History repeats itself…what’s happening today is not new. Almost everything is merely a remix from years, decades, or even sometimes centuries past.
So, how can the first fitness influencer in history help us strategize for the future of influencer marketing across the wellness spectrum?
If asked you when the concept of fitness influencers began, how would you answer that? It happened long before Instagram, YouTube, or even the internet. It also happened before the golden age of bodybuilding with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
What if I told you the first fitness influencer came to relevance in the late 1890s?
For my bodybuilding fans, you will recognize the name, as he’s immortalized because the Sandow trophy has been bodybuilding’s ultimate prize at the annual Mr. Olympia contest. Though other Victorian era strongmen faded from memory, Eugen Sandow remains a household name in the fitness industry. Born in 1867, he was a Prussian circus strongman and showman. Sandow arrived in Britain and won the “strongest man on Earth” contest in 1889 that catapulted him into stardom. Throughout the 1890s, he was regarded as the “perfect man” and opened up his first School of Physical Culture in London in the summer of 1897.
This was the birth of the Sandow fitness empire. He sold interested consumers everything they needed to become strong.
- Sandow owned a chain of gyms
- Sandow published books on fitness and nutrition
- Sandow launched a fitness magazine
- Sandow created and sold nutritional supplements
- Sandow created his own workout equipment
If there was an opportunity to capitalize financially from his influence, Sandow grabbed it.
Does this sound familiar?
Today’s fitness influencers are using those early linear commerce lessons from Sandow to create wealth from their name, likeness, or other recognizable aspects of their persona. As an example…
- Kris Gethin, Christian Guzman, Steve Cook, and Bradley Martyn own gyms
- Jim Stoppani, Katy Hearn, and Marc Lobliner own supplement companies
- Countless fitness influencers have launched informational products/services around nutrition coaching and/or fitness programs
Staying Ahead of Technology
Sandow made full use of the latest technologies to advertise himself. After meeting Thomas Edison, Sandow starred in a series of short films that were made possible by the invention of an early motion-picture device called the kinetoscope. This silent, black-and-white footage was among the first in cinematic history and played in peep shows across the globe.
At a fundamental level, influencer marketing is a type of social media marketing that uses endorsements and product mentions. Today’s most influential fitness personalities depend on social media. To stay ahead of the competition, new social media platforms need to be explored deeply, with each uniqueness leveraged best for the particular personal brand. It’s important to look for those fitness influencers that are being exploratory with the newest communication platform innovations.
“Guy/Girl Next Door Effect”
Sandow had curly hair with average height, and despite his strength, he looked much like any other man when clothed. This appearance offered a glimmer of hope to others that they could become just like him. What endeared Sandow to the public was his ordinariness.
My strategy consulting clients have heard me talk about the “guy/girl next door effect” many times when the subject of influencer marketing comes up. While the most beautiful girl or handsome guy might be a great fitness influencer, they’re more than likely beyond the relatable reach of your target customer base. While wellness companies want to put out an aspirational brand image, it must also be pegged to reality of the market. That reality is that over 50% of Americans are obese or overweight and while celebrating that isn’t the goal, the overall marketing levers need to be inclusive of it.
“Sex Sells” Paradigm Shift
Love it or hate it, “sex sells” has long been a mantra in modern advertising. Though the Only Fans movement has normalized and democratized the monetization of sex, it shouldn’t be the main marketing angle used by fitness influencers. The pursuit of wellness is typically multifaceted beyond purely vain pursuits.
Sandow knew this as well, which is why he disguised his erotic images as a celebration of the ideal form seen in Greek sculpture. This use of classical imagery helped position bodybuilding as an intellectual pursuit.
Virality Was Always a Pursuit
Sandow was the king of virality, as he’d share tales of his strength stunts across media outlets of the time. These included carrying a piano while a musician was still playing it and fighting a muzzled, mittened lion. It wasn’t the basic fitness content that the public clamored for and this is no different than what you see today from strength athletes getting creative on social media.
“What information consumes is the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” — Herbert Simon (Nobel Prize winning economist)
Attention is one of the most valuable resources of the digital age. In the attention economy, attention is not only a resource but a currency. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to garner attention and that makes all parties push the limits to gain more attention economy currency. This could be seen as a good or bad thing, but regardless its a business lens that any company needs to look through when considering influencer marketing.
Importance of Community
Sandow also understood the power of community and nurtured a close relationship with his followers. Sandow ran a mail-order fitness program for those who could not use his gyms. Like an influencer responding to online comments, he thrilled many fans by replying to their letters.
Parasocial relationships are not a new concept, but they’ve become much more common in the digital age (especially over the last two years). The most influential fitness personalities understand how to break those walls of those one-sided relationships down. It’s imperative that influencers be chosen by how supportive they are of their communities and well they continue to cultivate them as their following grows. In the coming shift to web3, communities of superusers will become essential.
Why are these lessons from Eugen Sandow so important now?
Sandow flourished amid similar fears in the late Victorian era where society was changing fast. Industrialization and urbanization threatened the nation’s health, with polluted air and increasingly sedentary lifestyles. The “COVID-19 Effect” merely accelerated an existing boom in wellness culture, which itself is a response to the simmering problems that ruin today’s desk-bound, screen-locked lives. Today’s wellness industry is merely a remix of the past.
The fitness influencer trend isn’t peaking, so it’s time for your wellness business to understand how best to leverage them…