Innovator Interviews: Blink Fitness’ SVP, Head of Marketing & Communications Michelle Horowitz

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As Senior Vice President and Head of Marketing & Communications for Blink Fitness, Michelle Horowitz was faced with a major dilemma last year. How do you keep a gym brand relevant when people cannot leave their homes?

As Senior Vice President and Head of Marketing & Communications for Blink Fitness, Michelle Horowitz was faced with a major dilemma last year. How do you keep a gym brand relevant when people cannot leave their homes?

Exercise serves as a stress reliever and Blink Fitness wanted to support its community at a time when people needed the relief of a workout. 

“In those first 72 hours, it was obviously a very big pivot for our employees, the brand, and our members,” says Horowitz. “We were very fortunate and demonstrated tremendous resilience during this time period. The fortunate part is the fact that we had an app which we launched in 2019. That served us very well for both keeping our members engaged, as well as our employees. That became a tremendous vehicle. Our big pivot had to do with engagement of our community, employees, and members.”

By providing people in lockdown with livestream classes, Blink Fitness was able to stay relevant to its consumer base and even become part of their daily routine.

“I think the content strategy has also pivoted and shifted, becoming the backbone of what we do from a marketing and advertising perspective,” says Horowitz. “I think that our content production has expanded 1000% since the pandemic, starting when our gyms first shut down. It really has been a big part of how we tell those stories. We are very specific on each channel, specifically our social channels, on telling these relevant stories for each particular audience. We are really starting to explore Tik Tok and the audience out there. We want to figure out the UGC side of things as well as the advertising side. It’s an exciting time for the brand as we begin to think about what the future looks like on all these different relevant platforms.” 

Prior to joining Blink Fitness in September 2019, Horowitz held numerous high-level leadership roles at various brands including serving as CMO of Ann Taylor Loft, EVP of Global Marketing and Communications at Diane von Furstenberg and Chief of Staff to the CMO at Thomas Reuters.

Horowitz will be speaking on June 10th at Brand Innovators 10th Anniversary Summit. Brand Innovators caught up with her in advance of the event to talk about how Blink evolved during the pandemic, the company’s content strategy and workouts look like in a hybrid world. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How did you evolve your business model during the pandemic to meet consumer needs even when you had to close?

The app was the perfect vehicle for that. In the first 72 hours after we closed all of our locations, we also launched live stream classes that we called, “Get Up and Blink.” At the time, we live streamed five days a week, now we have trimmed it down to two days a week. We led classes every day with our certified personal trainers, and ended up with over 100 Get Up and Blink episodes where we focused on all different kinds of working out. We really thought deeply about what would be useful to people during this time of change, and gave them the opportunity to engage with other members as well as our incredibly talented personal trainers. That became huge, and now all of that content is integrated into our app and available in real time. We almost reached 2 million people during that time period, which made us feel really good. We come from a place of mood over muscle. During the pandemic, it was an incredibly difficult time so we wanted to provide a support system and be able to keep our members healthy, mentally and physically. We encouraged everyone to stay safe and well during that time.

What digital channels did you use to activate your member base?

Our organic channels became a really important part of telling that story. We talked about it on our Facebook homepage and used local pages. The press got wind of what we were doing, so there was a lot of conversation about us in the media space. We continue to engage, not only from the app perspective but with our communications. We have a monthly newsletter where we let people know about what we are doing as well.

How did your media shift during the pandemic and what did you learn from this shift? Obviously, a lot of media spend goes into top-of-funnel building brand awareness but also acquisition or trial period of new members. Our gyms were not open during COVID, so we couldn’t really communicate that so we pulled back. We were talking a lot about offering the app for free during this time period. There was mention on our homepage and throughout our social channels about this, there were a little bit of ads about that as well. We really wanted to build this community, because you could be anywhere in the country and still participate with the app. We saw a tremendous lift in consumers doing trials of the app.   

How are you adapting to reopenings and how will your digital offerings carry into the new era of open gyms?

I love that you used the conjunction “and.” We are all still dealing with this. From an industry perspective, there was tremendous acceleration into the digital world. As we think about communicating with our current community and potential new communities, we want to meet members or future members where they are, in terms of their comfortability coming back to the gym. We realize that consumers want to have an “and/or” relationship with the brand, where they can choose to do some of their working out in the gym and then choose to use the app.

The app is built on three pillars, with a focus on helping consumers live a healthy and balanced life. There is the fitness element, nutrition element, and recovery element. We are unique in that we offer curated content not only from Blink, but also from other trusted partners like Active, Twerk It, Zumba, from a content perspective of physical fitness. From the nutrition perspective, we partner with Food52, Cooking Light and Eating Well. For the rejuvenation, we partner with the Meditation Studio and My Yoga Works. I think it’s really giving members the opportunity to use the app how it works best for them. People are still figuring out the post-pandemic world, where to spend their time, and how to continue to stay healthy. 

The app lives between those worlds. We are already seeing from a behavioral perspective, that pre-pandemic, people were using the app in-gym and they continue to do so at this time. Just before we opened, we created four products that sit on the app: We have contactless entry into the gym, to make consumers feel more comfortable about coming to the gym so they don’t have to interact with as many touchpoints; We had a reservation system that we are no longer using as gyms return to 100% capacity; We also had a capacity tracker that told people how busy the gyms were so they could feel comfortable; We still continue to offer virtual personal training for people who are not ready to return to the gym or can’t make it during the gym hours, they can work out with our trainers virtually. We have really integrated this whole idea of the digital and traditional retail space. 

Before Blink, you worked at a number of fashion brands including Diane von Furstenberg and Ann Taylor Loft. Can you talk about what you learned in fashion that you apply to your current role?

I think the continuity thread within my entire career is what happens when technology disrupts an industry. In particular, during my different leadership roles – whether it was at Diane von Furstenberg or as the CMO of Ann Taylor Loft or interim at Destination Maternity – it’s really about that omnichannel experience. How does she live between the online and the real world, and what does that look like as brand experience and as an ecommerce experience? 

In hindsight, that has served me very well coming into the fitness industry, unexpectedly with the acceleration around digital. We were up against the same thing – how does our brand live in these two worlds and what does stasis look like? At what point is the brand living together separately? From a communications perspective, even in my early days at Diane von Furstenberg, it was very important to think about creating a personalized experience. How does the contemporary, luxury experience exist online and co-exist with the in-store experience of the brand. At Blink, we want to create an online experience that aligns with the retail gym experience.

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