A Four-Part Branding Audit

Photo by Nia Richardson

“Hey, new guy. Put this on and try to keep up.” 

The 6-foot 5-inches instructor with neck tattoos threw a yellowing, smelly robe in my direction. “What do I wear under this?” I nervously asked.

“Whatever you want. But bring a mouthguard next time,” was his reply. 

I spent the next 90 minutes of my first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class getting choked out to the point of starting to lose consciousness multiple times. 

The academy is situated in a back alley of a rapidly gentrifying part of town. You can tell this place used to pride itself on being on the wrong side of the tracks. Now you can step outside the academy and find a single origin pour over coffee and a $40 hipster beard trim in all directions. 

But the academy was everything I expected. The website is dark and outdated and does not contain a single “Call to Action.” The logo is a skull inside a spartan helmet. No one was standing at the front desk to give me a tour and usher me into an on-ramp program. No air conditioning, dirty bathrooms and definitely no towel service. 

It was perfect. 

In fact, this was exactly the type of branding I’ve been searching for: complete consistency and self-awareness. This academy knows their audience and speaks directly to their core demographic. There was a sense of pride that the initial experience was uncomfortable. It almost felt like they were daring me to quit. 

How do you approach your branding? 

A lot of folks who are first dipping their toes into “developing a brand” often times do so out of fear: If I target this demographic I’m afraid I’ll turn off that demographic. Or maybe you’re trying to attract an athlete you don’t actually enjoy training. Maybe you’re trying to foster a brand that is approachable for soccer moms but you and your Coaches are cranking out three-hour shirtless training sessions with Metallica turned up to 11. There’s a disconnect your potential customers can feel. 

Here’s a quick audit you can give your branding to ensure it is very clear to your audience and very comfortable for you and your team. If you feel disingenuous with your branding, the public will be outright turned off by you. 

1. Your Website

Seriously. Do this exercise today. Find a friend of a friend or an aunt who has no idea what you do or that you own a gym. Ask them to open up your homepage on their phone for 10 seconds. After the 10 seconds pass, ask them to tell you exactly what occurs in this place and who should go there. If they can’t answer in the way you want a new athlete to answer, re-do your homepage. 

2. Your Target Audience

Who do you want in your gym? Baby boomers? College kids? Competitors? Soccer moms? Busy professionals? 

The only wrong answer here is “everyone.” Ugh. Please knock it off with that: “I want to have a gym where everyone comes in and works hard and gets results.” That’s B.S. 

Every person views themselves as the main character in a movie. Just think about that for a second. No human ever has considered themselves the supporting actor in their lives. 

As people are looking to solve their problem of fitness the only question they’re asking is, “Is this right for me?” As you’re auditing your brand, be sure you have a clear answer to that question. 

You have limited resources and time. You can’t have it all, so you must choose who you will serve. Busy professionals need showers, convenient class times and a great location. But they can also afford to pay for those conveniences. Serving professionals should price out college kids, but will require a significant investment on your part. 

Don’t be afraid to make the tough choices here. 

3. Your Place in the Market

Now that you’ve defined a target audience, you can start to research what they’re looking for in a brand. Want to reach soccer moms? Go take a spin class and take a ton of notes. Want to attract hardcore competitors? Go check out a boxing gym in the bad part of town. 

Get out of your space and see what’s out there. Make note of the things you’ll need to change in your branding to attract the types of people you want in your gym. While I wish that quality coaching was a solid branding play, this is unfortunately not true. Quality coaching is an amazing retention and referral tool. 

There is too much evidence to the contrary when it comes to new businesses in this space. I get all the business gurus are always telling you to “provide great coaching and people will come.” If this were the strategy, you’d see every OrangeTheory, Spin, and barre studio investing less in brand strategy and more in staff development. I challenge anyone who tells you branding doesn’t matter to the public to anonymously move to a random town in Indiana, open a gym and use it as a case study. That is the scenario for most of you reading this

4. Seek Feedback and Build a Guide

Reach out to your favorite members; the ones who routinely refer new members and come to the gym the most. Ask them for honest feedback about your brand. How do people perceive the gym? Why do you refer people here? What made you want to try us out? What keeps you coming back? 

Use the words they use to re-do your social media posts, your homepage and the way that you onboard new members to the gym. 

Branding is very, very difficult. It requires a level of consistency that can border on obsessive. Just ask any of our staff at the gym. Every font has to be our font or it gets sent back. The color “black” isn’t good enough; it needs to be Tricorn Black, which is a different shade of black unique to our brand. And the paint swatch in the gym needs to match the website.

Good branding should first feel right to you, and then it should invade every part of your gym and your customer experience. 

Matt Scanlon is the owner and founder of CrossFit Memorial Hill and TheHillKC in Kansas City, Missouri. He is also the co-founder of BUILD — a CrossFit program and research project dedicated to improving health outcomes for cancer survivors.  Matt's professional career began in healthcare management. As a result of this experience, Matt is focused on using CrossFit to improve health metrics for a broad population of people historically underserved in the fitness industry.  Located at the base of the National WWI Memorial, CrossFit Memorial Hill was founded in 2011 as a free community fitness resource. After gaining a following of nearly 1,300 participants in community pop-up WODs, Matt Affiliated in 2012.  In 2016, CrossFit Memorial Hill expanded to incorporate a private coaching business, BUILD, a TRX and bootcamp series, and various other specialty programs under the umbrella of TheHillKC.  Contact him at matt@thehillkc.com.