How Zumba Built a Brand with a Cult Following in Just a Few Years

A Reporter Shakes Her Booty With Zumba's Chief Marketer and Witnesses the 'Electrifying Joy' That Characterizes the Fitness Craze

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Die-hard followers in neon spandex and branded garb lunge, loosen and head roll to prepare for the hour of exertion ahead. Latin-infused hip-hop pulses through the room. An instructor in a thoughtfully torn, branded tee and cargo pants commands the crowd, advising, "If you get lost, just shake your booty."

Zumba CMO Jeffrey Perlman
Zumba CMO Jeffrey Perlman

If a 70-year-old in the front row -- a retired lawyer named Judy -- could face Zumba head-on, so could I.

Just not from the front. By unspoken agreement, Jeffrey Perlman, chief marketing officer of the fitness craze, and I made our way to the back of the crowded studio. A few minutes in, Mr. Perlman, who must have sensed my awkwardness in the room now abuzz with skilled and rapturous Zumba-ers, leaned over and whispered, "When all inhibitions go out the window, that's when the magic happens."

He wasn't talking only about the class, but the marketing philosophy behind a fast-growing lifestyle brand with a cult-like following. The company surpassed its goal of 10 million participants in 2011, and in the past six years it has expanded its marketing budget to more than $50 million from just $2 million. Now, with solid awareness and growing product sales, the brand is speeding up global expansion, banking on nontraditional partnerships and planning to Zumb-ify the world.

What began as an infomercial company changed gears in 2006 after Mr. Perlman was inspired by a billboard featuring two muscular dancers in David LaChapelle's film "Rize." "Immediately, I called my brother [Alberto Perlman, the CEO of Zumba] and said "You're selling the wrong thing. You're selling fitness when you should be selling this emotion,'" he said. "I wanted to turn Zumba into a brand where people felt that kind of free and electrifying joy."

It was good timing. Mr. Perlman had been writing a feature-film script about a fortune-cookie writer when the Writers' Guild of America went on strike and Los Angeles became a ghost town. Prior to that, he had been working at an ad shop in L.A. He was in search of a new creative outlet.

Mr. Perlman joined his brother and together they came up with a tagline, "Ditch the workout; join the party!" They invested $10,000 in a new home page and started selling branded clothing. They also launched the Zumba instructor network and created a corporate mission "to make our instructors successful."

"Instead of the typical full-body shot of a woman with a six pack, [we decided] you're going to see a close-up of a person feeling free and electrifying joy," he said of the promotional materials. "It worked."

Mr. Perlman was inspired by other marketing brands with devoted followings. "We wanted to try to understand what our consumers saw in us so we looked at other brands where people were tattooing the logos on their bodies," he said. The two that came to mind were Harley Davidson and yoga. "We started asking ourselves, why is Harley Davidson a lifestyle brand? What we came up with is it's a brand that can go into many other mediums but still preserve its identity. Then we looked at other fitness crazes and the only thing we could think of was yoga."???

While Mr. Perlman only takes a class every couple of months, he's certainly not slacking. He spends much of his time traveling and seeking ways to expand the brand globally. Early successes in Australia and English-speaking markets in Europe have helped pave the way for additional expansion. But it's not always simple crossing cultural barriers. In Brazil, for example, there's a decentralized gym system -- all mom-and-pop operations.

An expansion typically entails instructor training and PR. Once there's a network of instructors, reaching out to large gym chains follows. That's when "you bring out the big guns and start to look for clothing distributors, infomercial distributors, etc.," Mr. Perlman said.

Last year, the company made $60 million on apparel and accessories alone through its e-commerce platforms (the company is private and does not release total sales). Selling shoes and accessories "has a very healthy margin," Mr. Perlman said. "Right now, we're trying to figure out how we continue to put that in front of new people without affecting our margin too much." Part of the plan is incentivizing instructors to sell product through the e-commerce site in exchange for commission.

Soon after Mr. Perlman joined Zumba, he invested in PR, working with Miami-based RBB (currently MWW, New York) on programs including an annual instructor convention. He also made TV integration and social media a priority. Efforts included a brand integration in "The Biggest Loser" and an initiative asking consumers to upload pictures of themselves in Zumba apparel they've ripped and redesigned. He's also devoted to the brand's video-game presence.

To date, Zumba is the No. 2 video game in the dance and fitness space, with Xbox Kinect and Wii partnerships. The Xbox game also has a class locator.?

TV content is Mr. Perlman's newest objective. "We have a big influencer network so we can drive people to watch a [TV] show or download a song," he said. This strategy is in line with the company's recent deal with Raine Group, which is backed by talent agency William Morris Endeavor. Through this partnership Zumba has inked a relationship with reality-show production company Pilgrim Studios. Mr. Perlman says several concepts are in development and should be ready to shop to networks soon.

"We want to craft an archetype of a Zumba enthusiast. If a yoga enthusiast is a tofu-eating, patchouli-smelling person, the Zumba enthusiast might have the baggy cargo pants, drive a Jeep Wrangler and rip up her clothing," he said. "We're in the business of building a community."?

Looking around the packed studio, it seems it's already happening.

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