relate to current weight loss marketing campaigns. What about the other 73 percent? It makes sense that adding marketing campaigns that also appeal to the other 73 percent and allow them to feel connected might yield more success.
Of course, developing a sense of relatedness and making an effort to connect with other tribes should not stop with the marketing campaign. Getting new customers from other tribes is one thing. Keeping them, on the other hand, is a completely different ball game, which in many cases will involve changing entire leadership cultures from top to bottom. This is a topic that will be discussed in another article in the near future.
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