My friend Jamie Hayes (whose Sydney gym was featured in edition 4 of AdVerb) likes to remind me that people don’t visit fitness centres any more. “The truth is,” he says, “they never did!”

Jamie’s point is that, while almost all gyms have been calling themselves ‘fitness centres’ for the last ten years, their customers insist on referring to them as ‘gyms’.

If it quacks like a duck…

Why then do gyms deliberately use terminology that is so obviously irrelevant to their customers?

I suspect it all started about ten years ago when a new style of gym (with aerobic classes and piped video) attempted to disassociate itself from the traditional Californian muscle pit.

Undoubtedly, in branding itself a ‘fitness centre’, this new style of gym wanted to establish a new category in the mind of the market.

Well, time has shown that, while the market has grown to favour this new style of gym — it hasn’t found it deserving of a whole new cognitive category! In other words, it appreciates that the new gym is a better gym — but doesn’t buy into the argument that it’s anything other than a gym.

I suspect that the market applies the ‘duck test’ to determine whether or not a product is deserving of a new category. In other words, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck!

So how should the new style of gym have positioned itself?

Well, I believe that, rather than attempting to convince the market that it wasn’t a gym, it should have showed the market that it was a different kind of gym.

The irony is that it is actually easier to differentiate a product within an existing category than it is to create a new category. If you’re differentiating your product within an existing category, you can use the existing market leader as a point of reference for your communications (i.e. ‘our product is smaller, faster, friendlier, cheaper etc’).

In order to create a new category, you have to ‘make a market’ for your product — and making markets is an expensive and risky endeavour.

A lesson for all of us

Now there’s a lesson in this for all of us — not just gym owners!

Only attempt to create a new category for your product if it is materially different from any other product with which the market is already comfortable. (As was the case with Sony’s Walkman.) If there is already an existing category to which the market is likely to deem you belong (remember the duck test?) — then position yourself against the occupants of that category.

A chiropractor with an identity crisis

I was reminded of this issue recently when I was approached after a seminar by the owner of a successful Brisbane Chiropractic clinic.

She explained she was considering re-badging her clinic as a ‘wellness centre’ to reflect the total health solution she provided. Of course, I immediately advised her not to do it!

I suggested to her that people who wake up with bad backs are unlikely to look under ‘w’ for wellness in the Yellow Pages. And it’s not just people with bad backs our chiropractor was about to risk confusing. I can’t think of any ailment that is likely to compel sufferers to go looking for a ‘wellness centre’.

Better, I said, to be a busy chiropractic clinic with a difference, than to be a wellness centre in search of a market.