Forget Protein World, Instagram is driving the new fitness 'regime reality'

Just as Instagram announces smart ad targeting for all, the platform has been the unintentional author of a brand new health and wellness category. But is it actually doing us any good? Asks James Kirkham, Leo Burnett global head of social and mobile and co-founder of Holler.

James Kirkham: we’re creating a virtual society who are on a collective regime outside of reality
James Kirkham: we’re creating a virtual society who are on a collective regime outside of reality
We’re on the verge of creating a virtual society who are all on a collective regime outside of reality

This year I turned 38 and realised I needed to sort myself out. Less boozy lunches and all night shenanigans. Less days that begin by gulping back Nurofen and more days that start with swigging whey protein shakes full of Goji berries. It happens to us all though right? I’m definitely more boring, but at least I can see my feet.

My new found interest in all things fitness opened the doors to a new ‘regime reality’, a fascinating universe predicated on a feel good aesthetic and need to show off and share your goals with everyone else. But it isn’t just about vanity. This is becoming a booming business with surprisingly little substance.

A new business category

It has created an entirely new business category, where the platform is Instagram, the currency is audience follows and the income is vast; via sponsorship, product placement and any brand who want associations with real-time influencers the world over.

This is a omni-platform environment and it’s not about Facebook or Twitter really

Interestingly and contrary to most social successes, this is a omni-platform environment and it’s not about Facebook or Twitter really, instead it is all Instagram. The aesthetics and visual nature of this lovely little mobile-first application lend themselves perfectly to all those that inhabit it.

This is co-existing with any new advertising model, ad format and smart targeting which the platform itself introduced this week. This is already happening, and the protagonists are making bundles of cash from their endeavours before the platform sees a penny.

But where did it all begin?

Nike+ really created a new paradigm for brand advertising by quietly switching from glamorous shiny TV spots to nerdy nuggets of personalised data as the chief entry point into their entire brand world. My Nike consumption even now is both by the hour and via my friends. As such, Nike brand advocates who run then share their journey’s data output on their social streams. Smart in the extreme.

You can peruse hundreds of examples which show half-baked trainers, often good looking and massively aware of their own ‘brand’, posing and carefully manicuring their feed to sell a brand as well as any major corporation might

But just as this blazes a trail towards a new era where everyone markets the brand for them through their participation, something else started happening in the background which is far less to do with fitness, and far more to do with status. The Instagram influencer was the obvious follow on from YouTube stars, where wonderfully creative people would garner huge followings through their uploads. It moved from being about photography or art into all sorts of different sectors, and the wannabe fitness aficionados have spied their opportunity and dived in with a vengeance.

Now we have good looking C-list talent alongside Instagram power users, and the outcome in personal training or celebrity fitness has by proxy become their lucrative business but, in reality, their unrealistic ambition.

You can peruse hundreds of examples which show half-baked trainers, often good looking and massively aware of their own ‘brand’, posing and carefully manicuring their feed to sell a brand as well as any major corporation might.

They’ll choose exercises designed to look impactful in a 10 second Instagram video, rather than really trying to transform the bodies of the recipients.

They’ll choose exercises designed to look impactful in a 10 second Instagram video, rather than really trying to transform the bodies of the recipients

Smart, slick aesthetic

But it is precisely this combination of a smart, slick aesthetic and an admirable innate understanding of social best practices that mean they have massive audience reach. This in turn puts them on the radar of even the laziest digital media buyers and product PR people. Their high volume audiences are ready made to consume content which might feature the new sporting apparel, the new protein shake make or the new revolutionary TRX equipment.

They’re earning thousands for every single endorsement or charging simplified rate cards like ‘£1,000 per mention’. It is incredibly easy money and why wouldn’t they take advantage? Rarely are any of this crew actually high quality world class trainers but that doesn’t seem to matter to the consumers who follow with such gusto.

And therein lies another behavioural development; there seems to be an increasing appetite for consumption of more and more motivational content in this way, so that just by being a part of that culture they’re somehow doing themselves good!

Virtual society on a collective regime

Thus, millions of us are tuning in and consuming fitness feeds frequently, which in turn helps us feel like we’ve gone a little closer to achieving those very public goals. "I’m into fitness, i’m ready for the beaches, I think therefore I lunge.." these sorts of statements and peripheral (often ephemeral) following of a hot-bodied Instagram influencer is the new equivalent of buying a gym membership but using it just once a month.

It means we’re on the verge of creating a virtual society who are all on a collective regime outside of reality. Faux fitness everywhere, coupled with loads of motivational posts and seemingly endless tanned torsos - where product placement thrives and expertise is limited.

There are of course some fantastic examples too and it is here where you spy the true difference or worth of what’s out there. Separating the reality from those who are only bothered about being skin deep. 

More than skin-deep

Dan Lawrence counts a world Champion Boxer and several professional footballers amongst his clients, (not just podgy chaps like me) but this is an example of an elite level trainer that is a world away from the champagne fitness charlies who are all show and no results. Likewise, a brilliant new initiative called PUSH is known as the UK’s first ‘re-boot’ camp. Effectively acknowledging the countless media monkeys living a life which pushes their body to all the wrong limits. It takes them away for a week of bootcamp fitness but also includes mindfulness training and nutritional education too. As such it gets people to re-set their dials and better prepare them for their working lives when they return.

Where a brand can win is going a step beyond; providing genuine information, helping out in people’s lives

Some brands get it right too, such as the fantastic Under Armour with over 210k followers. Or truly exciting Yoga authors like Kathryn Budig whose 114k followers seem to be hyper engaged in the musings of their mentor.

There is a valuable lesson here for brands who want to take note and capitalise on this demand for all things fitness. Firstly, Instagram is unequivocally the place to be. If they get the strategy right and use the right selection of power users and ‘insta-talent’ then they can be in a truly powerful place. There is a nascent ability in so many of these feeds for growing quick audiences and incorporating products. Where a brand can win is going a step beyond; providing genuine information, helping out in people’s lives, acting in a symbiotic manner to those who genuinely want to seek out health, fitness and wellbeing. Being more experimental too and cutting through the wallpaper effect of brands on the channel. So as Ballantines have just created a magazine entirely from the channel, perhaps those brands who innovate with the format more can success in the space too.

Not right for all brands

It won’t be right for all. Brands who embrace the expertise, the right talent and the innovative delivery method will do well as long as it suits their core reason for being. If they don’t fit the bill, they should merrilly resort to the simple ad targeting methodology the platform themselves have outlined details of this week instead. But the latter looks less impressive or eventful than this entirely new category which is rising up before our very eyes.

Perhaps it is natural as world’s collide that these categories are born swiftly and generate income like this. It is likely there’ll be many more, with the likes of SnapChat or WhatsApp, the next platforms to help author whole new commercially viable categories.

I just hope there is a reality check for us all where we embrace those who truly know their stuff and who leverage social platforms to tell their expert stories. That way they’ll be able to help us all find a better self, not just a pretend version.