Total Fitness commits to the ‘power of brand’ with hire of first brand director

Marketing now has a seat at the board table at Total Fitness, as the health chain eyes up growth outside its core business.

Total Fitness, the North of England and Wales based health club chain, has appointed Kerry Curtis as the business’s first brand development director, signifying its commitment to brand marketing as it looks to grow beyond its main gyms.

Curtis, who joined the brand in 2018 as its head of marketing, steps into the role off the back of a stint as its head of brand development, which incorporated product development into her role.

As part of the new job, Curtis will have a seat on Total Fitness’s executive committee, something she says signifies the business’s commitment to the “power of brand”.

When Curtis joined the business, she says it was a “turnaround” job, as the company had been “in a bit of a bad way” in the preceding few years, with a lot of changes at C-suite level. Her previous experience had been within travel and airlines, and she says her initial appointment at the brand was “a bit of a gamble”, given the fitness industry’s tendency to recruit from within.

‘Right hand to the CEO’: Marketers on the changing demands of the CMO“I looked at things a little bit differently in terms of making decisions based on research and insight, and questioning the way things have always been doing,” she adds.

When it comes to the “importance of brand”, Curtis says Total Fitness’s CEO, Sophie Lawler, has “been on the journey” with her, recognising the key role it plays in growing and nurturing the business. Her new position is “reflective of where the business is going” and the “challenger” it “wants to be” in the industry, she says, as well as signifying how seriously the brand is taking the marketing function.

Fitness brands are typically “sales-centric”, says Curtis, with price-led campaigns the norm. The last few years have seen her position Total Fitness as a “holistic space” that is “more welcoming” than rivals – this is reflective in the business’s wide membership base, which goes from 0 to 80, she says, and is almost at 100,000 across its 15 gyms.

“The fitness industry from a brand and semiotics point of view is quite serious, especially in the budget end,” adds Curtis, who notes Total Fitness is in the mid-range. Instead, it focuses on the role of fitness away from aesthetics, asking: “What needs are we trying to fulfil here? How can we meet that?”

The fitness industry from a brand and semiotics point of view is quite serious, especially in the budget end.

Kerry Curtis, Total Fitness

Plus, in the fitness industry, kit suppliers “lead the innovation” according to Curtis, which is something she hopes to change within her new role. “We’re going to do things differently,” she says, with a customer-first approach.

“We want to address the big questions,” she adds. “The fitness industry is quite old-fashioned and behind other industries.”

Eyeing up future growth is a complicated topic for Total Fitness, as the large size of its gyms doesn’t lend itself to rapid growth in a huge number of locations in the way other gym brands can develop. “That’s what makes us really different,” she says. “Our growth won’t be that size.”

Beyond the core

For now, the business is looking for growth “outside the core”. The company is focusing less on new locations but is instead growing the offering around the master brand, with an evolution of its swimming proposition.

“The opportunity for us is very much around the poolside experience,” Curtis says, adding the chain is launching a “swim academy” soon, but is looking to encourage members to take a dip at all ages.

Alongside swimming, female-focused spaces are on the brand’s radar. While all its gyms have a women’s gym internally, Curtis says these are “unloved spaces” in terms of product – think, 2kg dumbbells, she says – despite being “so popular”. Total Fitness will be opening a women-only gym later this year, which as well as providing a space for women to workout privately, will allow the brand to tap into key insight about what this core group want from a fitness space.

The new gym also provides the chance for Curtis to evolve the business’s sign-up process and customer experience. Despite jumping from 5-7% of sign-ups being online in 2018 to 55% today, the brand hasn’t developed its online user journey, and Curtis hopes the new gym will provide the opportunity to overhaul the sales process as it onboards new members.

The way the fitness industry, especially in the mid-market, sells memberships is a bit like a car salesman.

Kerry Curtis, Total Fitness

“The way the fitness industry, especially in the mid-market, sells memberships is a bit like a car salesman,” she says. “We’re very late to adopt an online process,” Curtis adds, despite the number of online sign-ups increasing. Upcoming changes will make customers more “self-sufficient” in the process, though Curtis notes the brand will land somewhere in the middle between a completely online automated system, and a “heavy sales approach” with a “hybrid model” in the works.

Another area Total Fitness has been refreshing is its employer branding, an “unusual” project for a business of its size, says Curtis. It decided to nurture its employer brand last year after realising “the fitness industry is not well-paid, and it’s really hard work”, whether that’s moving gym equipment or the complicated nature of health and safety.

The new employer brand, which focuses on resilience and hard work, has attracted “better people” who are “more akin” to the business’s culture, says Curtis.

Curtis, and the wider Total Fitness leadership team, acknowledge brand-building as “super important”, with the customer needing to be “at the heart of any decisions” as it moves through its current journey. “Our commitment is to say, ‘we’re going to do things a little bit differently’ and we’re going to start from the customer,” Curtis adds.

“And we need a brand lead to do that, as opposed to operations or finance,” she concludes.