12 September, 2009

Why can’t a woman be more like a man?

Melbourne Herald Sun, 12th September, 2009

“Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” asked Professor Higgins. Well I’m sorry mate, she ain’t and never will be. So that’s why Fernwood Women’s Health Club was invented.

The fitness franchise celebrated twenty years last month and in the process has launched a new advertising campaign.

Diana Williams has given us a classic example of market positioning. You take a product, even in an intensely competitive field, and you give it an angle that nobody else has - in advertising parlance, the “unique selling proposition”.

Bear in mind that it does not really have to be unique, in that it does not exist anywhere else. But in perception - if you are the first person to promote that benefit, and bring it to the public’s attention, then as far as the public is concerned, you invented it.

So it was with Fernwood. Twenty years ago, back in little old Bendigo, Diana Williams stood up and promoted a gym as being exclusively for women, no men allowed. Then she stuck to her guns. She knew her market.

Let’s face it, many women get embarrassed sweating and straining in leotards that fail to disguise the lumps and bumps in their figures, before a roomful of men. They want to relax from looking good, even as they work on it. They responded to a man-free zone.

So much so that the clubs were opened in Melbourne and eventually around the country under a franchise model. And every one of them made the same promise. As immortalised in a Fernwood ad campaign a few years ago: “No Toms. No Harrys. No Dicks.”

Having hammered that message home for years, their new campaign can afford to concentrate on their customers’ self-image and aspirations. So the new line is “Find your inner fox”. Presumably talking about Jimmy Hendrix’s Foxy Lady or as they put it, “Happy, Sexy, Fun”.

The ads will run on TV, print, outdoor and online media. A typical poster ad declares: “Be a fox without botox”. The message being that if you exercise regularly you’ll feel fitter, look better, and be more confident.

The “No Dicks” campaigned positioned them securely in the public’s mind, so now they can afford to promote those more positive benefits.

The strategy has worked incredibly well. Fernwood is now the largest women’s health club in Australia, with 77 facilities, 80,000 members, 2,200 employees, and an annual turnover of $90m.

However, in July Victorian Attorney General Rob Hulls blundered into a hornet’s nest when he attacked the gender discrimination of men’s clubs. Why shouldn’t women be able to join the Melbourne Club and the Athenaeum, he asked?

The problem was that by taking a shot at these male clubs he also hit institutions like Fernwood and the Lyceum Club. They argue just as loudly for their right to be exclusively female, as men do for theirs.

There is a longer-term problem to this move, too. In recent years, throughout society, membership of groups and organisations has been falling - ask any political party to check its own numbers.

If you took away the gender exclusivity many of these clubs would have no more reason to exist, they would be killed off by political correctness.

There is now a parliamentary committee questioning the exceptions allowed under the Equal Opportunity Act, which is expected to report next month.

Now if they rule that women’s clubs are legal but men’s are not, expect much mouth-frothing from the top of Collins Street.

On the other hand I cannot see them ruling that women’s clubs are illegal. After all, it would be a very brave politician who would stand up before the wrath of 80,000 angry women in leotards.


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