The Evolution of Fitness and What that Means for Marketing

With the holiday season in the rearview, people shift their attention to getting healthy and exercising more. Grocery store end-caps ditch the potato chips for nutritious fare. Banner ads promise healthy living through the latest smartwatches and fitness trackers.

New Year’s resolutions set us on a path to a reenergized version of ourselves through yoga and meditation. Increasingly though, our understanding of the “better you” comes through a wholistic lens. It’s not a matter of finding the right tech toy, diet or spiritual habit to break us from our unhealthy ways. People, at long last, are figuring out there’s no such thing as a quick fix.

Sure, plenty of brands are still turning shame, guilt and empty promises into a spike in sales. But it never lasts long, as the new year’s better version of you loses the battle to the same forces that always plague us. The disappointment of those results for both marketers and consumers has pushed us toward focusing on lifestyle choices rather than product choices — surrounding ourselves with people, products and activities that become habits for good, rather than a path to perdition.

So, what does that mean for brands if you’re no longer positioning yourself as the silver bullet for health and wellness? For starters, you need to take a deeper look at your audience and their motivations. Understanding that your product must fit into the larger narrative supporting wholistic wellness and a life of active exploration.

You’re talking to people who see their vehicle as means to an out-of-the-way trailhead; a snack-bar as fuel between a 6:15 a.m. yoga class and the first meeting of the day; and software as a tool for keeping life a bit more organized, so there’s more time for the important things, like sitting down to a healthy meal with the entire family.

For the new year, resolve to leave the shaming behind and realize that no matter what, the product isn’t the be-all, end-all for a “better you.” Instead, build marketing efforts around the ways your service or product helps support the total experience of an active healthy lifestyle. As marketing professor Michael R. Solomon so eloquently put it, “sell the painting, not the paints.”

Cheers to new beginnings and healthy choices!

Loyal. Affluent. Engaged. Meet Your New Favorite Customer.

In our last post, we talked about what the Active Explorer is and why you should care.

In this one, we’d like to answer a different question.


Initially, we identified the central Active Explorer audience, the ones who freeclimb and heli-ski, triathalon and BASE jump, the core of the core. But the more we looked at them, the more we realized something: they weren’t alone. There was an audience just outside this demographic that was drawn to adventure in an almost gravitational pull.



Think of the Active Explorer audience as an avocado. The center is hard-core nuts, but they’re immediately surrounded by a layer that’s richer and more easily accessible. These people aren’t out every weekend on the slopes, trails, or waves. But they yearn to be.


This audience isn’t hard-core, but they’re not tourists, either. They’re on the path to self-improvement. They’re brand-loyal to the products that help them learn and grow, and they’re on the lookout for what’s next. They’re pushing the envelope of what’s personally possible.


Want to know a secret?

Every great product connects to this audience. Here are some examples of what we’re talking about (even if we didn’t do them).


Banks support Active Explorers by giving them the financial freedom to pursue their dreams. Check out MasterCard’s Luxury Card campaign for a taste.



Insurance protects Active Explorers by freeing them to take more risks. Even Progressive’s “Flo” campaign gets in on the Active Explorer in this TV spot.


Travel delights Active Explorers by sending them into the wild. Inspiration is everywhere, but take a look at Adventure World, out of Australia, for a good example.


Automotive empowers Active Explorers by giving them the freedom to car-camp, adventure, or just get away from it all. Take a look at any RAV-4 commercial to get a sense.




If you don’t believe it,
just wait for our next blog post.

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What on Earth is an Active Explorer and Why Should You Care?


At Williams Helde, we get so excited about the possibilities behind the Active Explorer that we forget to explain one simple fact.



We discovered the Active Explorer when we were looking somewhere else.


In our original demographic study of the active healthy lifestyle, we discovered something interesting. Although there was a small percentage of core athletes, there was a highly influenced psychographic around them that emulated them in very important ways. They exercised more, ate well, traveled more, spent more, and were more loyal than others in the population. More importantly, we discovered ways to speak to them, and how to draw them to your brand.


The Active Explorer is big news. Not just for the Nikes and the North Faces of the world, but for travel, food, automotive, consumer electronics, ecommerce – any industry looking to inspire their best customers to action. There’s a new consumer language emerging, one that looks past the four p’s of product, promotion, place and price, and into a fifth: possibility.

“Active Explorers are challenging life’s unwritten rules. They’re looking for inspiration from the clothes they wear, the gear they use and the food they eat, engaging with products and services that help them become a better version of themselves.”

If you have a strong Active Explorer brand, you have credibility, loyalty and engagement advantages over your competitors. At Williams Helde, we believe we can help unlock this potential in your brand.

But wait, you’re saying, my business has nothing to do with Active Whatevers.

Hold that thought. And watch this space.

Keep It Real: The Active Explorer’s continuous search for authenticity

As it warms up outside and more travelers flee to foreign lands, it seems the perfect time to broach the subject of authentic experiences.

We hear it every day. People want “real” experiences. More and more, consumers strive to live like locals, if only for a few days. Acting as chameleons, blending into their temporary surroundings to truly experience a place for its roots and culture.

Last year, we surveyed more than 400 Active Explorers and learned what drives this demographic to explore as well as what shapes their travel habits.

Now, recent studies show that frequent millennial travelers (who also happen to make up a large portion of the Active Explorer demographic, nudge nudge) are more interested in walking a day in the shoes of a local than a cookie-cutter, vacation-in-a-box type of tourist package.

The classic breed of tourist as we know it is a dying one. Fanny packs and maps flown full staff are the tools of yesterday, replaced by mobile devices and app stores. LonelyPlanet is becoming a lonely place as millennials ditch traditional guidebooks for peer recommendations through social media or Yelp ratings.

Sure, attractions like the Space Needle or Eiffel Tower still hold appeal to the deep-seated tourist in all of us, but the younger generation of frequent travelers would rather take a moment to veer off the beaten path for a more fulfilling travel experience than surround themselves with other visitors.

Why cab around Copenhagen when you could blend in, unnoticed, biking alongside the Danish baker? Why spend your time gazing at Times Square when you could camp out on a rooftop in Brooklyn? These are the stories millennial travelers want to tell—a personal experience tailored to them.

So, what does this mean for your brand? It’s yet another cue to stay genuine in your mission and values while offering unique experiences your competitors can’t match. Don’t just say you’re authentic. Be authentic. Build trust. It’s the holistic experience that consumers crave, with 63% of global consumers expressing they would prefer to buy from a company they deem authentic.

There’s a reason campaigns like Dove’s Real Beauty and Chipotle’s Food with Integrity continue to resonate with people. The Active Explorer holds authenticity in high regard—whether shaping their travels into cultural adventures or engaging with your brand. Keeping it real has never been so vital.

Need help figuring out what your brand is all about and how you can convey the truest version of your product or service? Let us lend you a hand.

A Brand Guide to No-Win Politics.

For years, business in America has beenalice-donovan-rouse-195453 cautiously apolitical. We build brands to appeal to people who love the outdoors, to fashionistas, to shoppers on a budget – never expecting any of those brands to become a political stand. That’s why working in marketing is so disorienting right now. The ground is shifting beneath our feet.

Today, brand management has more in common with a war room than a corporate office. We’re seeing brands forced to pick a side. We’ve seen Budweiser defend the idea of immigration in a Super Bowl spot. We’ve seen Nordstrom drop a line of clothing because of its association with a daughter-in-chief. We’ve watched as Starbucks pledges to hire 10,000 refugees, and we see more examples of politics affecting brand every day.

jose-moreno-196356It feels like marketing is coalescing around “resistance” brands who stand in defiance of current politics, and “cooperator” brands who do not. For some companies, angering “cooperator” customers isn’t a big deal. For some, it’s half of their business.

At Williams Helde, we believe brands should be true to themselves. If that means taking a stand, then by all means, take a stand. But if that means trying not to anger any of your customers, then you must be very careful in how you craft your communications. Here are three things to keep in mind.

Be Vigilant.  Social media makes it too easy for a small misunderstanding in customer service to become a hashtag and rallying cry for a highly politicized customer base. For example, Uber intended their dropping of “surge pricing” in New York to help their customers, never thinking how they affected striking cab drivers, and were taken aback by the #deleteUber hashtag. Brands should monitor all channels consistently to make sure those misunderstandings are addressed before they spiral out of control.

Have a Plan. As noted above, brands never jerry-kiesewetter-195442expected their love of the outdoors to become a political stand. But as policies become more controversial, positions that once seemed benign could suddenly become a battleground. Make sure your marketing department has a response to possible flashpoint issues like immigration, education, the environment, and more. You never know when your brand will be accidentally pulled into a controversy.

Communicate Clearly. Your brand is a collection of experiences, and the bulk of those experiences happen when your customers interact with your employees. If those employees don’t know your corporate position on an issue, you increase your chances of miscommunication or misstep. For example, if you are a retailer and one of the brands you sell makes a “resistance” or a “cooperator” statement, your retail brand is affected. Williams Helde has developed expertise in making brand decisions resonate throughout corporate culture, and we know how to let your employees understand how and why decisions are made. We can help you develop a plan to protect your brand from backlash.

It’s getting weird out there, people. We have to stick together. Williams Helde is helping brands like yours figure out how to navigate uncharted political waters. If you need to talk a little strategy to keep your brand off the rocks, please drop us a line.

2017. Just look at what’s ahead.

This is a good time to stop, reflect, and take stock of how far we’ve come before plunging into the year ahead. I’d like to start by thanking all of our amazing clients, talented staff, dedicated partners and legions of friends, family and supporters of Williams Helde. Without your support we could not carry on for our 47th year in business as an independent agency. Thank you for helping make our mission to create meaningful change through exceptional communication.

Speaking of change, 2016 was a year full of it. Through a shifting world and a divided election, Williams Helde negotiated that change as best we could, using the guiding force of our core values and having a staff that cares about our clients and always tries to do the right thing. As 2017 begins, we’ve made some changes that have helped prepare us for challenges to come.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-3-40-28-pmStarting Up: One of our major initiatives was to create a division of Williams Helde designed to help startups launch themselves into the stratosphere: Active Labs. The creation of Active Labs forced us to focus on the essentials and foundation a company needs to effectively market itself. We consider this startup a success, having created brand foundations for bright young companies like i1Biometrics, Lulabop, and Samaritan.

Feeling Conscious: We also jumped head-first into something we’ve believed in for years: building Conscious Businesses. By becoming part of the founding board of Conscious Capitalism in Seattle we are helping businesses become driven by a higher purpose than simply revenues and profits.

16-3126_hygienist_shineon_thankyounoteImproving Lives: In 2016, we were fortunate enough to help launch a number of global projects for Philips. From connected toothbrushes to a campaign that celebrates the daily heroism of hygienists, we’ve helped communicate how Philips supports dental professionals and their patients. We also had the opportunity to build campaigns for Philips healthcare, through their Respironics and Ultrasound divisions. We’re proud to play a small part in helping improve the lives of millions around the globe.

We’ve been improving lives in other ways, too. If you haven’t downloaded the
Pay-By-Phone app, check out our campaign and get it on your phone right away. You’ll never park the same again. Also, our work for Nautilus and Bowflex went worldwide, inspiring a healthy active lifestyle for thousands of people.

Celebrating Culture: Inside the agency, we took steps to work better together. From monthly lunch and learns to making Processed with VSCO with m5 presetour own wine to studying improv, we worked (and played) hard to get closer as a team to deliver a seamless experience for our clients. We completely redesigned our website to reflect the spirit of adventure we all share. Not only did we win our first Addy for our in-depth exploration of the Active Explorer, but we continue to learn a lot about this ever-striving psychographic through our proprietary Active Explorer User Group – just ask to see our special reports on Food and Travel.

Looking Forward:  Like I said, it’s been a year full of change. And in 2017, that change looks like it’s going to accelerate. This year, you’ll find us uncovering more insights about Active Explorers, the best customer you never knew you had. You’ll find us working with the most exciting new startups in the Puget Sound ecosystem. You’ll find us more focused on building conscious brands that make a difference in the world we live in.

It’s an exciting time to be at Williams Helde. Thanks for being part of it. We look forward to building something amazing together in 2017.



Marc Williams

Love is Served: Food Gets a Little Emotional.

“[Food] makes you think of happy times. It warms your heart.” – Active Explorer, anonymous

kzwp2iiyxma-toa-heftibaAfter years of studying the Active Explorer, one of the most loyal and dynamic psychographics in marketing today, we’ve learned one thing: they never cease to surprise. After tracking down every food trend, from meal delivery services to sous vide cooking, that affects this adventurous group, we finally sat down and asked them a few questions about how they think about eating.

And it comes down to honesty, authenticity, and family.

The most important value for food companies, from restaurants to retail, among Active Explorers is honesty (24%). A close second was family (21%). We were expecting more exploration values to pop, like originality (2%) or innovation (1%). Maybe even adventure (2%) or discovery (1%). But no. AE’s may be pushing the envelope on self-discovery, only not when they’re hungry. The biggest values after family were ethical (9%), respect (7%) and caring (7%).

“Comfort food to me is the meal you cook after you have completely ruined a meal you were going to try.” – Active Explorer, anonymous

xksrpuh0vzo-yvonne-lee-harijantoFood is comfort, and comfort means food. That’s what our User Group played back to us. They rely on it to warm them during spells of cold weather (29%) and ground them after stressful days at work (16%). But you don’t need to be sad to reach for the mac and cheese: comfort food is what AE’s reach for when they’re in a good mood (13%) or when they’re in the mood to celebrate (11%). In short, comfort food is “fresh, fills you up, and makes you feel loved,” in the words of one respondent.

Ultimately, this is what food means to Active Explorers. It’s an emotional connection to friends and family. It’s a place to feel safe and warm. It’s a place you leave every morning, touch base at lunch, and return to at dinner to share stories, build memories, and express love.

No matter whether they’ddzyotzunbk-eaters-collectivere cooking for themselves or going out to eat, food occupies a special place in the mind of the Active Explorer. It’s a beginning and an end to the day, fuel and sustenance, an expression of honesty and family. It’s where they start and where they inevitably return. It’s a place called home.

Active Explorer Restaurant Chains: A Top Ten List

Tried and true. With a dash of spice.

e6hjqab7uea-dan-goldThat’s what our Active Explorer User Group told us they preferred when they went out to eat. Not in so many words, mind you. In general, Active Explorers are the most likely to crave culinary adventures. They love learning to cook new things, explore new restaurants, and taste dishes they haven’t tried before.

But not always. When they responded to our survey, they revealed that their default setting was a little closer to home. When deciding to go out on the spur of the moment on a Saturday night, nearly half (44%) of Active Explorers choose a sit-down restaurant close to home.

But which five sit-down restaurants were the most likely to be chosen by Active Explorers? Drum roll please…

  • Olive Garden (11%)
  • Chili’s (10%)
  • Applebee’s (9%)
  • Outback Steakhouse (8%)
  • Cheesecake Factory (8%)

The fact that these were national chains wasn’t surprising; this was a national survey. What’s interesting is who was left off the list. No Denny’s, Red Lobster, Buffalo Wild Wings, or TGI Fridays – names you’d expect to be competitive in this race.

When we dug a little deeper, we noticed something our winners had in common. Each of them has recently emphasized a value in their marketing that olivegarden575-calpromostrikes a chord with the Active Explorer. For example, Olive Garden has recently hit “fresh,” “healthy” and “gourmet” pretty hard. Same with Chili’s and Outback.

When it came to fast-food restaurants, we learned even more. Here are the top five finishers:

  • McDonald’s (10%)
  • Panera (9%)
  • Chick-fil-A (7%)
  • Taco Bell (7%)
  • Chipotle (7%)

Panera and Chipotle are perennial Active Explorer favorites, so it’s not surprising to see those place well. But we were curious to see what McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Chick-fil-A were doing right. A lot, as it turns out. All three have spent a great deal of marketing emphasizing their fresh, local, bold new menu items.

mcdonaldsbillboard2Even McDonald’s has made a big push in the Pacific Northwest, sourcing their fries from Washington farmers and putting up billboards that connected the McDonald’s brand to a sense of outdoor adventure.

What else did we learn? 1 in 4 Active Explorers said that spending time with family and friends is the best thing about going out to dinner. About the same number said the best thing about going out to eat is not having to make it themselves.

Active Explorers are, at their heart, explorers. But as we learned from our travel survey, they also like coming back to a place they feel comfortable. In the food industry, that’s where fast casual brands are making their biggest gains. There’s always a place for known quantities that are trusted brands, are convenient and reliable, but also consistently provide new flavors or refreshed menus.

Put all the Active Explorer learnings together: buzzwords, restaurants, food trends and lifestyle: what does it all mean? Let’s talk about that next week.

For Active Explorers, Food Buzzwords Don’t Equal Buzz.

shutterstock_126187640We were wrong.

Like we said in our first post about the Active Explorer Food Survey, we went into our latest study with some expectations about how they viewed the terms “natural,” “sustainable” and “gluten-free.” We thought we were confirming some things about the Active Explorer that we already knew. Some of that – well, most of it — turned out to be wrong.

But that’s a good thing. We’re happy to be wrong. Now we understand some things that get us a lot closer to right. This information may come in handy if you’re in the food industry, or even within shouting distance of it.

So, how do Active Explorers feel about the words “all-natural,” “sustainably grown, and “no trans fat?” Suspiciously, it turns out. Those terms seem to be table stakes on the grocery shelf. They’ll make Active Explorers more likely to buy those products than products that don’t have those terms – but surprisingly, they won’t pay more for those products. Let’s take a look.

Of the terms we tested, only “organic” makes Active Explorers more likely to buy and pay more. Other terms, like “fair trade,” “farmer-owned” and “non-gmo” didn’t move the needle at all. That’s at odds with what we suspected they valued in a food

And don’t get us started on “gluten free.” It was a net negative for our user group, making them less likely to buy and less willing to pay more.

What we’re learning is that Active Explorers aspire to a certain set of values, but that those values only come into play when there’s a clear, differentiated benefit for themselves and their family. “Organic” is the one value that drives purchase intent and price upward, which makes sense – it’s not just a label, but a certification, a badge that makes you feel more wholesome. That makes sense: more than half of AE’s (56%) say that food certifications are somewhat important or very important in their food purchases.

Everything else? Just words on a package.

But that’s in the grocery store. What happens when Active Explorers go out to eat?

That’s a funny story. We’ll save it for another post.

Active Explorers Go Out to Eat: Food for Thought.

shutterstock_222631798_editSome of the world’s most adventurous, experiential people?

When it comes to food, they often choose the tried and true.

That’s just one of the unexpected, surprising, and insightful results we learned from our Active Explorer User Group. Conducted in late September and early October of this year, our survey included 433 respondents who fall into the Active Explorer psychographic – one of the most loyal, educated, and growing consumer segments. These are people evenly distributed by age between the ages of 25 – 65+, 40% earn between $100K- $150K household income. Many have a 4-year degree, and one in four have a graduate degree.

We asked a wide range of questions about how these customers think and feel about the food they eat, in restaurants and at home.

Did you know…

  • Nearly 20% buy organic produce when available? (We thought that would be higher.)
  • That 75% workout most days, or at least a few days of the week? (We thought that might be lower.)
  • Nearly 40% dined out 3-5 times last month and nearly 20% dined out over 8 times last month? (We didn’t know what to think, but that’s good stuff.)

Here’s what really surprised us. We gave our people a pop quiz. What do you do when it’s Saturday, and you have nothing planned for dinner?

Our respondents told us that 59% of them planned to go to a restaurant for dinner rather than choosing to make something at home. We could see that. These people are seekers, adventurers, the ones who want to try that new place on the corner.blogicons_food-02_720

But of these respondents, 83% would choose a restaurant they’ve been to before, instead of trying something new. (That’s higher than we expected. By a lot.) That tells us a lot about how food connects with Active Explorers. Even though they’re a demographic most likely to try new experiences, when it comes to restaurants, their loyalty kicks in hard.

Of the 41% of Active Explorers who said they’d break out the pots and pans on a Saturday night, 85% plan the meal before they go to the store and 81% make a grocery or shopping list for it. This suggests opportunities to reach them while they are deciding at home and in planning mode — even at the last minute. They have good reasons to cook at home: cooking/preparing food at home helps AEs have control over what they are eating (20%) and it helps them save money (20%). They also believe that it has higher quality ingredients (16%).

As you’d expect from a demographic that likes to learn, Active Explorers report that their interest in cooking exceeds their skill level. 31% rated themselves a 5 for skill, while 38% rated themselves a 5 for interest.

What can we infer from these results? That when it comes to food, decisions are made well before the time to make them. That the opportunity to influence comes far before the moment of purchase. And maybe restaurants need to balance the thrill of something new with the comfort of the familiar.

blogicons_food-03_720But we’re just getting started. In our next post, we’ll explore the emotional and rational triggers that inspire Active Explorers to choose what they eat – and it’s more interesting than we thought.

Stay tuned. See you next week.