‘Being a disruptive brand you are always going to break a few eggs’

Rory McEntee, Brand and Marketing Director at Gymbox, on redefining fitness culture, challenging category stereotypes and that bus ad

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


January, a month of denial, self-flagellation and many hours spent mourning the loss of that annual festive overindulgence of Quality Street for breakfast. Historically, for fitness brands, the start of the new year brings with it a flurry of ‘New Year, New You’ messaging that simply adds to the gloom.

Yet in the wake of the pandemic, a seismic shift is afoot in the fitness industry, reflecting a growing cultural celebration of what your body can do, rather than how it looks.

In place of the ‘self loathing’ and the long out of date marketing positioning that a ‘real body’ is in itself a marketing idea, has come a renewed focus on embracing the conflicting and chaotic nature of people’s lives. A creative approach which finds joy in the mess, rather than in adding to the pressures people face, with unrealistic, stereotyped body images.

Disruptive gym brand Gymbox has long eschewed a stereotyped and one dimensional view of fitness culture. As Rory McEntee, Brand and Marketing Director at the brand explains: “We have always tried to debunk the cliched fitness bullshit and our campaigns always try to challenge the norm.” 

Embracing the messiness of consumers' lives 

McEntee’s fresh approach is evident in a new brand campaign that embraces the messiness of London life; ‘Made for London Life’. The campaign sees straplines such as ‘Wings at 2am, Legs at 11am’, ‘Commuter Slog, Downward Dog’ and ‘Faking it at 1am, Shaking it at 11am, that beautifully bring to life the conflicting love triangle between clubbing, eating out and fitness.

Rather than leaning on long outdated stereotypes of wellness culture, the brand instead invested in its own research. Research which led with the starting point of consumers' lives, rather than their ‘relationship’ with a gym. The survey of 2,000 gym members found London gym goers' favourite activities outside of exercising, with dating (34%), clubbing (32%) and eating out (15%) topping the list. The research also revealed members' least favourite aspects of living in the capital; commuting (54%), long work hours (22%), and the soaring cost of London living (13%).

The creative approach underlines that brands don’t operate in a vacuum. If you want to connect with culture you need to reflect the reality of that culture in your work. “It seems so obvious but we really wanted to see what people were doing outside of the gym,” explains McEntee. He continues: “Coming to the gym is just a small part of people’s lifestyle.”

We have always tried to debunk the cliched fitness bullshit and our campaigns always try to challenge the norm.

Rory McEntee, Brand and Marketing Director at Gymbox

The power of honesty in marketing culture 

The approach ensures that Gymbox doesn’t fall into the myth that the ‘relationship’ that members have with the brand is the defining relationship in their lives. A humbleness which is often missing in the advertising and marketing community.

“The truth is they are with us for a relatively small period of time and when we looked into their lives it wasn’t all about wellness and clean cut living,” explains McEntee. He continues: “Our whole insight approach was being honest about what it is that people love about being busy and being a Londoner, but also to be really honest about what are some of the things that frustrate people.”

It was a creative approach which demanded that McEntee open his mind to new possibilities. As he explains: “It gave me a bit less control of what the campaign would be, but the challenge was how you take those insights and really run with them.”

McEntee believes that letting go is key to building genuinely creative and collaborative cultures. He explains: “If I’m just coming up with ideas on my own it can be quite myopic. To embrace diversity you have to bring people in from your target audience. You have this huge melting point of diverse talent in London who take what they are seeing on the streets of London and turn it into great ideas.”

Sharing that Gymbox’s hugely successful ‘Rave Class’ was a receptionist's idea, it is clear that prioritising a meritocracy of ideas is crucial to growth. He explains: “A genuinely creative culture is not all about me coming up with the ideas.” He continues: “A lot of mistakes brands make is because they are too isolated in the world, we have to be listening.”

Fitness today has become less about how you look and more about how you feel. People are working out now for mental gains as well as physical gains.

Rory McEntee, Brand and Marketing Director at Gymbox

Aspiration in flux 

The campaign comes in the midst of both conflict and flux over what constitutes aspiration in fitness and wellness marketing. McEntee charts the cultural shift from Jane Fonda video workouts, to the six packs of Venice Beach, to the proliferation of the Instagrammable perfect body, towards a more holistic approach to wellbeing. “Fitness today has become less about how you look and more about how you feel. People are working out now for mental gains as well as physical gains,” he adds.

As he explains this shift in what constitutes aspiration in wellness and fitness is partly driven by a broader rejection of that great (imaginary) life you aren’t living on social media. He explains: “Some of the change is really driven by a pushback towards social media and the lack of realism. There is a real sense that people don’t want to be told what it means to be fit.”

He continues: “People are tired of being dictated to about what they should do or how they should look. Now they create and define their fitness culture themselves. Whether it's a park run or a class, they choose it.”

For Gymbox, being on the front foot of that self-expression has been key to growth. The brand has different types of classes catering to different needs. The brand was the first gym to recognise the importance of mental strength with a whole category of classes dedicated to their users' minds.

So much fitness marketing looks like brands are marketing to their own boards.

Rory McEntee, Brand and Marketing Director at Gymbox

Beyond the agency hype cycle 

The Gymbox approach underlines that the changing approach to fitness and wellness is indicative of a more fundamental shift in culture. One that all too many brands have been slow to adapt to. So why do brands get so disconnected from consumers’ lived experiences?

“It happens when brands believe their own hype. They have been wowed by the bells and whistles of an agency pitch,” says McEntee, adding: “A lot of brands fail to adapt to the scale of the culture shifts that are happening.”

He continues: “So much fitness marketing looks like brands are marketing to their own boards. In reality, fitness is a small part of your life, you don’t need to sacrifice everything you can have a balance.”

In the face of this significant cultural change many brands lean on the false security of stereotypes and simply stand still. A stance which is the opposite of McEntee’s approach. He explains: “What we try to do is continue to innovate and not play it safe,” he adds.

He continues: “People want new experiences so we put new creative classes on every month. Break Dancing will be an Olympic sport this year and so we are launching Break Dancing classes, there is always something new.” 

Driving cultures of creativity and collaboration  

This culture of continual innovation is made possible by the understanding that not every idea will be successful. “The truth is 9 out of 10 ideas either don’t make it to market, or don’t succeed. On the flip side of that there are times when we actually nail it,” says McEntee.

With failure being the reality of consistent innovation, marketers need to be laser focused on controlling the controllables. Top of the list is ensuring that diverse talent can both join the organisation and go on to thrive. He explains: “The most important thing is to hire the right people. We hire people for their experiences, not just their CVs. I tend to look outside the fitness industry,” he explains.

This approach has helped Gymbox bring together a melting pot of talent; from circus performers needing part time roles to talented DJs. “We try to contribute to their own unique strengths and that really helps with the diversity of our teams,” he adds. 

Out of the spreadsheets and into the streets 

This diversity of talent also drives the unique experience of a Gymbox gym. Free from the restrictions of lockdown consumers are still reappraising their approach to life IRL. Expectations of gym experiences are only ever rising.

As McEntee explains: “I have to figure out how to do it all’. He continues: “Our brand is key so this year we will be doing more brand and real life experiences. I want to take the magic of what we have within our four walls and take that out onto the streets of London.”

In practice, this marketing will focus on celebrating the things that make the brand different. “It is about being more of a lifestyle brand. This is why we are launching a partnership with Morleys around our wings and legs line. We partnered with a chicken shop rather than a health food shop and that's what we want to do more of,” he adds. 

Getting off the treadmill of discounting 

As consumers eye up a return to the gym treadmill McEntee, like many thinking marketers, is doubling down on getting off another kind of treadmill. “I have a goal this year to focus less on performance-led and price-led promotions,” he explains.

“Our brand has become so strong that discounting is less of a lever,” he adds. As a marketing leader who has worked at brands including Pizza Express and Paddy Power, McEntee has experienced the perils of an overreliance on price promotion up close.

“I was lucky enough to work at Pizza Express where we were on a treadmill of discounting which meant no one would buy a pizza unless it was on offer. To wean yourself off of that you have to take your eye off the weekly sales and monthly sales dip in order to move away from performance-based and short-term promotions,” he shared.

His advice for brands on how to get off this treadmill is clear. He explains: “You have to weather those storms. You might need to have slightly deeper pockets to get through that short-term sales dip, but the longer-term benefits of building your brand are clear. “At Gymbox people come to us because they hear about the experience.”

As a brand owner, I look at the media landscape and there aren't that many opportunities to be innovative and that’s why people are moving to CGI solutions.

Rory McEntee, Brand and Marketing Director at Gymbox

Bracing for backlash  

For McEntee, his experience leading marketing at Gymbox hasn’t been without its bumps in the road. The brand was on the receiving end of industry backlash after sending out a press release for a campaign promoting aerial pilates and yoga classes which claimed to be the first bus top ad in London.

While falsely claiming media firsts is nothing new for the marketing industry, fake digitally-created outdoor executions have become a uniquely divisive marketing trend. While they clearly create media value through social media virality, questions arise as to whether they erode consumer trust. For media owners they represent the sharp edge of the impact of digital marketing on their livelihoods, a fact which goes some way in explaining the industry-wide flashpoint the campaign created.

McEntee hasn’t previously spoken much about the experience. Revealing that the campaign was a result of a 10 minute conversation, he explains: “We run Aerial classes and the idea came internally. When I looked into the idea it turned out that you couldn’t advertise on buses so I had got the copywriter and our in-house team to mock it up and we sent it out to press,” he explains.

The much-talked-about spot launched as Maybelline was getting traction for a digitally created campaign which saw a tube train with a giant eyelash appear to be applying mascara. “We are a smaller brand so we don’t have the recognition of a Maybelline or a Nike. The pushback on the advert was created with the release with a bit of a white lie in it,” he explains. “The response there was criticism at the tactics as opposed to the advert itself and that was a learning for me,” he adds.

He shares that the intensity of the response was heightened by social media. “Social media gives people a platform and you could see the divide with a younger audience saying what is the problem and an older audience saying this is a problem.”

The experience underlined two key challenges to McEntee on an industry and individual level. He explains: “The advertising and media industry is set in its ways quite a bit. I don’t want to overly critique the media owners, but a lot of the traditional agencies haven’t evolved at the pace of tech.”

He continues: “The media landscape needs more innovation. As a brand owner, I look at the media landscape and there aren't that many opportunities to be innovative and that’s why people are moving to CGI solutions.”

Being a disruptive brand you are always going to break a few eggs when you make the omelette.

Rory McEntee, Brand and Marketing Director at Gymbox

The role of resilience as a marketing leader 

The backlash to the campaign also underlines a significant challenge for marketing leaders on an individual level. In the era of LinkedIn, any marketing leader is available at the touch of a button. Unsolicited feedback is rife and it is difficult to draw a line between the personal and professional.

As McEntee shares honestly: “There was a lot of personal criticism and it hurt at the time.” His natural, glass-half-full approach means that he has brushed this off rather than been consumed by it. “Being a disruptive brand you are always going to break a few eggs when you make the omelette,” he quips.

Yet, sticking with the breakfast analogy he notes the vast chasm between what people will say to you on social media, versus what they would say to you over a coffee. “My message is be kind because you don’t know what people are going through. We all have challenges and pressures.”

For McEntee, this learning experience provided him with an important inflection point. “When I see a marketing campaign I don't like I don’t immediately fly in with my opinion,” he explains.

McEntee would like to see more in the industry actively supporting other people’s work. “We all work hard. We all get our campaigns out. We don’t need to agree. There is a difference between a difference of opinion and hanging people out to dry.” He explains: “We don’t all have to agree but talking about it, listening and being kind will only help improve the media and marketing landscape.” 

As New Year’s resolutions go, supporting others on the surface might feel like an easier commitment than committing to regularly going to the gym. But as the Gymbox brand underlines, embracing the joy of exercise doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing pursuit.

The liberating truth is stereotypes are both creatively suffocating and bad for business. When we recognise our customers and industry colleagues alike as the multi-faceted, complicated and creative people they are, we all have a better opportunity to reach our goals.

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