// Star Power: The strength of celebrity marketing

Linking your fitness business to a celebrity – be they international or local – can be a great way of raising your company profile says marketing expert Derek Barton.

Some say Michael Jordan helped make Nike and others say Nike helped make Michael Jordan. I say it was a little of both.

I vividly remember the first time I saw the Nike commercial featuring Michael Jordan flying through the air in slow motion from the foul line, his right arm high above him holding the ball like the statue of Liberty holding her torch. Then, as he hovered over the rim, he slammed the ball through the net for the most amazing dunk I had ever seen. WOW. Air Jordan was born. I watched that ad over and over again, saying to myself, ‘How does he do that?’

The subtle answer from Nike is simple; by wearing our shoes. Yep, wear Nike shoes and you can fly like Michael. Even though I’m a marketing guy, I bought into their message. I figured if one of the greatest basketball players of all time wears Nike, then a weekend warrior like me should do the same. Cha-ching, another sale for Nike.

Celebrities are used to bring credibility and ‘cool’ to a brand. Back in 1993 McDonalds also used Michael Jordan, this time with Larry Bird, in its ‘Nothing but net’ commercial. In 2010, the company recreated the ad using basketball greats Dwight Howard and Lebron James. People love those commercials and therefore they love McDonalds.

So, does celebrity marketing work? It does for me, both as a consumer and as a marketer. When I was the head of marketing for Gold’s Gym, from 1985 to 2005, I used my celebrity contacts as a means to help build that brand. I didn’t have as big a budget as my competitors, so I had to out-think them.

What I lacked in budget, I made up for in my knowledge of PR. I knew the power of product endorsement. Living in Los Angeles we have our share of celebrities. Many would come into the famous Gold’s Gym in Venice, ‘The Mecca of Bodybuilding’ as it was called. I took advantage of that celebrity pool as well as some other showbiz contacts, and gave them all free memberships. One year at a time, no lifetime memberships. I gave their significant others memberships too, but thanks to my famous football legend friend, Lyle Alzado, I learned to give their significant others only three-month passes. True celebrities stay celebrities. Their significant others, however, can change as frequently as you or I change our socks…

I learned quickly that if you take care of celebrities, they will take care of you. Armed with free memberships and Gold’s Gym sportswear, I gladly gave our celebrity members and their significant others free gifts. Yes, they could afford everything I gave them, but like anybody, they appreciated a free gift. And their appreciation would hit the public airwaves in a manner I could never have afforded with conventional ‘advertising’. One day I’d hear a popular radio DJ mentioning that he trains at Gold’s, the next day I’d see Carl Weathers who played Apollo Creed in the Rocky movies wearing a Gold’s Gym t-shirt on Saturday Night Live. Then in the movie, White Men Can’t Jump Wesley Snipes wears a Gold’s Gym tank top, and in Men in Black Will Smith shows his Gold’s Gym VIP membership card. What a concept: be nice to someone, they will be nice to you back.

The celebrities in your back yard

I know what you’re thinking, ‘I don’t live in LA, and I have no celebrities around me’. On the contrary – you just need to amend your definition of celebrity. Every town has a high school or university with an athletic director or coach who you can ‘comp’ (supply with free or discounted service or apparel). Suggest becoming the official gym to their school and offer a special rate for their sports teams. Support or sponsor them and they will support you. Donate your old equipment to your local fire and police departments. Word will get around, and you may find your club mentioned in a local news story in which the fire chief is explaining how his team is in better shape thanks to generous community leaders like you.

I also learned that there were many celebrities in our gym that weren’t really celebrities by the standard definition, but they had stories worth celebrating. There was the member in a wheelchair who was determined to walk. A great news story, especially when he stood up and walked out of his chair forever. We even used him in one of our print ads.

A Russian defector walked into Gold’s Gym Venice back in the early 1990s. He said he wanted to see two things: Washington DC and Gold’s Gym Venice. I welcomed him and gave him a free membership. Boy, was he happy. The next thing I know, one of the sportscasters that I comped asked me to let him know if there were any newsworthy things happening in our gym. Before I knew it, a camera crew was in our gym filming our new Russian member working out. Great publicity, and worth far more than the cost of Oleg’s membership.

An 84-year-old woman who had never lifted weights before came to train at one of our gyms. She went on to achieve the world record in the bench press in the Senior Olympics and won over 50 Gold Medals. We made her a celebrity and those news stories continued to make us one too. I learned that radio and television, and later the internet, needed content 24/7/365. I gave it to them.

Offer your club to the media

When I started at Gold’s, I sent out flyers to all the casting agencies in Los Angeles. I offered our gym as a film location for TV shows, movies and commercials. I also told the casting agencies that if they needed the next Arnie or Stallone we had them here. When they cast our members, they would ask what our fee was. I simply said, ‘It’s a free service, but if you could put a Gold’s Gym shirt on them, I’d appreciate it’. They gladly did so, and we entered the world of product placement.

I also contacted fitness magazines and local newspapers to let them know they could film at our clubs, and that we were their resource for health and fitness. Camera crews and photographers became a mainstay and Gold’s became the most photographed gym in the world. The brand really started to grow from its exposure in all media just because we provided a service to them.

Is it worth it?

Does hitching your wagon to a celebrity star ever backfire? It can, if your celebrity falls from grace – think Tiger Woods. But even though some of his sponsors abandoned him, companies like Nike stayed loyal. It’s a chance you take when you play the celebrity game. But, you can bet when Nike thought about their most famous celebrity’s downfall, the good far outweighed the bad for them. No matter what Tiger does off the course, the guy can play golf, and when he’s on the fairway you see the Swoosh logo on his shirt and his hat. He is Nike – and Nike is Tiger. From Michael Jordan to Tiger Woods, Nike is synonymous with superstar athletes. The message we receive loud and clear is that Nike equals serious sportswear and footwear.

Of course, you can be successful without using celebrities; Apple, for example, tends to let its products speak for themselves. But for me and many others, linking your brand to a celebrity – whether they are international or local – can be a great way of raising your company profile.

Derek Barton
Derek is a marketing, advertising, branding and customer service expert. The former senior vice-president of marketing for Gold’s Gym, he helped build Gold’s into one of the industry’s most respected and recognised brands. During his tenure, Gold’s Gym received numerous awards for its innovative marketing, and was listed in America’s Greatest Brands book. Derek now runs his own marketing consulting and entertainment production company.