‘Not for kicks and giggles’: High-end gyms are becoming publishers

Now you can get your media on the side with your cycling class. A growing number of high-end gyms and fitness studios are dabbling in media as a way to increase revenue.

It’s a tactic that goes beyond basic content marketing designed simply to lure and market to new customers or existing ones. These brands are building out publications, video and audio products, and launching internal media teams to get brands to spend money with them, on display advertising, event sponsorships and more. For many, it’s turned into a real way to make money, considering they are already armed with talent in the form of fitness instructors who come with built-in social followings and plenty of content ideas. The growing interest in wellness and health-focused content doesn’t hurt either.

Equinox is ratcheting up its media ambitions: The luxury gym chain, which this year will launch a high-end hotel and a new series of retreat experiences for clients already has a magazine, called Furthermore. The decade-old magazine, which was relaunched in 2016, now is a full-fledged media business, with clients including American Express, La Mer and Sleep Number, all of which are sponsoring series and buying ads.

A large number of Furthermore readers are not Equinox clients, said CMO Vimla Black Gupta — ideal, since the company is in the business, she said, of building media properties across text, audio (it has a podcast series) and video (it creates how-to fitness videos.) “This is not for kicks and giggles,” she said. “The sponsorships and activations we’re able to do at the luxury brand level is pretty extensive. We’re increasingly getting more travel brands and hospitality brands. The key is, it has to be choice brands. We can give them access.”

At SoulCycle, the company has prioritized creating more media content, via live events and more serialized programming.

For example, a concert series will feature celebrities performing from a group of riders, as well as other attendees — one such concert, held in October in Harlem, had 300 attendees and was sponsored by Bose and Ketel One.

The media team then filmed video of the concert to send out on social channels, especially Instagram, where the brand has 569,000 followers. The brand has since held concerts in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

The company is also making content for Apple Music, including original music and podcasts.

On the video front, the company has made serialized content and programming, mostly for Instagram, including a series called “Resistance” that interviews celebrities while they cycle on a SoulCycle bicycle. A series called Destination Soul, which had Fiji water as a sponsor, traveled to destinations like Aspen and Martha’s Vineyard to meet instructors.

The media strategy is spearheaded by Greg Gittrich, whom SoulCycle added last year to head up its digital media and media operations and is now chief commercial officer of the brand. Gittrich was previously the publisher at Mashable. The company now has a media division that is 20 people.

The idea for SoulCycle, as well as for other companies dabbling in this kind of quasi-media approach is to go beyond basic curated content marketing designed to attract new customers or market to existing ones and create a real media business that will also bring in revenue.

“That’s a smart strategy and a great way to capitalize on the huge brand they’ve built,” said Noah King, svp, group director at Havas.

Ad buyer and Wavemaker head of experience, content and sponsorship Noah Mallin said that the idea isn’t new — brands like GoPro and Red Bull particularly have made it a business to build content companies of their own. “For somebody like SoulCycle, what’s appealing, in particular, are the melding of content and events and the ability to be integrated into content that the brand’s audience truly cares about,” he said.

Equinox (which owns SoulCyle) and SoulCycle in July also launched a talent management agency, supported and advised by WME, that will turn its employees — instructors who happen to be social stars with cult followings in their own right. The idea of the agency is to open up the brands to more sponsorship deals.

The one perhaps most out front with its quasi-media ambitions is Peloton, which publicly compares itself to a media company “akin to Netflix.” The company produced 48 live classes a day, all from its three production studios in New York. This along with the cycling, tread and yoga studios, which all stream live content (and include multiple robotic cameras).

Last summer, it acquired Neurotic Media, an Atlanta-based streaming and music aggregator. The idea is to use that technology to improve the music experience for Peloton users as they ride bikes.

Being a media company also comes with its issues: Peloton in March was hit with a $150 million lawsuit from 10 music publishers that accused the company of not owning certain key licenses. The company declined to comment on the lawsuit and could not make an executive available for this story. The company is reportedly planning to IPO this year.

At Orangetheory, the fitness brand that offers high-intensity workouts inside gyms, chief marketing officer Kevin Keith says it’s too hard to pivot into a media company and managing multiple revenue streams — plus, to him it risks diluting the brand purpose of this company. The company is huge on creating content — it just hired a head of content and is building out a full in-house media team as well.

But for Keith, he doesn’t want to monetize that content just yet. “We’re not wavering. We have to be careful about what we put out there. Content has to be designed for us as tools to motivate,” he said. “When tech became a big force in business, everyone was a tech company. Tech fuels what you do. Content and media and creating content fuels what we do.”


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