I’m a great believer in watching other businesses to learn what works and what doesn’t. In fact, one of my favorite quotes is from Catherine Aird, who said, “If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.”

Below are five good examples and horrible warnings for your wellness business:

Title Nine Sports

Who are they?
The business name “Title 9” refers to a federal law best known for prohibiting sex discrimination in schools in athletics. Title 9’s the reason that schools offer sports for boys AND girls…because it wasn’t always that way.

And Title Nine Sports, founded in 1989, was a pioneer in the sale of women’s athletic apparel. Before Title Nine, women mostly wore small sizes of guy gear.

What works?
These folks have been real marketing and product innovators.

Title 9 introduced the idea of real-life models in their catalogs, emphasizing that super-cool “get it done” women are fit.

And they realized that finding the right sports bra was the #1 source of dissatisfaction among women exercisers – so they’ve got easily the largest sports bra assortment available anywhere, representing multiple manufacturers.

They also pioneered the concept of different tiers of sports-bra support depending on size and activity.

And what doesn’t:
The real-life models are always superwomen who do it all. And the stories are increasingly extreme, leaving “normal” women feeling like underachievers (yes, one woman proudly reports giving birth in a horse trough). Originally a clever idea, but it’s got a distinctly elitist feel these days.

And the product innovation is long gone. Title 9’s idea of “extended sizes” is petite and tall. The biggest size tops out at a 14-16 XL and I bet lots of those run small. (And all those real-life superwomen? They all look like “S” to me – never M, L, or XL. And never ever women of size).

Really, shouldn’t Title 9 have come up with this innovation?

Bottom-line: There’s a lot of competition in this sector now (Athletica, Lululemon, and Lucy, to name just a few), and Title Nine’s just not keeping up.

Penzey’s Spices

Who are they?
A family-owned company that sells dried spices and herbs online, through a catalog, and in their own retail stores.

What works?
These folks are walking the talk. They believe that cooking brings people, families and communities together. They’ve stopped selling gourmet salts because they think glamorizing salt encourages people to eat more of it – and they’re worried about the health effects.

Their catalog tells stories that literally bring tears to your eyes, with a fascinating variety of photos, stories, and letters. The last issue had a heartbreaking story – and the favorite cookie recipe – of a young man known to the Penzey family who died recently in a an accident. In a catalog!

Each catalog has a letter from the company founder, Bill Penzey, that’s clearly written by him and not a marketing staffer. As you’ll see in these examples, it’s always reflective and thoughtful, with a dose of humor and approachability. He mentions product, but it’s not a hard-core pitch. He seems like someone you’d like to know.

Importantly, the spices and herbs are great – fresh and lots of variety, plus many hard-to-find items. Why’s that important? Because no matter how cool your company is, attitude can’t overcome unimpressive products.

And what doesn’t:
About the only thing that jumps out at me is that lots of the reader recipes are super-indulgent and a bit old-fashioned. Spices and herbs are a powerful tool for folks trying to eat healthy, so it’d be great to see more reader ideas along those lines. But I’m sure it’ll happen with time.

Duluth Trading Company

Who are they?
A web and catalog retailer that specializes in tough functional clothing for guys who work really hard. They also have a women’s line.

What works?
Their website and catalog reinforce their core message: this stuff ain’t for sissies.

They know their niche and they beat it to death (which is a good thing). Wondering how tough their Kevlar gloves are? They tried them out on a bed of nails.

They have a board of tradesmen advisors who try the gear and provide feedback

They solve real problems with humor that fits their audience, as demonstrated by their flagship products, “Ballroom Jeans” and “Longtail T’s” .

No marketing fluff here – they spell out the features AND the benefits in specific and concrete terms for each product. For example, pants made from fire hose canvas are soft and durable thanks to double the threads in both directions, plus stain resistance to grease, oil, mud, coffee and more.

What doesn’t:
The men’s catalog relies on product drawings, not photos. Worth testing: do customers buy more, or experience fewer returns, if photos are used – perhaps for selected items? And while the copy’s usually great, there are still times when you can tell it was written by a female marketer!  Just doesn’t have that authentic ring.

Sunnyland Farms

Who are they?
A Georgia-based family-owned catalog retailer of pecans and other nuts.

What works?
Their catalog truly puts a personal face on the company and honors the work of all the hourly workers who create their products. And the nuts themselves sound homegrown and delicious…no worries about dubious imports here!

They tell the story of the company with old family photos and anecdotes. Then, they move to the modern day with pictures (and names!) of all the workers who process the nuts. In fact, seems like just about everyone has a title underscoring their value to the company. You see company picnic photographs, school celebrations, family pix and lots more.  And they even give a shout-out to their outsourced call center, complete with photos!

And like Penzey’s, they share the sad times, too, like Harry Willson’s death a couple of years ago.

The website’s not nearly as effective as the catalog, but you can get a sense of their “family feeling” here and here.

What doesn’t work?
That personal touch is barely evident on the website. And the site itself is really underwhelming. The marketing copy has gotten better, but still needs improvement. It could benefit from more specific examples. For instance instead of simply claiming their tins are “beautiful”, they should relay a story from a customer about how the beautiful packaging makes a difference. Otherwise, it’s just marketing fluff.


Who are they:
The well-known international deli sandwich franchise.

What works?
Subway’s done an excellent job of positioning itself as a healthy fast food alternative. Which is pretty amazing, because the truth is that their menu is loaded with sandwiches and extras full of saturated fat and sodium, with little to offer in terms of whole grains or fruits and veggies. Sounds a lot like most fast food places, doesn’t it?

True, you can order lower-calorie, healthier choices at Subway, just like you can at McDonald’s or Wendy’s. But that’s not what most people order. And I bet most Subway customers who SAY they’re going because it’s healthier actually end up choosing items that aren’t all that “skinny.”

So what’s the difference between Subway and McDonald’s? The difference is that Subway’s done an excellent job of marketing itself as the healthy alternative.

What doesn’t work?
Subway’s marketing is cynical and disingenuous. It plays on the desire of people to eat healthier food, while continuing to strongly promote foods that aren’t actually smart everyday choices.

This creates a risk of backlash, and enables future competition from more “authentic” companies whose marketing accurately reflects its product line.