Commentary

LaLanne's Image Was Stronger Than His Brand

Jack LaLanne, a one-of-a-kind pitchman for a noble cause, died yesterday. I'd marvel every time he'd pop up on the screen with Larry King, or I'd read about him pulling a flotilla of rowboats in the ocean somewhere. His message of fitness and nutrition seemed heartfelt and personal, he articulated it with an effusive personality and he did things into his later years that would have seemed superhuman for a much younger man.

LaLanne started out as the prototypical troublemaking, scrawny kid eating junk food even before you'd think it was invented. In this snippet from a "Larry King Live" show, LaLanne talks about attending a lecture by nutritionist Paul Bragg when he was 15. He immediately stopped eating food processed with white sugar and flour, he says, and became a vegetarian (although he later ate fish and poultry for protein when he was in weightlifting contests).

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LaLanne opened his own gym in 1931 when he was still in high school. "I was the first one to have progressive weight training and I invented a lot of the equipment you have in the gym today," he tells King. "The first weight selector, the leg extension machine, a lot of the pulley things ... I invented way back in the '30s because there was nothing around."

I'm with his nephew, Thomas LaLanne, who tells the San Francisco Chronicle, "I didn't think Jack was ever going to die. He would tell people, 'I can't die. It'll ruin my image.'"

But as strong as that image remains, I wondered this morning what happened to the Jack LaLanne brand. I vaguely knew he was pitching juicers because I'd see them on the shelves in various places but I couldn't recall having seen any television advertising.

LaLanne sold his health clubs to Bally Total Fitness many years ago. There's one not too far from me, but I only know a couple of people who go there, and it's all about the price. I know at least one of them bought a "lifetime membership" upfront about 20 years ago.

Bally, according to this account, consolidated a number of its brands, including LaLanne and Vic Tanny, under the Bally Total Fitness umbrella in 1995 and revised its marketing under new leadership the following year with the "Turn on Your Life" campaign with Terri Hatcher. It reportedly stopped emphasizing heavily discounting memberships to attract new customers the following years and "began focusing more on people who were serious about their health." It now has 270 clubs serving approximately 3.5 million members here and abroad. "Affordable prices" is still a goal.

In an entertaining article for Slate, Emily Yoffe last week compared LaLanne's TV routines (his exercise program first aired in 1951 and ran for more than three decades) to Jane Fonda's famous videos from the Eighties and to recent DVDs by Jillian Michaels of "The Biggest Loser." She says she was "struck by the great American paradox: The more strenuous our exercise regimens have gotten, the fatter we've become."

In retrospect, LaLanne's routines seem far too easy to Yoffe. She spoke to Jan Todd, who is co-director of the Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at the University of Texas and was once "the world's strongest woman," and was told that "the great deception in the whole history of fitness is that people tend to market what they don't do." In other words, LaLanne and other fitness gurus such as Charles Atlas worked a lot harder to develop their bodies than they let on -- and demanded of their followers in their ads and programs.

But I'll tell you what. When I came across this infomercial for the Jack LaLanne juicer this morning -- the first I've seen -- I realized exactly why the LaLanne brand was fit more for the Fifties than the Aughts. Or the Nineties. Or the Eighties. Which reminds me, whatever happened to Richard Simmons

1 comment about "LaLanne's Image Was Stronger Than His Brand".
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  1. Kevin Hanft from Marketing Leverage LLC, January 24, 2011 at 12:57 p.m.

    Jack LaLanne was one of the originators of 'personal branding'. He had a keen instinct for media, self-promotion and being on-message. A marketing and product innovator, what separated him from many of the others was his sincere and honest commitment to personal health.

    Can you imagine how and what he would have been able to do with digital cable, Twitter & You Tube?

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