John Hanc is a long-time contributor to the New York Times and Newsday and a former Contributing Editor to Runner's World magazine. His articles have also appeared in numerous publications including Smithsonian, Family Circle, the Boston Globe and Columbia Journalism Review. In the past year, two books co-written by Hanc have garnered a total of five major literary awards. Your Heart, My Hands: An Immigrant's Remarkable Journey to Becoming One of America's Preeminent Cardiac Surgeons (Center Street Books), which Hanc wrote with Arun Singh, M.D., won four awards, including Gold Medals in both the 2020 Nautilus Book Awards the and American Society of Journalists and Authors annual writing competitions. Fighting for My Life: Living in the Shadow of Alzheimer's Disease (Thomas Nelson), which he wrote with Jamie Tyrone and Marwan Sabbagh, M.D., also won a Gold Medal in the Nautilus Awards.
Building Your Fitness Brand
Once a term reserved for the marketers of fragrances, luxury automobiles, appliances or corn flakes, branding is now seen as an imperative for anyone in the personal services industry. As a health and exercise professional, you’ve probably been urged to create your own “brand” to succeed. But what exactly does personal branding mean, particularly for a personal trainer, health coach or group fitness instructor?
Shay Kostabi, co-founder of Fitness Career Mastery—a business consultancy for boutique studio owners and exercise professionals—answers that question with a question, and a laugh. “Do you want the long answer or the short answer?”
We’ll take both, please.
Kostabi’s short definition: Branding is the art of curating a compelling and authentic story around your product or service that elicits an emotional response from your ideal customer.
But the host of the popular Fitness Career Mastery podcast points out that this seemingly clear description of branding is often confused as something else—something more superficial.
“It’s not just about a logo or your color scheme or the name of your workout or program,” she says. “That's where a lot of fitness pros make a mistake. They think the Instagram handle is the key to a personal brand.”
While having memorable, consistent messaging is certainly important, it’s really window dressing to the solid foundation real branding can provide for your success. That foundation starts with what Kostabi calls a “brand persona,” which is the story around your brand. “Being an ACE Certified trainer is obviously important,” she says. “But that’s not why people are hiring you. They want to know, ‘How are you going to transform my life? How are you going to get me to the place I want to be?’”
Branding expert Sean Gersh of Northeastern University defines a personal brand as who you are and what you stand for. It should articulate your reputation, build trust and communicate your unique attributes.
“Personal branding,” says Professor Gersh, “is one’s story.”
Who Will Tell Your Story—and How?
“You have to choose a very specific mission and a very focused way of delivering that mission and that message to your community,” says Sarah Apgar, who successfully pitched her fitness brand on Shark Tank. Apgar is founder of FitFighter, a strength and conditioning system based around Steelhose—a patent-pending, flexible free weight made from real firehose, which is available in weights ranging from 5 to 50 pounds. “A lot of what I see is people pumping out the same generic messages and trying to talk to everyone.” Instead, she says, carve out your niche and then spread the word far and wide.
Finding that niche—or to use an advertising term from the Mad Men days, your USP (Unique Selling Proposition)—is the first step in personal branding.
“It could be post-collegiate athletes or single moms or older people,” says Apgar. “Whoever that is, there’s plenty of them out there to build a good business.”
Read, study and try to develop an expertise and core competency around that mission. Define what you have to offer and the people you want to offer it to. And then—be patient. “It’s probably going to be two to three years of shouting from the rooftops,” says Apgar.
Matt Sulam is happy to do the shouting—and has done plenty of it in his 20-plus year career as a full-time personal trainer. He defines the personal trainer’s brand as “part of your DNA” in terms of client perception—along with your personality. “I may not be the most prolific trainer on the planet,” says Sulam, “but nobody works harder than I do at integrating new innovative training practices and tools into every single client-training session.”
He didn’t begin his training career that way, however. “When I started, it was all about barbell squats, bench presses and heavy dumbbells curls,” he says, with a chuckle, “for me and my clients.” But over the years, he says, “you evolve.” Now Sulam is always on alert for the latest new gym toy. He’s in regular touch with many fitness manufacturers and has helped beta test new pieces of equipment. “Every year you learn different things that work, and your brand has to reflect that,” he says. “You need to be able to adapt.”
In other words, not only is flexibility an important component of fitness, it’s an essential attribute when it comes to building a fitness brand.
Personality Is a Plus
Sulam offers another essential element of your brand: personality. “You’re not just a content expert, you’re a person who your client should want to spend time with as they pursue their health and fitness goals,” he says. “You have to be motivating, authoritative and friendly. A workout session shouldn’t be like a literal boot camp or a college class with a boring professor.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to be Jerry Seinfeld, reeling off one-liners as you count reps. But you do need to be seen as authentic, caring and focused on helping your clients achieve their goals. “You have to be able to juxtapose between ‘here's your training information’ and the funny story you were telling between sets,” Sulam says. In his case, it also meant maintaining the high-energy, affable persona his clients like, even as he refined his brand as the trainer with all the new toys. “You have to control the narrative,” he asserts. “Yes, I’ve brought in new training practices and tools, but I’ve never swayed from the core of who I am as a trainer.”
In other words, Sulam’s training “brand” has evolved in some ways, while staying true to his essential identity.
The process took time—and that’s another key takeaway as you consider building your brand.
Branding Takes Time
Apgar, who has an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, says that health and exercise professionals shouldn’t expect to rush to market with a brand persona they thought up over drinks with their friends the night before. Instead, take a page from corporate brand-builders. “Do what any large company would do,” Apgar says. “They routinely test their ideas, in a clinical trial or focus group.”
You can do the same, albeit on a smaller scale. “Run experimental pilots with a few people at first, where you can test and learn and get feedback.” That could involve some more formal research—for example, if you want your niche to be that of a trainer who works with older women who have little fitness experience, study the demographics of your community. Is there a large older and affluent population that could support that business? On the other hand, your research efforts could be more informal, such as soliciting feedback on your website, logo or social media posts from friends, colleagues or existing clients.
That’s the kind of research Apgar did as she eventually developed FitFighter. “We could have gone a different direction with this brand,” says Apgar, who has served as a volunteer firefighter in suburban New York. “We could have gone the ‘train like a firefighter!’ route, but that’s not what I wanted. I started to realize how powerful this tool was, and that it could appeal to a much wider audience.”
Apgar took a major step toward reaching that audience in November of 2020, when she appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank. In front of more 4.5 million viewers, she pitched FitFighter and the Steelhose, and received an offer of $250,000 for a 25% stake in the company, from guest Shark Daniel Lubetzky, the creator of KIND bars. “We swam with the Sharks,” posted Sarah on social media, shortly after the episode aired, “and are so incredibly honored to have a new FitFighter partner.”
And that’s the power—and the promise—of branding.
4 Ways to Create Your “Inventive Identity”
Coach and consultant Raleigh Mayer, who is known as the Gravitas Guru, eschews the use of the word “brand” when discussing the marketing of personal services. “Brand has more of a product orientation for me,” says Mayer, a senior fellow at the Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership. “And people aren’t products.”
Instead, says Mayer, who also teaches leadership and communication to graduate students at Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, “I prefer ‘inventive identity.’” Here are four steps for developing it:1. Develop an inventive introduction. This is an opportunity to characterize and distinguish yourself in a memorable way. “When you’re introduced to someone, instead of offering a generic response to the question of ‘What do you do?’, create a response that promises a benefit and personalizes it,” Mayer says. For example, a physician might describe their job as “I keep people breathing,” instead of the more literal “senior attending cardiologist at region hospital.” Likewise, for a health and exercise professional, Mayer suggests that an inventive answer might be: “I help build healthier bodies,” or “I help people to walk up the stairs at age 90.”
Then, Mayer says, take that concept and use it in every communication and identity piece that you engage in or produce, including business cards, your website and hashtags. “That’s why I’m the Gravitas Guru,” she explains. “I could simply say I’m an executive coach or a communications consultant, but when I use my inventive introduction, people say, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard that.’ And it gives me an opportunity to engage with them, which is the whole idea.”2. Evaluate your value proposition. Prospective clients want to know: “Why should I hire you?” Your response to this question is your value proposition. “This is what makes you special, different, unique compared to people in your business,” Mayer says. As a health and exercise professional, the answer to why a client should hire you will vary, of course, based on your chosen niche—a fundamental principle of branding. If you’re trying to build your business around former athletes, for example, your value proposition—or differentiating point—might be, “I was a trained as a dancer, so I know how to maintain that high level of performance as you get older.” If exercise as part of a weight-loss program is the focus of your practice, your value proposition might be: “I used to be 50 pounds overweight, so I know how hard it is to lose weight and keep it off.” Or, if you’re targeting the mom market: “I’m a mom and I understand the challenge of staying in shape when you have young children.”
If you have a value proposition around a niche that you have not directly experienced, such as weight loss, it is important to tell the story of how the experiences you do have make you the right person for the job. Obviously, what you say needs to be the truth—that you do have expertise in these areas—but stating it in a way that makes you better qualified than another health and exercise professional requires thought and, again, should be communicated consistently across all platforms.3. Cultivate a personal style. While this one may sound like we’re veering close to the borders of “superficiality” that some branding experts tell us to avoid, Mayer believes a distinct personal appearance in a personal-services business isn’t about being superficial—it’s about being successful. For those who work in gyms, where there are other trainers and instructors, standing out is important. “Separate yourself,” urges Mayer, in a way that feels authentic and unique, whether that means wearing brightly colored shoes or head-to-toe black attire that is branded with your company logo. Just be sure that your personal choices, from the fit of your clothing to how you wear your hair, are consistent with your identity and don’t signal a greater concern for yourself over your clients.
4. Develop a consistent and deliberate message. Your inventive introduction, value proposition and personal style are all parts of a whole—your whole message, identity and brand. And it extends down to your social media, including your Instagram and Facebook pages and your Twitter handle. “Even your email address should reflect your inventive introduction,” urges Mayer. Just be sure to “keep it professional and follow the guidelines of good taste.”
Resources to Help You Build Your Brand and Business Identity
- Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen, by Donald Miller
- Fitness Career Mastery podcast with Shay and Barry Kostabi, available on all major podcast platforms