Blok London was never meant to be a gym. When Ed Stanbury came across the disused Victoria tram depot in 2015, he was looking for space for his construction business. He decided the site was too big and beautiful to be used as office and storage space for a construction company, so he approached his friend Max Oppenheim, a freelance fashion photographer, to discuss launching a photography studio.
“That was originally the plan for the business,” says Ed. “While we were doing that, we were doing boxing and yoga classes ourselves, and it occurred to us that maybe there was something more interesting to be done here.”
Since then, it’s been a whirlwind first couple of years for Ed and Max. Blok opened in February 2016, offering fitness classes from high intensity training and boxing to yoga and Barre, in a beautifully designed space. Clapton was underserved by the type of boutique, class-based gyms that populate districts like Chelsea or the City, but nonetheless building up the strong customer base Blok has today has been the result of varied, strategic marketing and building a brand that appeals to its target market.
Any would-be business owner needs to test there’s a market for their idea; for Max and Ed that involved hitting the streets of Clapton and asking locals what they wanted from a gym. They put together an online questionnaire, to which they received more than 3,500 responses. “There was a lot of information we found out from that initial questionnaire,” Max says. “Questions like ‘what classes would you want to do, in order of preference’ did help us form our timetable.”
Customers that contributed received a pass for a free class; that offer, combined with a pre-launch flyering campaign, meant that when Ed and Max came to open up Blok for its first class, there was a queue outside the door.
Max’s creative background came in useful when creating a distinct aesthetic for the Blok brand, and although they may not have consciously gone through a process of outlining visual brand guidelines, a consistent and stylish look developed organically, thanks to his creative eye. “Our natural base of customers is from a very creative workforce,” says Max. “They gravitate towards Blok because there’s a lot of attention to detail with the design.”
The quality of that brand aesthetic has played a key role in raising Blok’s profile. The launch marketing included a simple flyer campaign in the local area, and Ed says the quality of its design captured people’s attention and encouraged them to read it rather than throw it away.
“We’ve moved a lot more into Instagram recently, and we use that to drive people because we’re such a visually-led brand,” Max explains. “We find this really effective.” Their social media strategy incorporates strategically timed paid posts; Ed explains they’ve invested budget in boosting posts, promoting coverage of Blok in glossy magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, and targeted advertising campaigns. He estimates this brought in 5,000 to 6,000 new customers over a couple of months.
“We had a PR team who were working with us from the start, who made sure all the key press titles knew about us,” Max explains. “That was hugely helpful in terms of increasing awareness of where we were, because we’re not in a central location.”
Blok’s marketing has always been designed to simply get people through the door; converting them into loyal customers is down to delivering excellent service that makes them want to come back again. “We always want people to come back because they want to come back, not because we’re hassling them to come back,” Ed says. “[Customers] don’t want to be told what to do or how many times a week to train. We just provide a lovely space, really great classes and make people feel welcome.”
More recently, partnerships with other brands that have a similar ethos and commitment to design have been another way Max and Ed have raised Blok’s profile. “There are loads of benefits to working with other brands; the most obvious one of course is exposure,” says Ed. “Not everyone knows about us yet so if we’re working with a major global brand that exposes us to their audience, that’s great.”
Max and Ed had different opinions on expanding; Ed says that as the more “commercially aggressive” of the pair he was eyeing several more branches while Max was more content with focusing on the original site. Nothing had been decided when the opportunity for a new Blok gym in Shoreditch became available; once again it was too good an opportunity to turn down.
“The building itself is designed by Norman Foster,” Ed explains. “It’s Amazon’s new European headquarters so you’ve got 5,000 people in the building. And it’s in Shoreditch, so there’s no better place for the demographic that we want. We knew straight away it was perfect for us.”
The new site, which is set to open in early January 2018, will present a new challenge for Ed and Max; while part of the reason for launching Blok originally was to bring a quality, boutique class-based gym to Clapton, Shoreditch already has a wealth of such businesses, so competition for customers is fierce.
“Equally, there’s a huge amount of people in that area, and the demand for fitness is growing all the time,” says Max, adding that Blok’s varied class schedule and art-focused brand will help differentiate it from other gyms in the area.