A different take on influencer marketing: Q&A with Orangetheory’s Kevin Keith

Kevin Keith is the head of global brand strategy and innovation for Orangetheory Fitness, which offers group personal training workouts based on high-intensity interval training that blend cardiovascular and strength training. He spoke with Globe Content Studio at The Gathering conference in Banff, Alta. The following is an abridged excerpt of their conversation.

Q: You’ve held a number of senior positions at some of the world’s most iconic brands, including Coca-Cola, Mercedes-Benz and UPS. What was so appealing about taking on a role at Orangetheory?

A: When I got a call about the opportunity at Orangetheory, I had been a member for several years, so I knew what they were all about. The company is about making people healthier and that really spoke to me. In this role, I don’t feel like I’m selling or marketing anything – I feel like I’m doing good by helping members get stronger and healthier.

Q: The health, fitness and wellness space is crowded. What distinguishes Orangetheory from its competitors?

A: When Ellen Latham co-founded the company in 2010, her goal was to create a workout where people felt successful. The number one trend she noticed in fitness was that people felt intimidated about workouts and often left the gym feeling defeated. Therefore, she always strove to help people feel charged and happy after a workout. That’s what’s so different about Orangetheory. It’s not you versus the rest of the class. It’s you challenging yourself.

Q: What’s the Orangetheory experience all about?

Illustration by Maia Grecco

A:  The entire workout is rooted in science. When you go into the studio, it’s a one-hour class and you’re given a monitor to track your heart rate. During the class, you can see your performance on the screen and the coach can guide you to where you need to be. What our coaches are trying to do is get members to the orange zone, which is 84 to 91 per cent of your maximum heart rate. This is a challenging and uncomfortable zone, which creates EPOC (Excess Postexercise Oxygen Consumption). In this orange zone, it creates a metabolic effect in your body, which charges it and starts burning calories. Members who do the workouts two or three times a week generally lose weight, but weight loss is a byproduct. It’s really about getting fitter and coming off medications and living a healthier life.

Q: How important is the retail channel to your overall marketing strategy?

A: There are certainly merchandise companies masquerading as fitness companies out there. But we’re a fitness company that happens to sell merchandise. Due to the popularity of our merchandise, we’re now reinventing our apparel and our sportswear in lockstep with our brand, which is really about performance technology. At our core, we always have to keep making sure that our members are getting results. That’s our focus, but retail is absolutely part of our business model.

Q: Influencer content in the health, wellness and fitness industries is huge right now. Is this a marketing strategy you’ve adopted?

A: We used to work with sports broadcaster and TV personality Erin Andrews and she was great. But I ended her contract because I felt like it wasn’t true to our brand because the greatest influencers were our own members.At the time, Erin was probably working with nine other brands and I wanted to do something different. I wanted it to come from within and so we made a big pivot. Apart from saving us a boatload of money, we redirected that money into content creation about documenting our own members’ experiences. I wanted to let them tell their stories.

So yes, influencers are part of our strategy, but I refer to them as ‘influentials.’ They may not even be in the physical fitness category, but they’re people that have influence in their community. For example, I invited the hosts of a morning talk show to come to Orangetheory in Atlanta. They’re a husband-and-wife duo with 60 million syndicated listeners. I brought them into our studio and they were hooked. Six months later, they’re still talking about their Orangetheory workouts on their show.

I  love finding ‘influential’ people outside of the fitness category. Why? Because you’re not necessarily always reading fitness publications or following fitness influencers on social.  Most people aren’t consuming this content on a regular basis, so it’s important to think outside of those typical channels.

Q: What’s the most challenging aspect of working in the fitness industry?

A: The hardest thing is dealing with the speed of growth and ensuring that we as an organization don’t make knee-jerk decisions. The difficulty of my job in marketing is consciously saying ‘no.’ The pace of innovation in the fitness industry is so fast and there is always this feeling of urgency to everything, but sometimes you have to stop and get the right strategy in place.

It’s important that we think strategically, but also react to trends and to consumer feedback and technological changes. We can’t afford to miss a big opportunity and we have to stay ahead of the competition.

Q: Do you worry about copycats in the industry?

A: I don’t worry about our competitors. I respect them and keep my eye on them, but they’re discovering that what we do is not easy. It’s not about opening a studio with a bunch of treadmills and rowing machines and weights. For us, it comes down to coaching and training. We never put coaches on the floor unless they’ve been through our rigorous training program. But that’s just part of it — what’s really important is the coach’s ability to connect with our members. We’re not about the coaches being the stars. It’s all about the members being the stars. The coaches are the conduits to help them achieve their goals.

Katherine Scarrow is the deputy head of Globe Content Studio, the content marketing division of The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national media organization. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.