Gordon PlutskyEvery business or organization should be telling stories that build emotional connections with their customers. This is especially important in event fundraising where personal anecdotes help build lasting relationships with donors and participants, and give people engaging reasons to care about your mission. This advice to Reebok below is really advice for all of us. Thanks to Gordon Plutsky at King Fish Media for sharing this with us.

I just spent an exhilarating day at the Northeast Regionals of the Reebok CrossFit Games. The Regionals are a step in the process of naming the “Fittest Man and Woman on Earth.”  They’re also part of a smart marketing initiative by Reebok to position themselves as a leader in “The Sport of Fitness”—a phrase they are now using as a tag line in their marketing. This new initiative seems an obvious return to Reebok’s fitness roots—not to mention, a good way to carve out a unique identity in the competitive world of sports shoes and apparel. 

Reebok’s partnership with CrossFit (which now has 4,000 affiliates worldwide and is growing quickly) has jump started this new marketing program. They have clearly gone “all-in” by sponsoring the CrossFit games, as well as opening their own line of Reebok-branded gyms, and coming out with a line of sneakers, clothes and accessories for the CrossFit athlete. So far, it looks like a win/win for both sides—especially for CrossFit, considering the amount of exposure (and money) they get from Reebok, and the marketing benefits that come from partnering with a global company like Reebok.

All of that said, the associated marketing messaging from Reebok still feels as though it’s missing that key element. I have been a part of the CrossFit community since 2008 and to many of us the campaign doesn’t feel authentic. The partnership, which has all the makings of a dream relationship, comes off feeling more like a marriage of convenience. And the messaging component follows a very traditional sports marketing recipe, which is a disservice considering the clear heavy lifting that went into this great concept development. The overall concept, or “big idea” behind the “sport of fitness” campaign is amazingly spot-on, but the execution falls a little flat, and I think I know why. 

Below is a quote from Reebok CMO Matt O’Toole:

“What is so great about CrossFit’s brand of fitness, among other things, is that what makes it a sport is what makes it sustainable. You are part of a community, bound to a group of people who share your experiences—the same way you are part of team in traditional sports. It’s a big part of what keeps people coming back.” 

He also adds, “This campaign taps into this trend. It shows that fitness can be experienced in a supportive, engaging and dynamic way.”

As anyone who participates in CrossFit can tell you, the community is the key component of the whole system. In contrast, Reebok’s campaign has focused on the top few CrossFit athletes. For most sports this type of aspirational marketing works (i.e. Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Derek Jeter), but that’s because they are bottom-down sports. They’re also competitive in nature. The pros set the tone and everyone wants to be like them because they have excelled and risen to the top. CrossFit, on the other hand, is a way of life and community for the vast majority of members, rather than a competitive sport. It’s also the epitome of a grassroots movement, operating from the bottom up. Even though the event in question was a competition, the camaraderie and shared experience that O’Toole refers to is the CrossFit norm. It’s something that’s not present in other types of fitness training—and something that’s absent from their marketing campaign.

In addition to amending their ad copy, Reebok should be telling stories that build emotional connections with their customers. These connections are presumably what they are trying to tap into, after all. Storytelling is an immersive form of communication, engaging our minds at the intuitive and sensory levels. It’s compatible with the way our brains are wired to learn, think and engage. Storytelling-based content creates a narrative that allows customers to become part of the brand, as opposed to more traditional advertising methods. 

Considering the group nature of CrossFit and evolving advertising practices, a better approach for Reebok would be to tell stories from within the movement, rather than highlighting the two best CrossFitters in the world. There are plenty of great stories to tell. In fact,here are some examples:

  •    “Amazing transformations of heath and fitness”
  •    “The fallen soldiers behind the ‘hero’ workouts”
  •    “High school athletes who use CrossFit to improve and then get scholarships”
  •    “Police officers, firefighters and nurses who get better at their jobs as a result of CrossFit”
  •    ”The gym owners who come from all walks of life…”

There are great-untold stories among the tens of thousands of CrossFit members. Athletes who qualify for the games represent a tiny fraction of the community and are not the norm. Because a majority of CrossFit members relish their connection to other everyday members—even though they do appreciate the few elite CrossFitters among them—isolating select members and heralding them as different somehow seems antithetical to the overall sense of community. Focusing on everyday members who are achieving great things, however, would serve them well.

While there’s no doubt that some people will respond to the ads featuring the Fittest Man and Woman on Earth—because, hey, they are amazing athletes— many people walking into CrossFit gyms today just want to get fit in a new and fun way, and maybe make some new friends along the way. These potential Reebok customers will want to hear how people just like them turned around their health and fitness to improve their lives; or hear from the ex-athlete who has gotten back in shape. Unlike basketball players and other sports professionals who get paid to stay in shape, very few people actually have external forces driving them to want to workout. But they all want the benefits that come with it. One of these benefits for CrossFitters, just happens to be the community they become a part of along the way.

Bottom line: slick television and Web ads with fitness models may look good, but are they authentic in world of Spartan gyms and a grassroots community? Probably not.

This post was originally published on King Fish Media’s ThinkTank blog.

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