most creative marketers
Most Creative Marketers: Noel Mack
Noel Mack, chief brand officer at Gymshark - one of the UK's fastest growing companies - talks about how he's building communities that eat, live and breathe the brand
06 March 2023
As pinch-me moments go, the opening of the Gymshark store on London’s Regent Street last October was a pretty big deal for the brand, and for Noel. Not just an opportunity for IRL shopping, it’s an expression of the brand’s vibe and community, designed to transform into a clear workout area within 15 minutes.
The shiny new experiential space, which will also host special events and community hangouts, isn’t a departure from Gymshark’s digital direct-to-consumer proposition but an extension of it, says Noel, who’s responsible for the global Gymshark brand strategy and marketing.
“The reason our first ever step into bricks and mortar is in a Gymshark-owned store is so that we can keep it direct-to-consumer, but multichannel. It's our experience. The customer data is owned by us. It's the exact same situation but rather than hitting gymshark.com you walk into 165 Regent Street.”
The brand is famous for its body-positive approach, which extends to the mannequins instore, modelled on real people so that real people could see themselves in the gym, and avoid “gymtimidation.” It’s another way to remove barriers.
“Rather than having these chiselled, ridiculously unrealistic proportions on mannequins, let's put real humans in there. Guys who don't have 15 ABS and you know, females who have childbearing hips. There's a realness to it, which I think people really appreciate,” he says.
The mission at Gymshark is “to inspire as many people as we can to step up to the bar and raise it because we're big believers in strength and conditioning and also what the gym can do for people from a mental health perspective.”
Creating communities for what people want
The brand is known for supporting its influencers such as Anna Archer, who talks about recovery from an eating disorder, and Ethan Payne, aka Behzinga, whose inspirational weight loss journey has propelled him to becoming a Gymshark fitness influencer and an athlete for the brand. It’s a message of personal growth, development, resilience, and determination to overcome difficulty, Noel says.
“Adidas would show the free kick that David Beckham scored from the halfway line. Gymshark would show all the free kicks that he’d missed to get to that point. We’re the 10,000 hours brand that comes before the moment in the spotlight. We show the hard work and real life. The ridiculously polished physiques of icons like LeBron James are inspirational, but you’d never look at him and say, ‘Yeah, I could do that.’ Because you need the genetics, and the years of training. But any of the Gymshark ambassadors, you can say, ‘I can achieve what they've achieved.’”
The Gymshark strategy is built on creating communities through common goals. It started out on bodybuilding.com forums, then moved through Facebook groups. Then Instagram, where it now has nearly 8 million followers across three accounts, Snap and TikTok, where it has the biggest fitness brand following at 3.5 million. The brand uses memes and comedy posts to align with its community, a marketing play popular with Gen Z, who make up half its customer base. The brand is still on Twitter – just – but Noel is waiting to see what happens with “the whole Elon situation.” His main priority is to go where the communities are – because that’s how you find out what people want.
“At six am my alarm goes off. The first thing I do is go on Twitter and search the word Gymshark to see what people are saying about us. What Sally in Little Rock, Arkansas, doesn't realise is that when she tweets saying she didn't get her order on time. I'm ringing people's necks all day to find out why Sally didn't get her order on time. So when I say it stops and starts with the community, it's not some cheesy marketing line. It's genuinely true, every day.”
Talking of social platforms – what about the metaverse? He thinks it's not yet accessible enough for the brand to make a concerted play. “When it's not trapped behind an expensive headset, and it's a bit less clunky, and there's more people hanging out on that platform, we will definitely be there. We're in conversations with Meta about beta programmes on a near-daily basis.”
Eat, live, breathe Gymshark
Brand Gymshark isn’t just for the marketing team. There are departments that act as in-house agencies: a creative team, a digital product team. But there is brand salience for everybody. So when Laurie Harvey, the new female face of GymShark in America, was revealed on Instagram every member of staff across the company – the product team, the finance team – was resharing it to their own personal story because they were excited about it as a moment for the brand.
“A secret weapon in our employer brand is that people are so bought into the mission and story. Everyone knows the Ben Francis pizza-boy-turned-entrepreneur, one-of-us, working-class-hero story. It's like this infectious north star that everybody's bought into. Our people are all thinking brand first, marketing first.”
But it’s a feeling the brand hasn’t managed to transpose onto an agency as yet, Noel says. Having experimented with an agency for the first time – Ultra Brand Studio for its United We Sweat film - Noel says although the team produced great work, it’s not something they’re repeated since.
It’s not to say he’d rule out using an agency in the future. But Gymshark’s “unique way of going to market and a very unique way of thinking” has been hard to replicate with agencies, says Noel.
“It's hard to make them understand how we think and what's important to us. The typical model, the agency for the creative plus media spend, we've never done that. And we don't ever aspire to. I'm not going to win a pound-for-pound marketing war against Nike, they're going to beat us at that every day. I don't want to play the game the way those other brands played it. If the aim of the game was for me to beat up Floyd Mayweather, I'm definitely not going to box with him. I'm going to figure out another way to try and beat him up. It would really have to be the right agency to work with Gymshark,” he says.
And it seems the brand is doing just fine without agency intervention: Gymshark reached unicorn status in 2020, valued at $1.45 billion following investment from private equity firm General Atlantic, which acquired a 21 per cent stake. Sales of £400 million were reported in the year to 31 July 2021, up from £260m in the previous year. The US is already Gymshark’s biggest market outside the UK, accounted for 45 per cent of the company’s total revenue.
Odds are, it may not even be 10,000 hours until we hear about another bricks-and-mortar play from Gymshark.
The world according to Noel Mack…
Who is your creative hero?
It changes all the time. At the moment it’s Stormzy. He's taken grime to a whole new level and put it onto a huge platform for UK culture, which is amazing. That video Mel Made Me Do It is like a marketer’s wet dream. It is phenomenal.
The José Mourinho moments, the Youtubers that feature randomly, it's as though they've said: “Who are all the target demographics? We want the football crowd, the fashion crowd, the grime audience… let's pick an influential character from each of these things, put them together.”
On top of that, there’s the story of Black excellence. And there’s the line: “this is not a phase; this is phase one.” This is just the beginning, which is inspirational to so many young kids. And again, it goes back to how we are using our influence. To a lot of those kids, he's from down the road, he's from the same crummy streets that they're from. With his musical talent and what he's doing for culture, that is true creativity in so many different forms.
What’s been feeding your imagination lately?
In the fitness world, to be big on Facebook or Instagram all you had to be was hot, and be able to take a photo of yourself. Simple, right?
But so many of those people didn't make it on TikTok because on TikTok, you have to actually be creative. You have to think of some funny or a way to make your workout look interesting. There is some phenomenal creativity on Tik Tok, and it opens creativity up to a new audience of people who wouldn't have previously thought of themselves as “creative”. And then once they're into it, they realise; “Oh, I'm being quite creative here.”
Or maybe I'm saying this to justify the two hours a night I spend on TikTok.
What has been your boldest creative play?
A few years ago, when this was a scrappy bootstrap company, we wanted to do a big 1st January campaign for when everybody gets up off the sofa and says: “new year, new me”. We wanted to start a campaign that was going to inspire people. We had this idea that Gymshark could be to New Year’s Day what the John Lewis ad is to Christmas.
The only problem was that we had no money because we were a small company. We were broke, but we knew we needed music. A huge part of the John Lewis ad success has always been great music. But we didn't have any money to licence any music. So, me and one other member of staff filmed it, edited it, scored all the music. The background music is me playing the piano, the bass guitar, everything. My friend is a singer, so we got her to come in and sing. The entire campaign was literally put together on a shoestring.
What lessons did that teach you?
Sometimes when all the constraints are stacked against you, and you're up against it, that's when the most creativity comes out. That campaign went ridiculously well. It achieved a million-plus views on YouTube during a time when nothing did a million views. But we could have fallen at the first hurdle if we'd given up because we couldn’t afford any music. We made it happen, so creatively it was bold. It taught me the lesson that nothing's impossible. You can have all the constraints in the world against you, but if you’re creative, you can figure it out.
What frustrates you?
The massive lack of understanding of jobs like mine. If you want to be an accountant, there's a there's a route into that from 14 years old. But I had no idea a job like mine was a possibility.
Lots of kids coming up in the in the current education system would love to be an A&R at a music label or work in PR or do some sort of creative marketing but wouldn't even know where to start.
It can seem like there’s this really cool crew and they’re all at this very cool party that you just don't know how to get an invite to. In fact, you can't even figure out where the fucking door is.
That was how I always felt – like an outsider staring in, trying to figure out how this world worked – and I'm an extrovert. So there must be a lot of talent left on the side-lines because this industry seems so inaccessible. The education system needs to think less in terms of accountant/doctor/lawyer. There need to be other ways to educate people from an early age about creative pathways.
What excites you about the future?
The absence of gatekeepers.
Previously, if you wanted to make music you had to make a demo CD, post it off to the record labels, do gigs at the right places. Where Chance the Rapper has proven that he’s independent, he’s gone all the way.
In so many creative industries, it's being proven – slowly but surely – that gatekeepers are being removed. People are doing things for themselves. It makes me optimistic because kids who traditionally wouldn’t be “let in” to the creative industries, maybe they don't need to be “let in.” They can say “I'm gonna start my own party over here on YouTube on Tik Tok,” or whatever else it might be, and blaze a trail in a completely new direction.