Gold’s Gym: Why You Can’t Have Your Cake & Eat It Too

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I want to share a real-life example with you of what happens when your business strategy and marketing tell one story, yet customers experience something quite different. Several years ago I joined a new Gold’s Gym. The staff really was friendly and I liked the mix of programs and equipment. So I was a relatively happy camper even though I’m not exactly their target customer.

Yet I couldn’t avoid noticing the mixed messages that Gold’s sends its customers. It’s the classic strategic misstep of trying to have your cake and eat it too.

At the time:

According to Gold’s, their goal is to attract “everyone from babies to soccer moms to baby boomers” while “building on their image of bodybuilding.”

I understand the appeal of those millions of unfit, inactive, overweight boomers. And Gold’s current marketing does a great job of positioning them as all about a healthy lifestyle, as illustrated by their tagline “Change your body, change your life”, a well-done ad in People magazine riffing on the traditional “before and after” weight loss pitch, alliances with AARP and the American Diabetes Association, and great in-gym posters that promote nutrition counseling with images of actual food, not supplements.

But Gold’s bodybuilding heritage doesn’t position it well to serve soccer moms and boomers. Expanding programs to groups that share the bodybuilder’s passion for physical fitness would probably capitalize better on that heritage. Examples might include sports performance programs, intense CrossFit-style training, triathlete training programs, and the like.

Or, if they’re really committed to that sedentary boomer focus, it might even make sense to launch a second brand focused exclusively on healthy lifestyles – say, something like “GoldsForHealth”.

Meanwhile, keeping one foot planted firmly in the bodybuilding camp – and the other planted firmly in the healthy lifestyles camp – sends lots of mixed messages to customers, because their actual experiences don’t synch with these marketing themes.

As a result, neither audience gets a truly great experience.

1) The “wall of fame”

The stretching area – also where trainers typically work with newbies – contains the “wall of fame”.

On the left, an array of inspirational stories – mostly text, few photos – from obese unfit members who successfully improved their health at Gold’s. On the right, quintessential bodybuilder photos, many autographed, of very heavily muscled guys (and one or two women) in classic competitive poses.

Trying to appeal to both audiences creates an experience that works for neither. The bodybuilder gallery is a real turn-off to their “new” target customer – at best, irrelevant; at worst, distasteful and off-putting. And the bodybuilders, who might appreciate those celebrity images, will never see them because they rarely visit the stretching area.

2) The smoothie bar

The PowerBlendz smoothie bar has a strong “maximum performance” spin rather than a healthy lifestyle emphasis. For example: the Power Shake, the Muscle Builder, and the Pure Protein shake. All six smoothies target strength junkies, not soccer moms, as the FatBurner’s ad copy illustrates: “the most effective and safe “fat stack” ever, with pyruvate and chromium P.” That’s how bodybuilders, not boomers, talk about nutrition.

3) The website

When you visit Gold’s website, most of the text and all of the photos on the About page are about the company’s heritage as the “Mecca of Bodybuilding.” All they say about their new incarnation is that they have the latest equipment and services.

4) The music

It’s very loud, especially in the strength area, often has sexually explicit lyrics (“I know what I want and it’s below your waist”), mostly urban contemporary, alt-rock and metal, no country, and mostly dating from this decade.

If this were a gym targeted toward cosmopolitan 20-somethings, that music might be a great fit. But the demographics for this area are $70K median household income, median age 41, 60% managers/professionals. In Bible-Belt Texas, this probably isn’t the music they typically want to hear.

5) The programs and services

Gold’s offers a typical gym experience focused on equipment, group fitness, and personal training.

I have yet to see free or paid seminars and workshops on any aspect of a healthy lifestyle, although they did allow an outside vendor to promote some kind of offbeat pain relief gadget recently. It looks to me like their nutritional services are provided by Gold’s-certified trainers, not by dietitians and not by people with respected third-party nutrition credentials.

So their marketing tells a healthy lifestyles story – but the actual member experience is the familiar health club experience. Which is OK – as long as the marketing and the experience are in synch.

6) The sales process

The sales process feels like you’re bargaining with merchants in a bazaar – not a good fit with the way folks in their late 30s+ prefer to buy. They remember sleazy health club sales practices of the past, don’t like a hard sell, and don’t make snap decisions. Price matters less than the experience and their belief that you can really meet their needs.

Yet the sales script is pretty much the same regardless of your interests and goals. Pricing starts with high “initiation fees” that drop in a flash if you’re reluctant. And they’ve designed the pricing to steer you towards using a personal trainer, whether that matches your needs or not.

It doesn’t build trust or confidence, which makes it less likely that you’ll feel comfortable turning to them for guidance on, say, balancing food and exercise to reverse your doctor’s warnings about being pre-diabetic. That’s a shame, because customers badly want this expertise, and it’s not readily available.

7) The follow-up

Gold’s asked me twice for referrals the day I signed up. Um, sorry – I don’t refer people to a business I’ve just started using. Last week I got a postcard asking for, yet again, referrals.

On the other hand, they’ve never asked me how I like my membership so far and what they could do better. And I can’t spot a suggestion box anywhere.

Customer loyalty is based on relationships – and relationships are built on give-and-take. So far every communication from Gold’s has been about them and what THEY want. That approach doesn’t play well with boomers.

8) The staff

Some trainers at my Gold’s seem unaware of the special needs of older and extremely unfit members – even though these folks are part of Gold’s growth strategy. For example, I’ve seen a trainer walk off to the front of the store to do paperwork, stranding an older client on a treadmill because she’s afraid to let go of the side-rails to turn it off.

And I’ve seen trainers repeatedly put new unfit and often overweight clients on stability balls, where they’re visibly intimidated by the difficulty of controlling the ball and no doubt feel extremely awkward and incompetent – exactly the fears that keep them out of the gym.

9) The strength area

Guys, remember the “no girls allowed” rule when you were kids playing with your buddies? It still feels that way at Gold’s. Young guys into lifting dominate the strength area at my Gold’s. Not many women venture over there, and I notice that even fit guys in their 40s and up don’t seem to either.

The bottom line

Your wellness business cannot be everything to everybody.

Build on the business strengths you have – not the ones you wish you had. Decide who you’re best at serving, and focus all your energies on providing an unparalleled experience for that customer.

Then, have the courage to say no when someone tries to persuade your business to be something it’s not.