A search of exercise apps in the iTunes store gets thousands of results—be it HIIT, running, dance, or more niche categories like prenatal fitness, belly dancing, or “office yoga.” Tech has made working out a more personalized and convenient experience, giving users the boutique fitness studio experience from their living rooms. The rapidly growing market grew 330% between 2014 and 2017, and is expected to reach $27 billion by 2022.
And yet so many of these apps follow the same aesthetic formula: A mirrored-wall studio with hardwood floors, harsh fluorescent lighting, and uninspiring decor. Maybe there’s a medicine ball, sometimes a barre.
“Nothing really grabs you and makes you excited to work out,” says entrepreneur Mark Mullett, a former talent agent who found the available options rather uninspiring. “If you look at the fitness landscape, you quickly realize you can’t really tell the difference between an at-home fitness video from 1993, 2003, 2013, or today.”
In May 2018, Mullett and fellow Creative Artists Agency (CAA) alum Ashley Mills launched the Brooklyn-based Obé, an acronym for “our body electric.” The live-streaming and on-demand fitness platform offers a more design-centric experience with a focus on lighting, setting, even fashion. For a $27 monthly subscription, users access 14 daily classes, each boasting a color wheel of pastel and neon colors against a minimalist background. It feels like a mix between a Jane Fonda workout and the movie Tron, with a dash of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video.
“Our customer wants something different,” explains Mullett of his (mostly) millennial audience. “She wants something that that feels branded, that feels special–that evokes joy.”
Like many Angelenos, Mullett and Mills were obsessed with boutique fitness studios. The two CAA colleagues routinely found themselves dissecting everything about the L.A. exercise scene: Whose class did you take? What was the atmosphere? What music did they play? How was the instructor?
For a certain subset of wellness aficionados, class reviews can be as exciting as any Game of Thrones recaps.
It was during one of these talks that the two remarked that no app truly captured their favorite boutique studio experience. Why shouldn’t they–agents who represented lifestyle talent and networks like HGTV and the Food Network–give it a go? Their entire careers centered on bringing talent to the forefront of entertainment.
“There was nothing that really spoke to us, that was a community that we could rally around, workouts that were as effective as they were fun and stimulating,” recalls Mills.
For inspiration, the duo reached back to a cultural moment where people were most excited to feel the burn: The Jane Fonda fitness video era (and to a lesser extent, Richard Simmons). The fitness heyday of the ’80s pushed spandex-clad women across the country to energetically lunge in their living rooms. At the height of her empire, Fonda sold hundreds of thousands of cassettes a year, occupying Billboard’s top 10 videocassette sales chart for 145 weeks. She sold 17 million copies total.
“Our moms worked out in the ’80s and they were always having a really, really great time,” says Mills.
Obé aims for the energy and personality of Jane Fonda throughout all its class offerings: dance cardio, sculpting, strength classes, and yoga. In addition, they want it to feel like a music video or a nightclub, albeit from a contemporary art perspective. They built a clean, starkly minimalist set that pulses with a dynamic light box that changes colors during the flow of each workout. It’s partially influenced by light artists James Turrell (referenced in the three translucent LED walls) and Dan Flavin (as demonstrated by the light “pipes” that outline each wall).
Each class begins with a pure white light, which represents the energy of the lungs and improved breathing in Chinese medicine. It then escalates to a glowing yellow before giving way to myriad of unicorn-like colors (light pinks, purples, baby blues) that complement the workout’s speed. A morning class might feature soft oranges and red to represent the rising sun, while a slow yoga might include more saturated, comforting, slow-moving hues. A fast-paced cardio or “sweat session” will entail fast-moving neon lights.
(Mullett has utmost respect for neon. “We love neon,” he stresses. “We love the way that it makes us feel. It’s bright, happy. I don’t think I’ve ever walked by a neon sign that didn’t make me smile or make me take a picture of it.”)
Color is so very important to both the user experience and workout efficacy that Obé created a new role: “head of vibe.” This staffer is part light production manager, part DJ.
“There are so many combinations of color that I’m sure we rarely use the same one in the same way more than once,” says Mullett.
Obé’s set dimensions are 16-by-9, the exact same as one’s computer or smartphone screen. The entire platform feels immersive, as if the user climbed into a equally retro yet futuristic parallel universe. The simple background allows members to completely lose themselves in the hypnotic use of color design. Fans say it reminds them of a disco, cotton candy, the ’90s kids show Kids Incorporated, My Little Pony, Pop Tarts, and also Star Wars. And somehow, you can see traces of all of it.
Cultivating the “millennial-minded”
The company’s imaginative use of color extends beyond studio walls and onto its website, even its apparel. All of its instructors are clad in the signature Obé pastel colors, like an army of Lisa Frank soldiers. In the last year, Obé partnered with numerous high-end and popular retailers such as Outdoor Voices, Victoria’s Secret Sport, and Carbon 38. Fans can purchase hair ties or tank tops in hazy sherbet hues and psychedelic pinks that one would generally see worn by middle schoolers.
Obé isn’t the first fitness startup to give equal attention to design and experience. SoulCycle garnered a cult following with its thumping motivating music and dance-club interiors; connected fitness device Mirror reimagined at-home equipment as sleek, functional homeware; whereas Taryn Toomey drew luxe clientele with her “emotional workouts” on crystal-embedded floors.
But it’s more than just a distinctive style that catapulted Obé’s popularity. The company instituted a number of features that encourages repetitive interaction with the brand. The startup pushes members to “reserve” their virtual spot for live streaming classes (where they might receive a shout-out from the instructor) and to set up their week’s worth of classes on Sunday evenings. “Plan your workouts like you plan your life,” reads the app, which automatically syncs with one’s calendar.
Classes start at 6 a.m. since research shows people are more likely to work out in the mornings, and classes cap at 28 minutes. It’s meant to be quick, efficient, and convenient.
Members can also favorite classes, which they are then encouraged to recommend for a “shared experience.” That’s partially how Obé created an engaged community, a term used far too often in the fitness space. Obé set up a private Facebook group called Obé Fam which counts nearly 2,500 members. They post workout reviews, discuss exercise routines, encourage one another, and, of course, point out a number of products with Obé’s color scheme. Sweaty selfies are prominent.
In addition, Obé launched a “coffee talk” show to provide a well-rounded wellness experience. Workout instructors, nutritionists, fitness influencers, and experts stop by to explore various topics with members. They’ve hosted everyone from chef Katie Lee to yoga teacher Hilaria Baldwin, even sleep doctors and the occasional Obé superfan.
“If one of our instructors has a healthy snacks recipe, we’ll put it out there–whether it’s through our e-mail, video, or through a Facebook group,” says Mills.
As such, Obé tapped brands with similar approaches to community engagement. Last year, it partnered with athleisure-wear favorite Outdoor voices for a series of live events and store pop-ups across the country. They’ve also extended membership perks to Rent the Runway users and members of WW (the lifestyle company previously known as Weight Watchers).
“We like to call them ‘millennial-minded,'” says Mills of the Obé community. “These are people who want it all: They want the body, the job, the lifestyle. And we’re helping them get there through doing shorter workouts more consistently.”
Currently, 60% of Obé members skew female between the ages of 25-44. The rest is made up of college students in dorm rooms or women getting in a workout before their older kids get home. Roughly 40% are coastal, with the remainder spread out in the U.S. Obé secured $1.75 million in funding so far. (The company would not divulge the number of current subscribers, instead insisting that it’s growing rapidly.)
Moving forward, Obé will expand to more fitness modalities and grow its instructor roster. It might even delve into completely new categories, such as health or nutrition. The idea is to make Obé more than just a fitness platform, but a destination for the millennial woman to satisfy all her wellness curiosities, be it pilates or brightly colored leggings.
“Just going to a fitness class or just taking a class at home does not a fitness lifestyle make,” says Mullett. “You really need it to be a part of who you are, your routine. So what we really care about is where accountability meets that community. What really excites us is fitness as a lifestyle.”