Anytime Fitness CEO Chuck Runyon's 4 Rules For Tattoo-Level Brand Loyalty

As I write this, a fitness club owner in South Carolina named Radley West is undergoing surgery to donate a kidney to a man named Ryan Brooke. Ryan isn’t her husband, son, brother, or cousin. He’s a member of her club. And while the doctors won’t be thinking about this background as they operate on Radley, they probably will notice a strange tattoo on her right wrist.

Which reminds me of Betty Lou, a 71-year-old resident of Plover, Wisconsin. After a serious health scare two years ago, she also decided to join a gym. Once there, she noticed Dave, a 22-year-old trainer who appeared nice and helpful, even though he lacked experience and was considering a career change. Like Radley and Ryan--and though separated by nearly half a century--this grandmother and her millennial trainer turned out to be a perfect match. And in just two years, Betty Lou shed 110 pounds, threw away 25 of her 26 prescription drugs, and set a Guinness World Record by “planking” for 36 minutes and 52 seconds. The dynamic duo celebrated by each having half of an image tattooed onto a calf, which together formed the same image on Radley West’s wrist: the purple “Running Man” logo of the company I co-founded 10 years ago, Anytime Fitness.

People wear branded hats and T-shirts all the time. Some go so far as to shave their hair into the Nike “swoosh” or paint the Apple logo on their car. But what on earth has compelled these and nearly 800 other people to voluntarily--and permanently--merge body and brand by inking an Anytime Fitness tattoo on their bodies?

To begin to answer that question, let’s talk about a topic every business owner understands: Return on Investment. ROI has always been the holy grail in business. And rightfully so. A company needs healthy ROI to grow, hire, reinvest, and innovate. But while money provides necessities and luxuries, can any presidential-portrait-plastered sheet of paper move people emotionally? No.

That’s why our focus at Anytime Fitness has always been on ROEI: Return on Emotional Investment. People invest emotional capital into every relationship they have, including with the brands they trust. After 10 years, Anytime Fitness has certainly achieved ROI, with 1.6 million members sweating in nearly 2,000 clubs in 14 countries. But how have we also achieved the kind of ROEI that leads to tattoos? Through something we call the “4 Ps”: People, Profit, Play, and Purpose.

P1: It’s Always about People

All businesses are personal, but clearly health and fitness are near the top of the list. So as our competitors race to be the biggest or the cheapest (or have the best juice bar), we strive to be the most human. That statement shouldn’t downplay our significant investment in technology or equipment, but our owners realize that most members need more than a treadmill; they need a hug, a pat on the back, and sometimes an encouraging kick in the butt. That’s why we invest in raising the emotional intelligence of our brand, and why we’ve purposely minimized certain time-sucking tasks so our franchise owners can spend more time helping members. After all, a treadmill doesn’t care for you; people do. And our owners outcare their competition every day.

P2: Everybody Must Profit

Milton Friedman once said that "the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits." (Not the shareholder responsibility; the social responsibility.) We forget that the word “profit” has two meanings--one referring to financial gain, the other to overall benefit. And the goal of ROEI is to embrace both. It started with creating a business where club owners can make a healthy and profitable career change, yet still coach little league, chaperone field trips, and spend more time doing what they love.

How does this hit our club owners on an emotional level? At a recent company gathering, Iowa franchisee Chad Aaron, who recently lost his wife, fought back tears as he said, "My son is 17 months old now, and we’re going to be able to provide a future for him because of this. If it wasn’t for Anytime Fitness, I’d be in a traditional job where I’d have to work 5-6 days a week. Now I have flexibility to be able to be there for my family."

Chad has a Running Man tattoo on his shoulder.

P3: Play More

At Anytime Fitness, we never pretend that working out is fun (in fact, we recently published a book called Working Out Sucks). We’ve purposely created a brand that doesn’t try to be what Starbucks founder Howard Schultz called the "third place" after work and home. Much as we strive to make exercise as convenient and pleasant as possible, we know that most people would rather be fishing, playing with their kids, traveling--anything else. And that’s great. Even though we foster an internal environment that blurs the lines between work and play, when it comes to our members, we’re not out to replace play; we simply want to give people the energy to play more.

P4: Give People a Greater Purpose

Brands that successfully evangelize their customers, employees, and stakeholders do it by tapping into something bigger than themselves. Nike superfans embrace a "just do it" attitude that goes far beyond wearing shoes. iFreaks still think of themselves as counter-cultural even though Apple is now the world’s most valuable company. And ditto for the rebel Harley owners who steer their hogs into Sturgis, South Dakota, every summer.

One way that Anytime Fitness achieves ROEI is by constantly gathering and sharing its best member success stories--often resulting in wet tear ducts at our annual conference when members take the stage to receive awards. Our club owners see their purpose as not only helping individuals, but inspiring entire small towns and communities to get in shape. And for our most passionate members, fitness carries a greater purpose than losing weight and looking good. Loveland, Colorado-based member Susan Bock, who has lost around 150 pounds, recently said it best: "Anytime Fitness has given me my life back." (Did I mention that Susan has a Running Man tattoo on her wrist?)

Radley, Betty Lou, Dave, Chad, Susan and the nearly 800 other Anytime Fitness owners, members, and employees who have Anytime Fitness tattoos never talk about money or ROI. When we ask them why they get inked, the common thread isn’t even about their love of Anytime Fitness; it’s the renewed love and respect they have for themselves. For them, the logo is about reclaiming the person they used to be; becoming the person they always knew they were; or being a better mom, dad, spouse, or friend.

What do we do? We simply give them the place and personal support to invest their emotional capital. Stories of kidney donations and planking records will never appear on our balance sheet, but the currency of purpose has taken our business to a place far beyond such limited measures of success. It can for you, too, if you add that all important “E” to ROI--and strive for a return whose value can’t be measured.

--Author Chuck Runyon is CEO of Anytime Fitness. Follow him @chuckrunyon.

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2 Comments

  • Bryan K. O'Rourke

    Tip of the hat to the @AnytimeFitness team and @Chuckrunyon for inspiring leading and making me smile !

  • Mark Daly

    Obviously, as an employee of Anytime Fitness, I'm biased.  But is anyone aware of another company -- besides Harley Davidson -- that has inspired such loyalty amongst its followers that they are moved to permanently "brand" themselves with the company logo?  Something seriously special is going on at Anytime Fitness clubs all over the world.