You hear that marketers are learning to portray aging baby boomers more realistically. But how often do you see an ad that features thickening middle-age Americans? Hardly ever--and that's why you will probably notice the new $16 million TV ad campaign by Curves Intl., the franchising phenomenon that has opened more than 5,400 gyms for women in the 50 states, Canada and six other countries. Commercials for Curves show real women--think "before" not "after"--slogging through their workouts. What's also different about Curves--and why its business model is even more intriguing--is that it ignores the received wisdom about luxury-obsessed boomers. Curves' gyms are small, simple workout joints, often in strip malls, that cater to overweight women who have never worked out. They offer only one service: a tightly structured, 30-min. circuit-training workout on eight to 12 exercise machines. A recorded voice tells you when to move to the next machine. Most locations are open just seven hours a day, and there are no showers, massages or fruit smoothies. You walk in, follow the drill and leave.
Women--mostly 30 and up--love it. Without much fanfare, the 10-year-old, privately owned Curves has become the world's largest fitness franchise, measured by locations. It accounts for a quarter of U.S. gyms and pulls in about $750 million a year from almost 2 million members, according to founder and CEO Gary Heavin, 48, of Gatesville, Texas. Franchises are launching at a rate of nearly 200 a month.
Heavin spent nothing on advertising until this year, another way he has bucked the fitness industry's model. And even his franchisees have not spent much--a few hundred dollars a month typically--touting their locations. That's because Curves customers, generally ignored by the 1990s fitness frenzy that raced to reel in the prized 18-to-34 demographic, have spread the word almost evangelically. "What Curves has done is broken through the perception that you have to be fit, coordinated and thin to go to a gym," says Bill Howland, director of research for the International Health, Racquet and Sports Association, the industry's largest trade organization. "They've carved out a niche within the population that had never been served."
Heavin also made it convenient and cheap to set up and run a franchise, which has inspired thousands of first-time entrepreneurs, many of them women. Angie Holding, 56, of Wichita, Kans., had fought a lifelong battle with fat and watched her three daughters and granddaughter do the same. In 2000 a fit-looking friend pointed her to Curves. "I'd never exercised in my life," Holding says, but she found Curves' atmosphere--women in sweat pants rather than Spandex--appealing. She joined after her first visit. And at $29 a month (fees range from $29 to $49, based on location), it didn't crunch her finances.