If you’ve walked past any CrossFit gym in the past year, or if you’ve watched a fitness video on YouTube in the past 3 months, you’ve definitely seen a WHOOP in action.
The sleek bracelet is not just another fashion accessory we’ve been duped into believing will help our balance. In fact, it’s a precisely engineered fitness monitor to help you reach peak physical performance. Sitting here today, it seems quite obvious; having the best data a fitness band can offer is a pretty good strategy to dominate the fitness wearables market. But as we marketers know, it’s never that simple (we all remember wearing those goofy-looking balance bands, let's be honest with each other).
So how did WHOOP break through, establish a foothold, and disrupt a category which was meant to be the new frontier for Nike, Underarmour, Apple, and Fitbit?
In this brand breakdown, we’ll explore exactly what it’s taken for WHOOP to go from a tiny challenger to the category mainstay over a decade whilst absolutely decimating the competition.
Let’s dive in.
Choosing a brand position is never easy as a startup, especially when you’re going into a category with an incumbent like Nike which has 40 years of brand equity.
However, from its very inception, WHOOP’s founder, Will Ahmed was adamant that WHOOP would not try to compete with the average consumer for one core reason; the data and tracking that WHOOP provided were not average.
It was built for ultimate performance and that was the realm of truly extraordinary athletes, not the weekend warriors at the local gym.
Though this decision was a deliberate marketing choice, it's also worth noting that as a small startup, they recognized that they would not be able to spend money on educating the early users on the benefits of good sleep and recovery, whereas athletes would want any and every data point about recovery. Remember, this was all pre-Matthew Walker and Andrew Huberman; “sleep” and “stress” were not in the zeitgeist and therefore the money they would waste in educating a wider audience was simply not worth it.
This decision led them to focus strictly on professional athletes and those at the cutting edge of performance who would want granular insights into recovery. This was the arena in which they could compete where other incumbents like Nike and Adidas couldn’t.
So from 2011 until 2016, they made a very conscious decision to build for their “super users" or in more normal language: athletes only. By some degree of hustle and hyper-focused messaging, they ended up with Michael Phelps and Lebron James in their cohort of the first 100 users.
Having these celebrities may seem like a gold mine for a brand, but remember both of these athletes were/are tied to Nike, which inevitably made any sort of endorsement of WHOOP practically impossible. But no mind, WHOOP kept delivering on the promise of superior insights and data that would actually help with performance. So much so that they were able to become the official wearable of MLB, the NFL players association, and the Navy SEALS; a pretty illustrious bunch of individuals who absolutely depend on optimal performance.
Instead of paying millions of dollars for endorsement deals, WHOOP's alignment with tier-1 brands in the performance space naturally lent credibility to WHOOP as an elite performance brand itself. This provided the allure and brand equity that no ad campaign or paid celebrity endorsement ever could.
And the second-order effect of saying you’re exclusively for the highest-performance people in the world, and not available to the public? Well, we all know what “exclusivity” does to consumers… By the time 2016 rolled around, it was time to launch the consumer side of the business to answer all that latent consumer demand, which had been building up.
Right out of the gate, WHOOP’s founder, Will Ahmed, recognized the power of content and personal brand to speak to customers and continue building their community. This wasn’t going to be a faceless brand nor were they going to forget their high-performance culture.
Like many other challenger brands across all categories, they learned that building a strong content or modern media business around the brand is essential to dominating the market, but how they approached this is an interesting takeaway. Viewing this from a more analytical lens, any content/modern media business has three levers to build something engaging.
Access: indicates your ability to access better guests or better information than your competitors.
Insight: pertains to the ability to provide a more detailed, typically scientific insight
Curation: is more about the mediums upon which you choose to deliver your information and how you deliver it.
To build any successful media or content brand you need all three ingredients in varying amounts, but you need to have an unfair advantage in at least one of the elements.
For WHOOP the obvious one was the access. Will launched the WHOOP weekly podcast where he would interview athletes from Rory McIlroy to fitness icons like the Buttery Bros to discuss their fitness journey and inevitably talk about the way WHOOP has transformed their ability to recover and track their workouts. Not only does the celebrity athlete angle help with entrenching the brand position, but it also helps more broadly with the discoverability of the brand as current customers are more likely to share the episode.
The less obvious but nonetheless valuable lever was the insight they could provide. When they start talking about HRV (Heart rate variability) and Strain, these are proprietary insights that you won’t hear about on Nike’s Trained Podcast.
Building on this, they’ve continued to lean on collaborative original content, sponsoring extremely watchable videos such as 2 VS 1 Against RICH FRONING with the aforementioned, Buttery Bros amongst many others in the Crossfit and Golf space.
You’ll also see Will Ahmed appearing on podcasts himself. Taking a leaf out of Phil Knight’s playbook, Ahmed has realized that personally telling the story of the now $3.6 billion brand can be hugely beneficial in attracting a new audience and positioning the brand as the “American dream” story and something a lot of people can get behind.
Aside from podcasts, Will has an incredibly active Twitter account and regularly shows behind the scenes, and is often applauded on social media for some of his more endearing antics. One of which recently came when he decided to print “Don’t copy us. We will win” on the inside of WHOOP devices as a message appears for Amazon’s now-defunct Halo which was a clear copycat.
WHOOP also capitalized on a cultural moment by sponsoring one of the biggest podcasts in the world, The Joe Rogan Experience. In 2017, Joe Rogan and fellow comedians Tom Segura, Bert Kreischer, and Ari Shaffir embarked on a “Sober October” challenge which has become an annual challenge. Since 2019, WHOOP has become the official sponsor and you can track how the guys are doing on the microsite each day through October. This quite literally put WHOOP onto the radar of many young men and women who tune into the show and firmly established WHOOP’s entrance into the consumer market.
All that content, but does it even drive sales? Well, we can’t claim to have intricate insight into their data & analytics, but we do have indications that WHOOP is not missing a trick when it comes to tracking their attribution.
Sure they are a data and technology company at the core, but some of the most basic techniques of data collection that we have at our disposal as marketers are being utilized extensively by WHOOP: surveys.
They plug surveys at every stage of the funnel to get a much better understanding of where, why, and how customers purchased from them.
The fundamental difference here is they aren’t using the surveys for customer service, but simply to build the exact profile of a customer who will purchase from them.
Surveys seem clunky in a high-tech world of cookies, but if used correctly they can be a very effective tool. This thirst to be customer-centric and hear what your customers are saying is something that was mirrored in our recent episode of Scratch with challenger brand Smile Direct Club’s CMO, John Sheldon.
With this extra insight, they can track exactly which channels people are hearing about them and why they bought the product (i.e. what goals have they got). The end result is pretty simple but effective: CPMs get better as you target more customers who are the same as your existing base.
And consumers are still at the heart of what they push out into the market in terms of ad creative and product development. You’ll see that for most of their ads, they are using the product placed with real reviews or using UGC content for things like YouTube ads.
Again, they aren’t guessing who their audience is, they are just growing their total addressable market by focusing solely on selling to those who care about ultimate performance.
The final string in the marketing bow for WHOOP is its differentiated pricing strategy.
Compared with its closest wearable competitors like FitBit, Oura, and now the Apple watch, which all focus on charging for the actual hardware, WHOOP makes the hardware free.
That’s right, the sleek bracelet and sensor are actually free.
WHOOP's pricing strategy is unique and revolves around a subscription-based model. Instead of purchasing the device outright, users pay a monthly or annual fee to access the WHOOP’s platform and utilize the data and insights. This approach allows for a lower upfront cost, making it more accessible for users who may not want to commit to a larger investment. WHOOP has an average payback period of about 18 months per customer and most customers are using WHOOP for much longer than that.
Fitbit, on the other hand, adopts a more traditional pricing strategy by offering its devices for purchase upfront. Fitbit provides a range of models with varying features and price points, allowing customers to choose a device that aligns with their preferences and budget. However, the average Fitbit user keeps the device for less than 12 months.
Oura Ring follows a similar approach to Fitbit, focusing on one-time purchases. The Oura Ring is a sleek and compact wearable device that tracks sleep, activity, and overall wellness for a price of $299 upfront and a $6 p/m subscription after that.
Two things really make WHOOP's subscription model a winner.
First, they position the data as important, not the hardware. The company has always said, it’s about the data and insights, not the hardware, and the design philosophy for its hardware has always been and remains to be “it should be cool and invisible.” By focusing on the data, it immediately separates them from the Apple Watch or FitBit in the customers' minds.
Secondly, by making the barrier to entry so low, and then providing a superior data/analytics product, they are creating customers who will have a much higher LTV.
They also have a very generous affiliate/referral program. If you’re a WHOOP member and introduce others, you will get a free month for every member you bring in.
By offering a subscription model, WHOOP was able to create not only a recurring revenue stream but also recurring touch points that helped build a community of users who were invested in the brand.
WHOOP is a challenger in the truest sense of the word, and as the global health/fitness wearables market is projected to reach $192 billion by 2030 it seems that they still have significant room for growth. As of 2022, they’ve launched in Best Buy across the USA and introduced their enterprise offering, taking inspiration from many successful American health techs who have devised their go-to-market strategy around the idea of B2C2B. That being said, the threat from Apple still exists, and WHOOP will need to lean on its own tried and tested playbook for challenger branding. Here are a few takeaways that we can all learn from WHOOP on how to build a successful challenger brand.
Build a differentiated brand position
Be for the few, not the many
Build hype/exclusivity where possible
Where you can’t buy endorsements, try to align with brands that will lend credibility
Build a modern media company
Choose a content strategy that allows you to leverage what your brand is better at, either Access, Insight, or Curation
Build collaborative content with influencers who your audience identifies with
Ensure your brand isn’t faceless
Build a lean distribution system
Use simple data collection to uncover more insights
Find a way to utilize UGC to reduce CPMs
Adopt a differentiated pricing model that gets your product into the customers’ hands as quickly as possible
For more brand breakdowns of the challenger brands that are redefining categories, check out our podcast and share this breakdown with a marketer who will enjoy it.
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