Sometimes, looking in-depth at a specific brand can give us insight into the marketing field as a whole. In the case of Bowflex, its 30-year history showcases the changing marketing industry and, even, changing cultural norms. Marketing for wellness brands––any brand––today involves speaking to your audience honestly. And understanding them beyond dollar signs. 


Bowflex brief history 

When you think Bowflex, you likely picture their original machine complete with a bench beneath rods of varying resistance and height. And while their product line has expanded and company vision matured (more on that later), the original machine was where it all started. 

In 1984, Dosho Tessema Shifferaw, an Ethiopian college student, invented the Bowflex while trying to “design an ergonomic chair for a City College of San Francisco class project.” When he initially tried to market his invention, he faced skepticism over its spider-like shape

By 1986, Boxflex of America, Inc. was created, and the machine was officially on the market. By this time, it was the ultimate home gym with its “unvarnished rods instead of weights to create resistance.” 

Then, the popularity of the strange-looking machine skyrocketed. In 1995, sales in the U.S. jumped to $10 million and then to $585 million in 2002. This steady rise made the Bowflex the fastest-selling exercise machine in America. 


Sign of the times

The Bowflex was born in the middle of the workout craze, which may explain the tone of its earliest ads. The first Bowflex commercial was 60-seconds of symphonic rock music, 80s headbands and bodysuits, close-ups of rock hard bodies, and the dramatic narrator’s introduction of the machine. The company’s early ads were also influenced by the “profound impact” of cable TV that changed the way audiences interacted with advertisements and media. This switch in viewership created direct-response home shopping like the Home Shopping Network, QVC, and infomercials, and Bowflex jumped on the paid-programming trend with their ads. 


How the ads have changed over the years

In the beginning, Bowflex’s ads targeted a niche audience. The “Bowflex man” was usually without a shirt, had at least a six-pack, and smiled at the camera with dimpled cheeks. “These attractive, muscular bodies could be yours, the infomercial said, if you bought this equipment, put it in your home and actually used it for exercise.” 

As with most ads of the time, it focused on the product benefits and showing what could be. This was not unseen in beauty product ads, clothing ads, and other wellness brands at the time. Ads mainly targeted toward shameful aspects they could change with the product. 

Then, fitness brands like Bowflex began to realize, “you’re not selling the benefits of exercise anymore. Now, the exercise business is almost like the entertainment business.” Product-centric ads began to give way to emotional, motivating, and engaging ads. And these spoke to more than just their consumers’ apparent weaknesses. 

The new generation of Bowflex ads focuses on authenticity and approachability. Home fitness is still around (perhaps more relevant than ever) and general health and wellness are thriving. Versatile exercise machines are on-trend. But Bowflex’s core audience has changed. Or maybe haven’t so much changed as realized they don’t have to obtain perfection. And that they want a fitness company to speak to their strengths and what they already have. And they’re not alone in that reasoning. 


What we can learn from Bowflex’s recent success 

Compare Bowflex ads from the early ’80s to those today, and the differences are apparent. Bowflex serves as a great example of how marketing has changed in the last two to three decades. For marketing to work today, ads must be raw, authentic, and speak to something beyond the product or service offered. 


1) People aren’t interested in perfect anymore 

News flash to brands: perfection is out. Consumers have realized that old school ads were speaking to a version of themselves they could never achieve. Just look at any ad with over-photoshopped models and unrealistic bodies or lifestyles. “Our point of connection lies in imperfection–it’s what makes something unique and, ultimately, authentic.” Which means that advertising has a unique opportunity to speak to real people and make real connections. 

Take the recent Peloton ad as a great example of this (are you listening, marketers?). In December of 2019, the fitness company released its “The Gift That Gives Back” holiday spot. During the 30-second ad, a man gifts his fit-looking wife a Pelton for Christmas and we follow her through a year-long fitness journey where nothing seemingly happens. The already perfect looking woman’s lack of struggle left viewers confused and missed the mark with its audience entirely. 

At what seems to be the other end of the spectrum, Bowflex launched their “If I Can, You Can,” “Start of a Journey,” and “Love Journey.” Where the Peloton ad featured a model-esque woman who was already fit, these ads feature everyday people. The ads show “that Bowflex is made for everyone who is willing to embark on a fitness journey––be they new parents, busybodies, dog lovers, workout newbies, or people who hit the snooze button too much.” 

If you need further convincing, a parting note: “Messages portraying perfection are not trustworthy.” 


2) Relatability is key to relationship building 

Besides being imperfect, or showing imperfection, the next best thing a brand can be is relatable. And relatability is the cousin of authenticity. So this is where you must make sure your brand isn’t trying too hard to fit in with a specific audience. 

But it’s more than that: “The notion of relatability goes deeper than relevancy tapping into fundamental human truths: the need for belonging, to be listened to empathetically, and the need to feel seen and valued.” A brand’s character, its value system, and its rawness contribute to relationship building. 

As consumer trust nosedives, it’s up to brands to build a solid foundation on which consumers can rely. In a recent report, 86 percent of people “say authenticity matters when deciding what brands they like and support.” That means that most consumers are actively looking for brands that can relate to them in authentic ways. Brands that listen to them, can own up to their mistakes, and provide a valuable user experience. 

Back to Bowflex, when the brand stepped away from their chiseled models, they started targeting the 99% and supporting the user’s fitness journey.  Wherever that may be. Their website distills this message perfectly: “We’re a mix of fitness pros and beginners, ex-athletes, band geeks, obstacle course racers, dog walkers, joggers, moms, dads, millennials, boomers, bikers, and hikers.” As with many current brands, Bowflex is striving to be authentic, relatable, and real. 


3) Brands are more than what they seem 

Today’s brands are multi-faceted. They have a core product or service, but their marketing speaks to more than the product. Just think Apple, Nike, and Airbnb. Each has unique products and services––pioneers in their respective categories, even––but their ads are steeped in emotional intelligence

So what are these brands selling? Apple isn’t just about tech; it’s about innovation. Nike isn’t just about fitness; it’s about self-empowerment. For Airbnb, it’s belonging. And Bowflex is not just a fitness brand anymore. It’s about celebrating achievements. 

The common denominator of these brands is creating value beyond the core function. You may have an innovative, disruptive product, but if you don’t stand for more than that, today’s consumers won’t stay interested. If you don’t make your consumers feel something, aspire to something, or otherwise appeal to their emotions, then your brand runs the risk of falling out of favor with its audience.


Who else can we learn from?

The modern marketing trends that Bowflex’s arc has shown us carry over into any type of brand with any audience. Below are some of our favorite examples of brands that market imperfection, relatability, and are more than what they seem. And one that could learn a thing or two. 


Imperfection: Dove

With campaigns like “Real Beauty” and ads like “Beauty on your own terms,” Dove has been making strides toward body positivity and celebrating imperfections. Some traditional beauty brands still focus on how the product can cover up flaws or help the consumer obtain a goal. But Dove is unapologetically real. By “consistently aligning its marketing efforts with its mission statement,” Dove continues to redefine perfection and stray away from the ‘hope in a jar’ concept of old-school beauty ads. 

Relatability: Burt’s Bees  

In the rush of non-toxic products on the market, Burt’s Bees has become more relevant than ever. Their 2017 campaign “I Am Not Synthetic” focuses on the brand’s use of natural ingredients. It “encourages women to embrace their genuine beauty––and think carefully about the products they’re using.” Their marketing focuses on storytelling and speaks to their customers as if they were individuals. Not just a target audience

Beyond the product: Yeti 

Yeti has famously expensive, quality coolers, but their marketing showcases much more than that. The company differentiates itself by a Yeti lifestyle. Rather than focusing on product features, they “sell the story of the hardcore outdoorsman.” Their ads and products inspire users and offer the “potential for adventure, risk, and spontaneity.” 


A lesson in what not to do: Victoria’s Secret 

One brand not keeping up with modern marketing trends is Victoria’s Secret. Recent reports show that 60% of consumers “think the brand feels ‘forced’ or ‘fake.’” The brand’s historical focus on sexy is no longer selling and looks two-dimensional. Especially when compared to “many newer brands embrac[ing] body-positive messages by featuring everyday women, not models, as well as a wide range of body types in advertising.” By not embodying and celebrating imperfection, Victoria’s Secret is no longer relatable to their audience. 


Bowflex raises the rod 

Bowflex may be one example among thousands, but its 30-year history and marketing evolution is a great study for any marketer looking at their brand today. The takeaways? Strive for imperfection, stay relatable and authentic, and make your brand about more than what you’re selling.