In the world of high-profile brands, there are many success stories that we return to again and again. Steve Jobs and the creation of the Apple brand – Tesla’s Elon Musk – Richard Branson and his serial entrepreneurial success – Jeff Bezos and Amazon. Other brands don’t get as much attention. This bias is so ingrained that we sometimes overlook brands that might have a lot to teach us.
I originally hesitated to write about Zumba, the global fitness brand that continues to explode in popularity despite a lack of attention from the business community. But to dismiss the brand is to fail to notice how deeply and brilliantly it has tapped into evolving trends in the fitness (and music) world and how innovative its founders’ approach to growing their brand truly is. What makes Zumba work and what can its success teach us about building our own brands?
A Runaway Fusion
The first thing to consider about Zumba is how it has embraced the concept of fusion, both purposefully and not. The brand’s origin story is long and well documented by Leigh Buchanan in Inc., which named Zumba its Company of the Year in 2016. To summarize: Alberto Perez was a dance and aerobics instructor in Bogotá, Columbia who, due to a music mix-up, ended up combining the two forms and inventing a new fusion of Latin dance and aerobic workout. He brought this new form (which he called Zumba because “Rumba” sounded too similar to the robotic vacuum brand) to Miami in the early aughts, where it gained an immediate cult-like following.
What happened next was no accident. Recognizing the appeal of this effective, high-energy workout that left crowds smiling instead of grimacing, Perez set out to build a brand. An initial run of exercise videos established a large reach, but Perez decided to break the mold again and try a different tactic. Instead of targeting class-goers, he would train teachers and empower them to spread Zumba in their own communities. Within a few years, he had trained 700+ instructors and organized the Zumba Instructor Network, a subscription portal offering access to new class plans, new music, and new merchandising opportunities.
The fusion of Latin dance and aerobic workouts engaged a dedicated audience of consumers, and the fusion of fitness instruction with entrepreneurship created an empowered network of Zumba disciples and brand ambassadors. The next challenge was to build a brand identity that could sustain a global community.
Zumba’s Branding Genius
“Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Zumba is the way it sits at the nexus of so many dominant trends,” Buchanan writes. “Like some great Zeitgeist cocktail, it is a frothy blend of Latin culture, social networking, globalization, weight consciousness, a feminizing society, solo entrepreneurship, and the maker’s movement.”
A brand with so many cultural footholds can either establish a strong foundation or dissolve into nothing. But as the Harvard Business Review reveals, “Like other brands that manage to elevate their perceived value above the merely commercial exchange of goods or services for money, Zumba believes it is on a mission.”
Co-founder Alberto Perlman says “Our purpose at Zumba is to change lives through health, wellness, and overall happiness,” and HBR notes that “this sweeping vision echoes the essence of Zumba culture: ‘FEJ,’ which is pronounced ‘fedge’ and stands for Freeing, Electrifying Joy.” By naming the experience that consumers seek from the brand, Zumba creates a rallying cry and a cultural touchstone that unites Zumba-goers around the world.
The other pillar of the Zumba brand is also a major part of its financial success: music. Zumba has become such a force that Buchanan observes “it is also becoming an influential player in the music world, striking deals with such artists as Wyclef Jean and Pitbull to promote their songs in its classes and feature them on its CD compilations” which top billboard charts around the world.
Zumba’s slogan perfectly captures the spirit of the brand and the promise it makes to its audience: “Ditch the workout, join the party.” Alberto Perez brilliantly succeeds where many others have failed, creating a social fitness phenomenon with staying power. HBR reports that “the organization reports more than 15 million weekly participants in over 200,000 locations across more than 180 countries” – which a founder notes is more locations than McDonalds, Starbucks, and Dunkin’ Donuts combined.
We can’t all stumble into success as Perez did at first, but we can learn something from the business savvy the Zumba creator has displayed in turning his dance-aerobic fusion into a worldwide phenomenon. Zumba promises “Freeing, Electrifying Joy” and it delivers, wrapping music, merchandise, and socialization into a multi-million dollar package.