New Year, New You: The Rise of ‘Fit Cults’
‘New Year, New You’. What an annoying saying – and it’s just so prevalent at this time of year. Of course it rarely means more than a few early January trips to the gym for a five-minute run and an hour-long pamper. That was until now. Chicago-based agency Upshot has uncovered that the gym bunnies of today are so dedicated to a healthy lifestyle that they share the principles that draw people to join cults. The agency has sorted these dedicated do-gooders into four ‘Fit Cults’: ‘Urban Caveman’, ‘Badge Junkies’, ‘Haute Couture Hippies’, and ’Sweat Worshippers’. Add to that widespread changes in the way the general public sees health and wellness, brought about by increased access to information, education schemes, social media, and wearables - it seems that brands might need to seriously rethink their approach. Upshot President and CEO, Brian Kristofek, spoke with LBB’s Laura Swinton to reveal how the agency came to its conclusions and why fitness and health are bigger and more social than ever.
LBB> Judging by both your 2015 trend forecast and your Fit Cults report, it seems that there’s a real shift happening in the way we view and engage with health and fitness – what’s driving that change?
BK> Fundamentally, we know Americans have made health and wellness a greater priority in their lives. Also, access to health as well as fitness information and resources have exploded, empowering people and contributing to a mindset where they feel they’re in control of their health. When in control, health and wellness become a reflection of their personal identity. It’s another shareable marker of who they are.
LBB> Do these shifts give us hope that obesity and related diseases that plague the Western world might finally begin to decline, or are we still talking about a relatively small niche in society?
BK> We’re optimistic, as are many health experts, about Americans’ shifting priorities and growing awareness of how they can lead healthier lives. But we also know that the change from intention to action happens slowly. Today, more than ever, people have more tools, choices and resources to make the right decisions about what to eat and how to stay active. And as education efforts around childhood obesity start to show results, we expect the next generation to benefit from this new dynamic of access and awareness.
LBB> What inspired you to create the Fit Cults report?
BK> Many of Upshot’s clients are focused on health and wellness – New Balance, Subway Restaurants, Omron Healthcare, Kraft Foods and Johnson & Johnson in particular. Upshotters are also a highly active, health-oriented group of people, so it's a passion point for many of us (fun facts: Upshot won Chicago’s Bike to Work Challenge last summer and a group of us recently participated in Men’s Health’s Urbanathlon). Our curiosity was piqued by the incredible rise of certain activities like CrossFit, Tough Mudders, Soul Cycle and Pure Barre; and we wondered why they were growing and what characteristics they shared. We thought there might be a marketing opportunity for brands because these groups tend to be committed and fiercely loyal.
LBB> And what were the most surprising things to come out of that research?
BK> While we knew there was a burgeoning healthy-lifestyle trend, we were surprised by how passionate and committed people were about their lifestyle. We termed them ‘fit cults’ for a reason – they are communal groups, rooted in rich ideology and ritualistic in their behavior – just like cults! Extreme examples of their passion include the Soul Cycle devotees who had breakdowns during the Tribeca renovations, the Crossfit movement crossing the nation despite the rise in injuries, and the fact that Pure Barre (a niche exercise brand with estimated revenues of $50 million) generates significantly more online conversations than Under Armour (a brand with revenue of $2.3 billion and a presence in almost every sporting goods store).
LBB> How do the Fit Cults of today differ from gym bunnies and fitness fanatics of yesteryear?
BK> There are many similarities between the Fit Cults of today and gym bunnies from the past – it’s a big part of their personal identity, and they’re both fitness related. But the biggest difference between them is gym bunnies and fitness fanatics were more about the individual activity while Fit Cults are primarily a communal activity. Additionally, gym bunnies were more focused on just the fitness aspect, whereas Fit Cults are about a wellness lifestyle, incorporating food and other outside-the-workout elements. And today’s Fit Cults are social in a whole new way. Enabled by digital technology, they’re social beyond the actual activity – connecting them with other like-minded people to share work outs, stories and successes.
The Urban Caveman: if you work in advertising, you definitely know one. Or you are one.
LBB> And what do you think brands and advertisers should bear in mind when trying to connect with these Fit Cults?
BK> These groups are very committed and loyal so, from a marketing perspective, they make for ideal customers. But brands should beware; they are very discerning and don’t let just anyone in the club. The four profiles (www.fitcults.com) are a start to understanding what motivates these cults. The next step for brands is to figure out how and if it is appropriate to engage with them. We feel strongly that a brand has to have some type of connection with these groups (e.g. shared beliefs, health and wellness/lifestyle related, relevant offering). If not, any form of marketing engagement won’t be authentic and most likely won’t succeed. We have developed a marketing framework to engage (or infiltrate) these groups. It outlines rules of engagement with Fit Cults and various ways to activate – from messaging, to promotions, to new products, to full experiences.
LBB> The ‘it’s not a diet it’s a lifestyle’ trend you identified looks like it will potentially prove rather disruptive to several sectors. How do you see it playing out?
BK> The old health and fitness paradigm was all about regimen, diets, obligations and restrictions. Moving towards a holistic, lifestyle based approach to wellness and fitness is already influencing new products, services and messaging from brands who can help people achieve their goals and, at the same time, foster stronger loyalty. If a brand can become part of someone’s lifestyle, it creates a more personal and emotional connection.
LBB> It also looks like the quantified self isn’t going anywhere as wearable tech becomes more mainstream – as identified in your ‘mobile wellness’ trend. How will 2015 differ from 2014? Is it simply a case that mobile-linked fitness devices will achieve greater penetration or is there something else going on?
BK> This past year, wearables awareness reached a new mainstream level. In 2015, we expect to see adoption of these technologies continue to grow as these devices address two important consumer needs—wearability and relevance. Several of the newer devices are fashionable objects that people actually want to wear every day and everywhere. And, many of them are moving beyond discrete data sets to providing ‘whole health’ solutions that provide more actionable content. Further out, we believe these whole health ‘portals of you’ will converge with both the larger Internet of Things world and traditional healthcare systems. The ability to embed health-focused sensors that actually interact with multiple platforms and objects in the world is really exciting in the longer term.
Check out the Fit Cults findings here.