Research Suggest Marketers Must Evolve The Men’s Fitness Category

man tying running shoes

A Conversation with Scott Bower, co-founder, business strategy, Current Forward, Austin, TX

According to Scott Bower, Co-Founder of brand consultancy Current Forward, brands in the men’s wellness space need to do extensive research with consumers to truly understand their mindsets, motivations and emotions. “It is critical to ensure relevance now and into the future,” he says.

How are old stereotypes around masculinity changing? How should brand messaging balance business growth and positive social discourse? What impact has Covid-19 had on the industry as a whole?

Advertising Week spoke with Bower about all of this, as well as diving into the consultancy’s research around the men’s wellness and fitness category and how brands should now navigate the evolving space.

With each decade men become more fitness and health-oriented.  Can you share some broad-stroke observations on brand marketing in those areas historically and the current state of the men’s fitness-health-wellness market?

It’s hard to comment on the marketing of health and fitness solutions for men without commenting on the stereotypes around masculinity that the ad industry had a hand in creating and perpetuating. Luckily, we’ve seen some major shifts over the past few years to a more gentle and true-to-life approach that focuses on the mind as much as the body and inclusivity over dominance. Brands like Dove Men+Care, Gillette, Nike and Axe have all used their platforms to question and reform a typically regressive and hyper-masculine category.


That being said, we’re still in the middle of a broader societal shift around masculinity and the playbook is actively being rewritten. Because of the pandemic, 77% of US men have experienced increased stress, 70% are finding it difficult to balance home life and work life, and 59% of men feel that COVID-19 has had a greater negative impact on their mental health than the 2008 recession. Meanwhile, 48% of men have put off going to the doctor and 40% are struggling to stay healthy during COVID, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Many men are struggling and there is a significant opportunity for brands to help them reimagine their healthcare journeys and routines, shaping them at an individual level based on the principles of modern masculinity.

What, if any, are some of the advertising and branding cliches that don’t work anymore for these men’s fitness brands? Are there new aesthetics and/or new messaging that men’s fitness brands should adopt to feel relevant and resonate with guys?

First off, we need to distinguish between what will feel relevant and resonant with the average American man today, and what we as brands should do or say to help shape the future of masculinity. Brands have the responsibility of considering both, and finding the appropriate intersection that will drive business growth and positive societal momentum.

Next, our past research indicates that a few prominent cliches should be retired. The category should refrain from idolizing superhuman male body types and inferring that you have to be an athlete to be physically fit. Setting the bar at such unapproachable heights can create body dysmorphia and shame in men. Similarly, we should retire the idea that all men are performance-driven. Again, it leans into the idea that all men are, and should be, aggressive and relentless in their pursuit of physical perfection. That’s just not realistic or true for a large group of men. Finally, there’s a cliche that men don’t care about their health and therefore their partners or relatives are the ones buying fitness or grooming products for them. We believe that men care very much about their health, they just haven’t been given the tools to talk about it in the same way that women have been. But they’re stepping into their power and making their own purchasing decisions while being courteous and open to their partners’ input.

Men remained active during Covid but their routines changed. For men’s fitness brands, are there new opportunities post-Covid? If so, why and in what ways can marketers take advantage? 

Men like to work out together and share their fitness achievements. During COVID that might look like virtual workouts and Peloton high fives. At the same time, they’re largely uncomfortable talking about their struggles, be it mental or physical. There’s a good amount of surface-level cheerleading, without the depth of conversation or pattern recognition that’s often required to truly identify barriers and overcome them.

In the near future, we anticipate a rise in male-focused fitness “retreats”, where men embrace revenge travel and reconvene with close friends to spend long weekends enjoying their favorite physical activities together. Think rock climbing and ropes courses combined with morning meditation and fishing excursions. Personal achievements and skill-building will be in the foreground while food and booze (in moderation) will be in the background.

Meanwhile, we anticipate a proliferation of niche communities popping up to help educate men on the intersection of nutrition, fitness and mental health. These communities will likely look more like Reddit forums, Twitter threads or brand blogs versus chat rooms. While generally, men have a strong understanding of fitness today, their understanding of nutrition and mental health is still nascent, and they’ll seek out this information as they move towards their own wellness revolution.

Are there marketing strategies or approaches that a men’s fitness brand should avoid, given current trends in health and wellness?

Avoid treating men as one-size-fits-all. Just like Gen Z has made us rethink how we group and label generations, the last few years should make us rethink gender stereotypes. We should be communicating the complexity of male identity and designing our products and brands for all.

Nobody likes to diet, so it’s no surprise to see your comments that fitness is fun and social for men but weight loss is not. What are your thoughts on this from a men’s health and/or fitness marketer?

There’s so much opportunity to make weight loss fun for men. Maybe not by making it social, but by gamifying it, tapping into their desire to learn and helping them put the pieces of their own puzzle together. And similar to broader trends we’re seeing, weight loss is never a standalone goal or experienced in a vacuum. Weight loss efforts for men are always paired with an increase in physical activity and are increasingly going hand in hand with wellness optimization and full-body balance.

Your research suggests longevity and health are key drivers for men to stay active, but where do other aspects, such as sex appeal, fit in?

When we did qualitative research amongst men earlier this year and asked them about their drivers for losing weight, not a single person mentioned sex appeal as a reason for improving their health. That’s not to say that it isn’t true, or that it wouldn’t have come up if we were surveying a younger or more single population. But it is quite possible that sex appeal is a category cliche that is less relevant today than it once was.

Any other thoughts to share?

I want to underscore that the dynamics around masculinity are evolving and we will likely see significant change over the next few years. As a brand in the men’s wellness space, doing the research with consumers to truly understand their mindsets, motivations, emotions and needs is critical to ensure relevance now and into the future.