GNC’s Super Bowl Ad, Already a Longshot, Is Out of the Game

The beleaguered chain was hoping to turn things around

GNC lost its CEO in July, suffered an 8.9 percent same-store sales dip in third quarter and watched its stock slide 65 percent last year.
Image: Getty Images

UPDATE: Since this story was published, the NFL has rejected GNC’s Super Bowl ad. According to USA Today, the newspaper had inquired about how GNC could be a Big Game advertiser while also being on the list of brands players were prohibited from endorsing. After a complaint from the players’ union, the NFL rejected GNC’s ad in a move that shocked the brand.

Adweek’s original story is below:

Maybe you buy your vitamins at the local big-box store or on Amazon. Maybe you believe all vitamin brands are pretty much the same. And maybe you haven’t even seen a brick-and-mortar vitamin and supplement retailer like General Nutrition Center—more commonly known as GNC—since your last trip to the mall.

Whether or not these uncertainties apply to you, they certainly apply to the beleaguered Pittsburgh-based chain, which will be among the brands willing to pony up a reported $5 million for 30 seconds in the Super Bowl next week. For GNC—which lost its CEO in July, suffered an 8.9 percent same-store sales dip in third quarter, and watched its stock slide 65 percent last year—this Super Bowl ad will be the marketing equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, not unlike struggling RadioShack’s entertaining 2014 spot that tried (and failed) to reinvigorate the brand.

"GNC needs to communicate that they’ve simplified the pricing structure and also that their assortment includes the larger health and wellness trend.”
-Sean Naughton, senior analyst, Piper Jaffray

“Given the myriad challenges they’re facing, the Super Bowl spot is unlikely to solve their problems,” said veteran brand watcher Allen Adamson, founder of Brand Simple Consulting. “They’re between a rock and a hard place.”

GNC did not respond to Adweek’s request for an interview, but according to company statements, the game-day ad will introduce the public to One New GNC, a fix-it strategy that kicked off on Dec. 28, when GNC temporarily closed all 4,464 of its stores in a move that recalled Chipotle’s system-wide suspension earlier in the year. For GNC, the purpose was to reprice all of its items. (Prices that had varied store to store, online and off, and according to different club discounts had long bewildered customers.) Management also rolled out new POS terminals and trained employees on tablet computers. The one-day revamp, interim CEO Robert Moran said in a statement, “leaves the old, broken model behind.”

But observers note that GNC may still be plenty broken. Piper Jaffray senior analyst Sean Naughton pointed out that, whatever prices are on the labels, “GNC’s pricing has not been competitive with its peers, and that doesn’t just include Amazon—a problem for most of retail—but Vitamin Shoppe, Whole Foods, Kroger and other grocery stores.”

And while GNC has been busy trying to position itself as a health-and-wellness destination, Naughton said that many consumers still tend to view it as “a body-builder type of place,” its shelves lined with those big plastic jars of whey protein powder. It also doesn’t help that many GNC locations are in shopping malls, which have endured steady traffic declines in recent years.

So when it comes to the Super Bowl ad, “GNC needs to communicate that they’ve simplified the pricing structure and also that their assortment includes the larger health and wellness trend,” Naughton said. “It’s a tremendous amount” to get across in an ad. “I’m not saying they don’t have to do this, but they’re in a tough spot,” he explained.

Adamson added that just because the Super Bowl delivers some 110 million viewers doesn’t mean that it’s a winning play for all brands that advertise. “The arena is incredibly challenging,” he said. “There’s a better than even chance that [GNC will] run the ad and nobody will notice because the competition is so fierce.”

Even assuming GNC’s ad is a home run—and, given the theme of consistent pricing, that doesn’t appear likely—it won’t do much to alter the fact that consumers tend to view vitamins and nutritional supplements as a commodity product. “The challenge is the category they’re in,” Adamson said. “I can buy vitamin C anywhere. And once you buy into that premise, the game is over.”