The Strength in an Aspirational Brand
Throwing Weight Behind the Right Brand Message
By Hannah Landers
This is the message that fitness brand Equinox chose to broadcast to its more than 300,000 Instagram followers just days into 2020—the key moment when New Year’s resolutions drive gym memberships higher than any other time of the year. Accompanying this message was an ad in which a woman details the story of a slim, muscular, and barely clothed Narcissus—but positions his self-obsession as a virtue.
“If you are your best self, whatever self that is, you’re going to be your best for the world,” explained Equinox Chief Marketing Officer Seth Solomons in an interview with AdAge.
At first glance, this seems like the kind of positive, encouraging—if a bit generic—messaging that health and wellness brands use to motivate customers to pay their monthly membership fees (even if only about half of those memberships are routinely used). Although this message isn’t generic in that it’s geared toward those of a certain income bracket—on the brand’s Facebook page, for example, links to home workouts are sandwiched between recipes for a bougie quinoa-egg bowl breakfast and an activewear guide instructing members to buy $150 Lululemon leggings—the core of the message remains true: At Equinox, you can finally unlock your best self and, therefore, live your best life.
Inspiring customers to be “their best self” is the crutch that many health and wellness brands rely on to spur people to action. By posting before-and-after photo sets, in which members have shed unwanted pounds or gained much-wanted muscle, these brands attempt to show that they’re uniquely suited to guide their members to their better selves. The brands who truly connect with their customers and build lasting, emotionally resonant relationships with them, however, ditch generic inspiration to put forth aspirational messaging.
Although inspiration and aspiration are often used interchangeably, there’s a subtle—but important—difference between the two. Inspiration is “the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative,” whereas aspiration is “a hope or ambition of achieving something.” While inspiration sounds more active (Wouldn’t most brands want to inspire people to action?), the key difference between the two is in the internal versus the external: Aspirational brands illuminate the path forward for customers, lighting a fire within them that creates the urgency and action necessary for those customers to achieve the intended goal themselves.
Why is it so much better for a brand to be aspirational? If an organization can connect with its audience in a way in which they see the brand as a means to fulfill their own purpose, it’s a foundation for life-long affinity. That ideal is difficult, as it requires aligning the brand’s purpose perfectly with that of its customers and living that purpose in every interaction. That’s why brands are tempted to take the inspirational shortcut: laying out a lifestyle that the brand feels is ideal and hoping it’s enough to draw in customers who want to be perceived that way. While this can be an effective strategy effective in the short-term, it’s impossible to maintain as the reality of experience clashes with the organization’s message.
Life Time—another fitness club catering to the same upper-class audience as Equinox—has grown to become one of the country’s premium gym chains. Since its founding in 1992, Life Time has grown from a single health club in Minnesota to become a national health and wellness brand, operating coworking spaces, high-end living communities, and a lifestyle blog called The Source in addition to its health clubs. Life Time also offers a premium array of services at its gyms, from access to steam rooms and hot tubs to cafés touting green juice and other healthy items.
When it comes to its brand, Life Time has mastered the art of inspiration. In addition to social posts sharing workouts with well-toned professional trainers and tips on healthy eating, Life Time intersperses its external messaging with images of and stories from real-life members. While messages like these may offer inspiration to a potential member—“You too can work hard and lose 20 pounds!”—they don’t build the internal drive to push that person toward achievement: it’s hard to be truly motivated by someone else’s goal.
Feeding into this impression is the easy-going community at Life Time. In a series of posts sharing customers’ thoughts on returning to the gym after lockdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, one member mentioned that she was excited—not to return to her regular workout schedule or to continue to work toward her health and fitness goals, but to be able to reconnect with a close friend, something that could be said of the reopening of a coffee shop or workplace.
The brand also pushes out fairly bland motivational platitudes, such as a reminder that “It’s not always easy. But it’s always worth it.” These empty phrases are accompanied by invitations to share the post with “someone who needs this reminder today.” Overall, this creates the impression that, at Life Time, it’s far less necessary to develop an internal drive to push yourself toward your goals—making them far easier to cast aside when the first distraction or inconvenience comes along.
The inspirational brand that Life Time has cultivated can be traced back to its purpose. As an organization dedicated to “reshaping the way consumers approach their health by integrating where we play, work and live,” Life Time’s self-stated “primary objective” is to help its customers “lead healthy, happy lives”—a fairly passive message that ultimately focuses more on Life Time than on the customer. Rather than acting as a force that empowers its members to help themselves, Life Time instead does the heavy lifting. Simply by attending its clubs, living in its housing, and otherwise following its advice, Life Time seems to suggest, one can achieve a healthy, happy life. It’s a story that customers watch, not one in which they participate.
Perusing Equinox’s website and social feeds leaves one with the initial impression that, like Life Time, Equinox’s brand is built on inspiring its audience. It offers images of the kinds of body types that walk the red carpet, and dispenses the kind of life advice that can only be adhered to by individuals of a certain income bracket and lifestyle—the type of person who can drop $200 on a tiny pot of silver-infused moisturizer, and reads books for “high performers” in between bites of charred squid salad.
Upon closer inspection, however, Equinox’s brand isn’t about simply surrounding oneself with the finer things. Equinox’s brand is aspirational: a brand meant to push people to be the best versions of themselves by instilling an internal motivation within them.
Equinox’s brand is built on in its mission: “In everything we do, we create the possibility for people to maximize the potential within themselves.” By focusing its brand intently on the individual—and, specifically, by putting the onus on the individual to reach out and seize the opportunities that Equinox creates—Equinox empowers the individual to want to strive toward a better future for themselves.
Since its founding in 1999, Equinox has been rooted in the ideas of exclusivity and luxury. Although the company’s founders brought the brand’s first health club to life chasing visions of Equinox’s eventual ubiquity—betting that New Yorkers were unlikely to travel more than 10 blocks to work out—the organization’s first CEO Harvey Spevak took things in another direction.
At the start of his tenure, Spevak was quick to remove all mentions of the club from newspaper listings; Equinox was not to be mentioned with the likes of Gold’s Gym and LA Fitness. The company’s slogan—“It’s Not Fitness. It’s Life.”—originated shortly after, when the club remained open after the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center to “preserve a sense of ritual” for its members. Famed fashion advertiser David Lipman was one of the individuals who found comfort in the arms of Equinox that day; he and Spevak met to shape the direction of the brand’s marketing, which produced the aforementioned slogan and launched the company on its course to become more than simply a fitness brand.
This idea of Equinox as not just a gym, but a structure that shapes lives is one that has taken off among Equinox’s loyal customer base. Members visit an average of four times per week; the typical gym member only shows up twice a week. In a 2016 article about the club for GQ, writer Carrie Battan talks about her encounter with a member who chastises her for focusing solely on Equinox’s many amenities as the reason for its allure: “The journey of Equinox … the fitness journey, is a journey of self-discovery.”
Even Battan, herself a member who admits to choosing her trainer over her boyfriend “on more than one occasion,” jumped at the chance to experience the club’s top tier of its personal training program (Tier X), and reviewed the dramatic intake process—which included a posture test, a significant amount of time in an oxygen mask, and a 3-D, 360-degree body scan—with reverence. When the head of the program attempts to drill down into the reasoning behind her relatively rote fitness goal (to lose 10 pounds), she reports how “refreshing” it is for someone to “challenge” her vanity. “After all,” she writes, “this is why I signed up for Equinox in the first place: to make myself not just better-looking but also happier.” Battan is just one of the many who have joined Equinox not to post before and after pictures of a slimmer, more toned body. Instead, Equinox’s promise is rooted in the idea that, with enough hard work and perseverance, you can become a better you all around. That’s aspiration—a promise made by the brand, but one that the customer has to earn themselves.
Although the high price points at Equinox ensure membership has a level of exclusivity, the aspirational power of Equinox’s brand is strong enough to inspire even those of humbler financial means to join. In a piece on Medium comparing Equinox to a religious institution, one writer and Equinox devotee mentions that his one financial indulgence within an otherwise “shoestring budget” is his Equinox membership. “Equinox is a mecca for passionate urban achievers who wake up every day trying to become better versions of themselves,” he preaches. “Members will say their Equinox membership has made them a better citizen of the world.” It isn’t the chance to experience the Kiehl’s beauty products and chilled, eucalyptus towels that draws customers into the cult of Equinox; it’s that customer’s connection to the aspirational messaging that Equinox puts forth that keeps them paying exorbitant membership fees every month.
In addition to the aspirational nature of Equinox’s external messaging, the customer experience is similarly structured to reinforce the idea that the drive to improve should come from within. Unlike the community aspect inherent in Life Time’s customer experience, Equinox posts small placards that say “Silence is golden” around its clubs, which serve to establish “a sort of cold and anonymous individualism,” writes Benjamin Goggin for Business Insider. Nevertheless, he concedes, it isn’t off-putting: “Equinox caters to the individual who is striving toward a personal goal, and who prioritizes efficiency over community.”
Creating an inspirational brand is easy. What’s much more difficult is motivating people to aspire to be something greater, and take the action required to get there.
Although it’s far more difficult to instill that goal within the customer, and spur them to work toward it with the organization as their mentor, aspirational brands create deep and lasting connections with their customer bases—and they do this through investing in a clear, compelling brand narrative. Internally driven to right the wrongs in their world with the assistance of an aspirational brand, customers forge emotional connections with brands like Equinox, ones that not only engender a lifetime of loyalty, but also push those customers to want to share their incredible brand experience with their own networks—a gift to the world that keeps on giving.
Hannah is an associate at Woden. Want to stay connected? Add Hannah on LinkedIn, read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be.