HomeOPINIONWhat an empty gym teaches you about business

What an empty gym teaches you about business

By Martin O’Sullivan

The road through lockdown was paved with good intentions and I walked that road. I promised myself I would use all the extra time at home to learn how to play Better Living Through Chemistry by Queens of the Stone Age on my electric guitar. I failed miserably. Others may have made grand proclamations about getting through their unread book piles, perfecting a particular dish or cleaning that bit between the dishwasher and the floor. And while there were a few ‘productivity shamers’ who delighted in telling everyone about their achievements, when I asked friends, colleagues and business associates what they had done or learned during level four, it turns out my failure was not at all unusual. In fact, it offered an insight into the human condition: we are overly optimistic, we only have a certain amount of decision-making capability during times of stress, and we often need some help to push us in the right direction.

This unbridled optimism has served our species well. It has helped us explore the world, solve thorny problems, create new things and decide to do house renovations. But it consistently serves us poorly when it comes to achieving our own goals. Our ambitions are often greater than our abilities (something that personal experience and anecdotal evidence suggests is particularly evident among 40+ men) and these failures got me thinking about the role of personal trainers. Before Covid-19, it was an industry worth well over $10 billion per year in the US and UK. I’ve used a personal trainer in the past, and it was embarrassing and expensive. So why the hell would anyone pay for one? It’s pretty simple, really. It’s more effective if you have someone to help.

 Personal trainers teach you the correct techniques, build your resistance over time and get you match-fit. You can exercise on your own, of course, but you’re unlikely to turn up as often, the results won’t be as good when you do and if (or when) you get injured the road to recovery will be a long one.

 Gyms understand human psychology and make most of their money from absentee members (as well as super users who buy all the add-ons). According to one study, just 18% of members regularly attended their presumably quite expensive gyms. This overconfidence in our own willpower is seen most obviously at the start of the year, when, according to The Atlantic, “many gyms see a traffic surge of 30 to 50 percent … By June, the odds that you’ve kept your New Year’s Resolutions falls to under 40 percent”.

 So what have failed musical and fitness goals and personal trainers got to do with business? Turns out brands and bodies share some similarities and, perhaps not surprisingly, given humans are involved in running companies, the same fallibilities are often evident in the business world. Over the past few months my team and I have been checking up on our clients to see how they’re coping. Many of them have their own businesses, most were concerned about the future and all were under intense pressure because they had to deal with so much all at once. As a business owner myself, I was in a similar position and it was scary and difficult to prioritise. 

 They were dealing with cashflow forecasts, pipeline sales, new business, the complexities of the Government’s wage subsidy and small business loan schemes, and the challenge of ensuring their teams stayed happy, healthy and motivated – and if that wasn’t difficult enough, they had to do most or all of it from home. As well as overconfidence, “the simple act of making any decision depletes us of a limited store of willpower” and, at times like these, when there are so many important decisions for business owners and managers to make, that becomes even more pronounced.

 Given all this pressure, it’s perfectly understandable that some businesses have let the health of their brands slip. Our new venture Love Work is a programme that combines business and brand strategy with a deep understanding of employees’ alignment, culture and wellness and one of the things we’ve noticed as a result of Covid-19 is how difficult it has been for employees to maintain their resilience, motivation and productivity when working remotely. When things are going badly, many people feel like curling up into a ball, but it’s crucial to fight that impulse.

 There’s plenty of evidence to show companies that maintain marketing spend during a recession come out stronger when the market rebounds relative to those who go dark and, not surprisingly, agencies are banging that particular drum. For many, it feels counter-intuitive to be investing in marketing at a time when revenue or staff numbers may be falling, but it also presumably feels counterintuitive to stay still and calm when you see a bear approaching you in the Alaskan wilderness. It turns out they’re both good pieces of advice.

 Marketing is an investment in the long-term. What you do (or don’t do) now, flows into the future. And when the focus of business owners and managers may not be on branding or marketing, you need to be able to call on trusted partners and advisors to take up the slack, offer sound advice and, like a good personal trainer, make sure your business is doing the right exercises to reach its goals.

This crisis will be the end of some businesses and the making of others. Success is what all entrepreneurs strive for but, as we’ve all seen recently, when potential failure is in front of us we tend to get more forensic. Pretty much all businesses, including ours, have been examining their costs. But the smart businesses don’t just cut. They need to look at whether their offer is relevant or differentiated enough for this new environment, adapt to shifts in consumer behaviour, embrace more efficient ways of working and take the opportunity to look closely at their businesses so they can get a jump on their competition. They understand that maintaining a strong brand is one of the biggest unfair advantages in the market, but it’s hard to do it alone.

Like the best personal trainers, agency partners ask good (and often tough) questions, gain an understanding of what you want to achieve and then guide you towards those goals. We may encourage you to occasionally drop and give us 20, but only in extreme circumstances. Success in both areas is based on forging an understanding of what each party brings to the relationship and how you can help each other.

Times are tough out there. There’s a lot on the minds of owners, Directors and CEOs, despite the best of intentions, your brand could probably do with some toning up. So whip out that sweatband and pull on your activewear. Now is the perfect time to ask for some help to get ‘brand fit’. As that Queens of the Stone Age song that I failed to learn over lockdown suggests, life, music and business all work better with good chemistry.

Martin O’Sullivan is the managing director of Iceberg, an independent creative company

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