The business of fitness: Building the Tone House brand

Digital fitness solutions aren’t going away in the postpandemic era—but neither are gyms, says Shaun Robert Jenkins, head coach at Tone House, New York City’s fast-growing fitness studio.

Having built a reputation among exercise enthusiasts as the place to experience New York City’s hardest workout, 1 Tone House has been growing its clientele—even when its sole location, in Manhattan, was closed for months during the COVID-19 lockdown. Tone House now also offers outdoor classes, virtual workouts, nutrition services, and a line of apparel. The brand, like its users, is gaining strength.

Shaun Robert Jenkins, Tone House senior training manager and head coach, recently spoke with McKinsey’s Eric Falardeau and shared his views on how the fitness marketplace will evolve. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Eric Falardeau: Shaun, how would you say the fitness industry has changed during the pandemic? Which changes do you think will last and which won’t?

Shaun Jenkins: Against the backdrop of COVID-19, Tone House made a couple of important pivots. One pivot was to go from our indoor studio to the outdoors, so that we could continue offering in-person fitness sessions in a physical space. We also began to offer workouts in the digital space through Tone House TV, our on-demand platform. The physical space caters to individuals who value human interaction and are hyperfocused on making that personal connection, whereas the digital space is about delivering a constant stream of content to those unable to visit the studio in person.

We’re seeing this duality—two types of engagement persona—and there’s some overlap between the two. Some of our clients who moved into the digital space during COVID-19 have been staying in that space and feel a lot more comfortable there. Other clients, those who are used to the one-on-one coaching aspect, are coming back to the studio. The time away from the studio made them realize, “I had this amazing gift that I didn’t cherish before the pandemic. Now I really want to be in here.”

In my opinion, there will be more focus on an omnichannel approach to training as we come out of the pandemic. We have clients who are parents of young children and can’t get to the studio multiple times a week, so they use the digital space to get their workout in. But if you truly want to experience an evolution in who you are as a mental, emotional, and spiritual being, it requires a guru or a coach, and it’s harder to replicate that connection without the in-person experience.

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Will online fitness replace gyms?

There will always be a role for digital content, but I think there’s currently an overperpetuation of the belief that the digital space is the way to go in fitness. I think it’s a vertical that will be successful for a select number of brands; there are several fitness brands doing a great job at digital content. But people need and want the human interaction.

Eric Falardeau: What does that mean for Tone House TV? Will it keep going even after your clients return to the studio?

Shaun Jenkins: Yes. During the COVID-19 era, our head of video production created thousands of hours of content with just a small crew. Our coaching team stepped up and performed at high levels—coaching people who were watching them on screens—even though many of our coaches had never been in front of a TV camera before. It just took off, and it allowed people to feel the essence of the brand.

Our approach is not to compete with the digital-fitness juggernauts; it’s to be the best version of ourselves and really own our content. For example, we’ve now partnered with the Special Olympics New York to create an on-demand workout series for people with intellectual disabilities. So, Tone House TV is a viable business vertical, and we’re scaling it up.

That said, the professionals who work exclusively in the digital space are actors, whereas the coaches who work in boutique studios and gyms are entrepreneurs. That’s how I view them. We all get lumped together, but if you’re a fitness trainer working in a purely digital space, you’re an actor—you’ve probably taken acting classes, you’re paying attention to your articulation and delivery, there’s tons of bravado, but there is less personal client connection. I myself probably wouldn’t be as palatable on digital media. And because I’m a coach, I want that human interaction; I prefer the in-person coaching experience.

‘We are the influencers’

Eric Falardeau: I’d love to hear your take on marketing—in particular, influencers. In our research on the wellness market, we found that influencers—even microinfluencers, or those with a few thousand followers—are meaningful purchase drivers in some wellness segments. Is that true for Tone House? How does Tone House reach consumers?

Shaun Jenkins: We, the Tone House coaches, are both the product and the messengers. We are the influencers. Any influencer for Tone House is going to be someone who takes our classes and is part of our community. Those are the people who can speak for us in the most authentic voice.

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The role of influencers

Tone House is a community, based on teamwork and camaraderie. We call that our “special sauce”—you can’t buy community, and it’s almost impossible to mimic. I’ve never met a consumer who has walked through the door and felt like they were just a commodity. You see that in many other big-box gyms: customers feel like they’re just a number. So the people in our community are our influencers.

I think about my 5:00 a.m. crew that comes into the studio. We’re talking about some of the most successful hedge-fund managers in New York City, attorneys, surgeons—they all come in for a 5:00 a.m. workout. They feel better spiritually or emotionally because they’ve had a serotonin release after their workout. They’re likely thinking more effectively; their brains are firing. That would be our version of influencers.

Would we strategically hire someone to be an influencer for us? No. We don’t need to. The coaches and the community all do an amazing job of disseminating our brand message.

Not just for fitness fanatics

Eric Falardeau: For Tone House to grow, I imagine it would need to expand its customer base beyond fitness fanatics and serious athletes. Do you agree? And if so, how does the brand plan to broaden its appeal?

Shaun Jenkins: When we first entered the market, our game plan was to position Tone House as “extreme” because we had to establish our mark. At that time, there were some heavyweights—well-known fitness studios that held a large market share. But now that we’ve established our reputation in the community, we’re moving away from that extreme image.

We have introductory courses in both strength and conditioning for an athlete who might have severe injuries, a novice or older athlete, or an athlete who might be intimidated by our advanced workouts. The majority of our clientele takes our intermediate class level. It’s a big misconception that everyone who enters Tone House is an extreme or advanced athlete, plays Division 1 sports, or is an ex-NFL player. If you look at our class schedule, you’ll see more intermediate classes than advanced classes.

So, we’ve taken this product that at one point was super niche, and we’ve figured out how to adapt it for the general fitness population. And we’ve been very successful doing that. Today, 80 percent of our community lives in the intermediate space, not the advanced space.

Expansion and brand extensions

Eric Falardeau: What’s next? Where do you see Tone House in the next five to ten years?

Shaun Jenkins: Hiring more female coaches is one area we are focusing on right now. Our female coaches can command such a powerful program among both male and female athletes, and they have so much talent and charisma when they’re on the microphone. So that’s one main focus for us as we look to the future.

Expansion is also important to us. As long as we maintain our brand standards and values, I believe we can grow successfully. The goal is to be in every major market eventually. And there are plenty of opportunities to scale our digital platform through monthly subscriptions and other offerings.

Apparel, nutrition, and recovery are additional important verticals for us. We sell clothing, we have a registered dietitian on staff who is our “Obi-Wan” for nutritional guidance for athletic performance, and we’re currently revamping our recovery program to provide top notch in-house recovery services for our athletes.

Eric Falardeau: It sounds like Tone House is very conscious of maintaining its brand ethos but is also open to partnerships. How do you balance partnership opportunities with preserving your authenticity and not diluting the brand?

Shaun Jenkins: Our partnerships happen organically. Some brands come to us and say, “I want to work with you,” but they’ve never sweated with us. We prioritize partnering with brands that have spent time with us and that are aligned with our mission and values.

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Partnering with other brands

We’re not putting anything on the shelves that doesn’t provide meaningful substance to your overall athletic performance and recovery. Our partnerships are with brands that we believe are important tools for athletic performance. If we’re putting it out there, that means we’ve tried it out, we’ve tested it, and we’ve found it to be highly effective.

Eric Falardeau: Another finding from our wellness research is a blurring of the lines: consumers shop across the different facets of wellness—fitness, nutrition, sleep, mindfulness, and so on—but they don’t necessarily want a single brand providing all these products and services. What brand extensions do you foresee for Tone House?

Shaun Jenkins: Sleep is so important. There are devices that do an amazing job of monitoring your sleep; I use one myself. Mindfulness is also important. Every morning, without fail, I’m up at 3:30 or 4:00 even if I don’t have to be in the gym. It’s time to myself, I can have some coffee, the city is quiet—it’s one of those rare moments where you hear nothing in New York City. That is my version of mindfulness. I’d say I’m a nontraditional meditator.

I can see the Tone House brand taking on those types of ideologies and integrating them into our community at some level. Some years ago, we were discussing the concept of bringing in someone with a yoga background, because yoga is super helpful to the athlete for improving mobility and range of motion. So, Tone House furthering its wellness options—for the mind, body, and soul—is certainly a possibility.

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