Can a New Marketing Campaign Bring Vitality Back to GNC?

The retailer seeks to reposition its in-store sales associates as wellness coaches

woman skydiving in a red jumpsuit and gnc helmet
GNC's new campaign began airing earlier this month and will continue throughout the year. GNC
Headshot of Paul Hiebert

While health and wellness retailer GNC isn’t as physically fit as it once was, a new ad campaign might help restore some vitality.

In a lighthearted, self-deprecating spot from Havas New York that debuted earlier this month, GNC invited viewers to see the company in a different light by focusing on an asset more valuable than a tub of protein powder or stockpile of vitamins. That special ingredient? Its in-store sales associates, which the ad represents through a relentlessly resourceful female spokesperson eager to assist customers with their unique health goals. Yes, the company still enables buff dudes to get even buffer, but it also cares about people seeking to eat, sleep and age better, too.

“Our expertise is something we think is a competitive advantage versus the competition,” said Ryan Ostrom, GNC’s chief brand officer, who noted that the campaign aims to reposition the retailer’s sales associates as coaches well-versed in all things nutrition. “In a lot of places, you don’t have the knowledge, you don’t have the experience, and that’s what our coaches bring to the table.”

GNC plans to broadcast the campaign throughout the year on TV and digital—from online video to streaming radio to paid social—with a continued emphasis on its sales associates.

All this comes after years of struggles for GNC.

Since August 2015, the 85-year-old company’s share price has declined over 90%, dropping from around $50 to just north of $2 today. In its latest annual report, covering the fiscal year ended Dec. 31, 2018, GNC reported total revenue of $2.4 billion, down 5% compared to the year prior. In late 2018, the company announced plans to close between 700 and 900 stores in the U.S. and Canada within three years.

“You don’t see many retailers bounce back from this level of trauma,” Bryan Gildenberg, chief knowledge officer of retail at Kantar Consulting, told Adweek.

According to Gildenberg, a campaign geared toward broadening a retailer’s appeal beyond its core audience can work, provided the message resonates with potential new customers and the company can deliver on its promises. One element without the other won’t cut it.

Still, the Pittsburgh-based GNC is facing an uphill battle. Part of what’s led to its current beleaguered state, argued Gildenberg, has been undisciplined financial management along with a decline in people visiting shopping malls, where many GNC stores are based. Then there’s the rise in DTC competitors, such as Baze, Ritual and Care/of, that have found a way to convey more authenticity among today’s younger generations, and offer unique services like customization.

Another factor is that other retailers got better at selling the same goods GNC has traditionally sold, Gildenberg said, pointing to Sam’s Club expanding into protein powder as an example.

“The reason why most specialty retailers go out of business, or really struggle, is that they don’t define a category,” Gildenberg said. “If you look at the great specialty retailers of the world, they’re really good at a category that’s really important to their core consumer.”

Gildenberg noted that, to him, GNC and Victoria’s Secret appear to be traveling on parallel tracks, in that both brands have lost control of their respective category and are presently trying to appeal to a new breed of shopper. “Those two retailers feel weirdly kind of similar to me when it comes to some of the challenges they have,” he said.

Ostrom believes that while the average person might still think GNC exists solely to serve those looking to build muscle mass, the new campaign will help educate the public on the wide range of products GNC offers.

“That’s what this ad is really challenging: the perception out there in the marketplace,” he said. “We’re excited about this.”

Gildenberg, on the other hand, doesn’t share the same enthusiasm.

“In general, with all retailers and brands, unfortunately it is much easier to make a very good ad than it is to make a very good retailer,” he said.

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@hiebertpaul Paul Hiebert is a CPG reporter at Adweek, where he focuses on data-driven stories that help illustrate changes in consumer behavior and sentiment.