March 9, 2021
In Episode 22 of Earned, Conor chats with Calum Watson, Global Partnerships Director at Gymshark, the cult-favorite fitness apparel brand (valued at over $1.3 billion) that powered nearly $350M in Earned Media Value (EMV) in the U.S. in 2020, a 21% year-over-year growth, boosted by a 46% YoY expansion of its influencer community.
We start the episode by discussing the innovative initiatives Gymshark launched to connect its community amid the pandemic’s gym closures, and how the brand leveraged the home workout trend on social media to drive growth. We then take a step back and dive into Calum’s background, where we learn how a last minute switch from studying history to business at university led him to where he is today. We hear a little bit about Calum’s time running the influencer program at Myprotein, before jumping into his role at Gymshark. Calum shares some of the challenges and growing pains that he experienced in the face of the brand’s rapid growth, and reveals the humble qualities that allowed Gymshark founder Ben Francis to scale the business.
We then learn more about Gymshark’s athlete ambassador program and hear Calum’s human-centric philosophies around nurturing genuine, long-term relationships and mutually beneficial partnerships with influencers. We also touch on Gymshark’s (a UK-native brand) international community building strategies, and hear about the brand’s breakdown of organic and paid relationships, before Calum closes the episode by emphasizing Gymshark’s purpose and how “everything has to tie back to that purpose.”
The following interview has been lightly edited for concision.
Conor: Let’s start with a current topic. Lots of people have had to figure out how to work out from home. I'm curious if that trend has positively affected you guys. Obviously you had the #Gymshark66 challenge. How has that trend impacted you guys, or has it actually hurt you?
Calum: Obviously with everything that's happened in the last year, things have just been flipped upside down for us as a brand. We had to look at the situation and be like, how can we pivot and look to support as many people as possible and keep things moving forward? So I think we were quite lucky in a time when things were quite negative or quite impactful on a lot of people, not necessarily in the most positive way. We were quite fortunate to be able to keep growing and benefit off the back of this home workout drive.
For us, it's just a matter of pivoting to be able to distribute content and help people adapt to the new world that we're living in. So like you've just mentioned, Peleton has had an incredible 12 to 18 months and they've seen this massive, massive growth. But equally for us, a lot of things we did, whether it was through influencer marketing or through content on our own social media, when lockdown became a thing, we decided to change the name of our Twitter handle to @Homeshark to help encourage people and remind people to stay at home. So there was a number of initiatives that were set up off the back of this.
We soon realized in our own backyard, in our own industry with gyms closing down in the United Kingdom, that there were a lot of personal trainers that would be out of work. So one of the initiatives we jumped onto was, we'd never been on Twitch before. So we utilized that and we set up our Twitch account, and we reached out to lots of personal trainers, and basically we set up a livestream going from 7:00 AM to 8:00 PM every day for about three or four months, where we'd book PTs to run a 45-minute to one-hour session and we’d pay them the market rates. So there were opportunities for PTs to get a couple of hours a week on this livestream so [they had] some form of income coming in, but it also gave them a chance to promote them and their online businesses to other people that were coming to take part in their workouts.
So again, from that point of view, we're trying to get people to pivot and work out from home and participate in these classes, but equally, we're trying to give PTs an opportunity to have some form of income since the gyms were closed. We also did a fundraising scheme for the NHS, which is the British National Health Service. And so we're encouraging people to get out and get sweaty and post their sweaty selfies. And for every sweaty selfie we got on Instagram, we donated five pounds. I think we ended up raising about 180,000 pounds, which was probably around $220,000 for the NHS, which was really cool.
And we've seen the whole shift in pivoting content as well. We had a roster of Gymshark athletes where they were pivoting their content to provide a lot of home workouts and solutions, so if people didn't have dumbbells, you had your cans of baked beans, your gallon jugs of water and stuff like that. So it wasn't ideal, let's be honest. Personally, I'm not a fan of home workouts, so I was embracing the bulk as much as I could, but I think it was just trying to be positive about them and make the most of the situation we’re in. Just try to push people to stay fit and healthy and stay on that journey, because that's the most important thing. It's all about the journey you're on. It doesn't matter if you're just starting or if you're coming towards the end and you have your six-pack and physique or whatever. Everyone's on a journey and we just wanted to make sure that we could help support people to continue on that journey to stay fit and healthy.
Conor: When [Ben Francis, founder of Gymshark] had to scale the business, you had to scale too. The company today is much different than it was when you joined. What were some of your growing pains? What were some of the hardest things for you during that growth period?
Calum: I think number one, fundamentally, is because the company has grown so quickly, so many opportunities are coming, and we had some of the biggest fitness influencers and some massive names reach out to us on social media. And I think knowing when to say no [is important]. When you're experiencing such rapid growth, it's making sure that you don't get distracted and drift off and you stay true to your purpose and stay true to what your North star is. That's probably been one of the biggest difficulties we've had with all these amazing opportunities. We'd have big celebrities or sports teams and franchises reaching out wanting to work with us, and they are all amazing opportunities, but do they tie back to what our purpose is? Do they help us reach our North star? And so I think staying on course has probably been one of the biggest challenges.
The other one as well is, when you work with influencers, you're working with people. I think a lot of businesses and companies don't necessarily understand or realize that. I think a lot of companies, when it comes to influencer marketing, it's very transactional and it's “we pay you X, you do Y,” and that's not how we do things at Gymshark. It's all about mutually beneficial partnerships. It's, what can we do to help you and give you value from being associated with Gymshark? What can we do to help you, and equally, this is how we see you helping us as a brand.
So it's making sure that as the landscape gets more and more competitive, how do we constantly evolve our offering, and keep close relationships with all of our athletes, and how do we keep offering value to them? How do we help them set up their own businesses, help them with their personal branding, give them opportunities, camera equipment, all that sort of stuff. It’s just constantly, how can we keep offering value to the people we work with and stay ahead of the curve as well? There's a lot of companies out there that will look to Gymshark to see, what are they doing? What are they going to do next? So I'd say [it’s important to] stay ahead of the curve, keep your ears to the ground, and constantly pivot when you need to.
I think we're very lucky as a business because we're quite agile. A lot of people will compare us to the likes of Nike, Lululemon, Under Armour, Adidas, those big apparel brands. And we're on our way to hopefully one day becoming an apparel brand of that capacity and size. But I think the one advantage we probably have over those companies is how agile we are as a brand and as a business. But with that being said, there's always loads of challenges when you have to continue to be scrappy and entrepreneurial with your approach. So I think a lot of it's just naturally growing pains, but I think we've experienced a lot of growing pains very quickly because of the growth of the company. You put one fire out, and then all of the sudden there’s another fire. But that’s the fun thing about it. I feel like I can truly say no day is the same. And there’s so many incredible minds at Gymshark, so many amazing minds, and that’s been an incredible thing to be a part of as well.
Conor: Let's talk about your athletes for a second. That's a pretty big part of your program. And I think what's interesting for me is you're approaching it very differently than a lot of the brands. And what I mean by that is, one of the biggest mistakes that we see is brands come in and they treat it like a media buy, right? “I'm going to find these athletes, or influencers, I'm going to pay them to talk about me, and then I'm going to move on to the next set and the next set and the next set,” versus the Nike model, where it's like, “Hey, we're partnering with LeBron for the rest of his life.” That's how long the partnership is. It seems like you guys are modeling yourselves off of that much more than the former, right? How do you think about that in terms of your relationships with your athletes?
Calum: It's an interesting one, because like those different models that you talked about, I feel like a lot of brands are pivoting towards the long-term ambassadorship model now because of the competitive landscape that it is. But Ben [Francis] was definitely one of the pioneers of influencer marketing eight years ago when he started reaching out to his favorite YouTubers in the small fitness community. And I think it really derived from that. It was building relationships with people who believed in the brand, and that kind of went from finding people who had an influence that were passionate about the brand and advocates of the brand and wanted to help grow the brand, that developed into these long-term partnerships.
We are a community brand, we're a human brand. One of the key focuses for us has always been about the Gymshark community and growing the community. And for us to just have loads of small partnerships here, there, and everywhere over the last couple of years, it wouldn't have been authentic. We kind of stumbled upon long-term partnerships back when long-term partnerships weren't necessarily a thing within the influencer space. It was long-term partnerships with professional sports stars, and then in the influencer space, it was just one-off posts. But what we realized was, in order to bring people into your community and do it in an authentic way, there needs to be that time to build that connection with them. You need that time to build that rapport with them. So part of the reason why we've been able to build this amazing community is because of all these long-term ambassadors and athletes that we've had on board. They've brought their community on the journey with them and integrated their community as a part of the Gymshark community.
So we've probably taken the best of both worlds, we haven't signed anyone on a lifetime agreement like Nike has, but again, anyone we want to work with, we want to invest in them. It's not just a transactional. If we're going to do this together, we're in it together. And that's focused on the long-term, we want to give them the financial security that they deserve, and equally, we know it takes more than just a couple of posts to bring somebody into our community.
But then again, that's not to say the short-term partnerships don't have a play or don't have a role in building up your ecosystem, building up your community. So I think long-term, short-term, they all have their own benefits. I think the objectives and the goals need to be quite specific and determined before you jump into it. But I truly believe in long-term partnerships. And again, you're working with humans here. Influencers, athletes, they're so powerful. If they truly believe in something, their community will buy into it and their community will back them and believe in it.
That's one of the things we've always tried to focus on as well is, like I said, we've had some massive names reach out to us before, but they always just saw it as a paycheck or a bit of clout to be working with a brand like ours. And I'm comfortable and happy to say that anyone who we work with, all of our athletes, ambassadors, they're a hundred percent bought into the brand. They want to see Gymshark go on and do incredible things. They genuinely believe in what we're setting out to achieve and what our goals and North star are. So that forms an even bigger part of what we do. Everyone that represents the brand genuinely believes in it, and that's true advocacy. You can't get more authentic than that.
You can watch the entire interview here, or listen to the full episode on on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts. To catch up on our other 21 episodes, featuring leaders from brands like ColourPop, INH Hair, Ilia Beauty, Sweaty Betty, and Huda Beauty, visit our Earned Podcast page.
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