Illustration by Marcelina Jagielka.
Gymshark is a brand name synonymous with entrepreneurial success. The e-commerce athletics wear brand has skyrocketed since its conception in 2012, changing the apparel of gym goers worldwide and pulling in a reported £260 million in 2020 revenue. Gymshark has come to represent an image of a better you; for many, donning a logo emblazoned vest or lycra two piece represents the first step towards a transformation photo. This UK brand has utilised digital media in unprecedented ways in the last decade to gain this glamourised image, taking advantage of Instagram’s concurrent growth to pioneer influencer marketing into the beast it is today. At the centre of this shiny empire is Ben Francis, a clean-cut 29 year-old bodybuilder from Worcestershire. Francis founded Gymshark, originally a made to order supplement company, as an undergraduate in 2012 before progressing to gym wear products sewn in his parents’ garage. He remains CEO and majority owner in 2022. As a gym-goer from an early age, Francis has always recognised gaps in the market and remained one step ahead of his demographic’s consumer demands.
His background in web design was a fundamental building block in the brand’s success and numerous iterations of the Gymshark website lie in the shadows of its current sleek format. The most telling remodelling occurred in 2014. Prior to the remodel, the website had been neat but impersonal, listing active wear imagery that floated in white empty space. The product photographs were comparable to design mock-ups, perhaps to save money on professional models. The website was functional and reflected that efficient mobile access was a key focus for Francis’s demographic, but it lacked the human focus that has since grown this empire. In the 2014, this website was replaced by a black and gold colour scheme, large font evocative of MMA banners, and, most significantly, the naked torsos of four popular amateur body builders. The men weren’t modelling Gymshark apparel, or any discernible clothes, but they were all small scale celebrities in the fitness industry. Aziz Shavershian, more commonly known by his internet handle ‘Zyzz’ stands flexing second from the right; in 2014 he was already a leading influence in the bodybuilding community and appeared at small-scale conventions, a social practice the Gymshark team quickly got involved in. This transition marked a distinct shift in the brand’s marketing strategy; advertising became distinctly people oriented, pushing a lifestyle, rather than a product that was originally specified to young male gym-goers.
In the last 8 years, Gymshark has fine-tuned their use of influencers. The young men who flexed for the brand’s camera at bodybuilding conventions were the origin of the ‘Gymshark athlete’, a brand deal that many young fitness influencers would kill for. The Gymshark athlete is a diverse category ranging from blonde ‘booty-builders’ to marathon runners to plus-size models. Olivia Neil, a young Youtube and TikTok star, is currently promoting Gymshark on her Spotify studio’s podcast ‘Inner monologue.’ Neil’s content is firmly lifestyle, rather than fitness oriented, and she lauds the brand as perfect loungewear for days off, a far cry from the brand’s original masculine image. While this diversification is positive for brand image and the accessibility of fitness, it is motivated by Brand engagement. In February 2022 the @gymshark Instagram page had 0.35% engagement, a strong ratio of followers to like/comment activity for a business. By contrast @davidlaid, an iconic Gymshark athlete had a 9.83% engagement rate. Due to the hype and clout that comes with the Gymshark title, aspiring athletes often model the active wear and tag the brand for free. Influencer marketing opens many doors, personalised to attract a range of customers, that all lead back to the Gymshark website.
This extends beyond Instagram to affiliate marketing. If the brand invests in search engine optimisation they don’t publicise these figures but, having spread their internet presence so widely, it seems unlikely that they’d choose to spend a penny on it. Their website link is plastered in the Instagram bios and YouTube description boxes of hundreds of fitness influencers, both recognised brand ambassadors and those with temporary discount codes. A potential customer could be led to the website by YouTube searches ranging from ‘protein recipes’ to ‘active rest day’ or ‘LA vlog.’ Gymshark also posts articles on their website. Their series ‘battle of the supplements’ weighs up the benefits of products like BCAAs, creatine and glutamine and is generally a good information source. This innocent blog addition is an intelligent exercise in customer attraction. The kind of gym-goer googling the merits of different supplements has huge spending potential. They’re clearly open to spending money on fitness. They also probably know their way around a gym well but are uncertain on some of the finer points and would take that extra boost of confidence that the Gymshark logo might bestow.
There have been minimal pitfalls on Gymshark’s ten year success story, but their few major failings are linked to their e-commerce status. Black Friday is a colossal money maker for this company and during the 2015 cyber sale, at the peak of Gymshark’s new influencer inspired growth, the website crashed. Francis reported an estimated £140,000 loss and expressed immense embarrassment. However, the silver linings were plentiful: numerous news outlets covered the story, describing the immense customer demand that caused the crash and Francis’s ensuing decision to send handwritten letters and voucher codes to customers who had waited in virtual queues. The brand’s popularity was only further publicised and they finished 2015 with £11.3 million in revenue, nearly doubling that of the previous year.
Gymshark have always presented as anti-steroids, choosing bodybuilders with natural aesthetics. In the past few years numerous brand influencers, particularly those associated with the brand’s early image, have been exposed as ‘fake naturals’, posting somewhat calculated apology content about their steroid usage. This has severely undermined brand integrity. Gymshark’s reliance on its ambassadors is a mark of approval; they endorse the fitness content of their athletes, many of whom are not qualified to give dietary or fitness advice. Impressionable members of the customer base may fall prey to the understandable belief that, if they do the same exercises as these athletes, they will gain the same physique. This is often unachievable from the start due to disparities in genetics and body composition but is made astronomically harder by unaddressed steroid usage. In 2018,The Guardian reported that up to 1 million Brits were using steroids for cosmetic enhancement and recent estimates have suggested that 40-60% of gym goers are ‘on the juice’. Steroid-using influencers inform a dangerous cycle; they may deceive young athletes just long enough for them to become obsessed with gym-going and gaining size. When the news breaks the influencer’s desirable physique then serves as an advert for further illegal steps to gain muscle mass. Gymshark has voiced its concerns about this epidemic and expressed regret for any part they may have played. One of their ex-athletes, Natacha Oceane bases her fitness content in accessible science, validated by her first from Warwick University and MPhil in Biophysics from University College London. Oceane chose to end her relationship with Gymshark at the end of 2020, expressing that she no longer aligned with Gymshark’s principles. Many have taken this to be a reaction against the brand’s endorsement of pseudo-science and fake naturals.
In 2020 Forbes reported that Gymshark was a $1.3 billion company. The brand’s success cannot be attributed to internet strategy alone as their products are generally excellent in quality and style. In the past two years, CEO Ben Francis has begun to capitalise on his personal success, presenting himself as a business personality on entrepreneur focused podcasts and platforms. While Francis is undeniably an outstanding businessman he seems slightly too down to earth (and British) for this hyper-masculine ‘rise and grind’ content. Perhaps this is just the next step in brand promotion. Success sells, and the fired-up audiences of self-bettering podcasts have the motivation, and money, for new gym kit.