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Y wants to deep-six 'dingy,' surface with sleeker image

The Baltimore Sun

The days when the YMCA of Central Maryland was where people would go for an inexpensive place to stay or to work out in a "dingy" gym or pool are long gone, but that image still persists in many people's minds.

The 154-year-old nonprofit wants to change that perception and today will unveil a $1 million marketing campaign it said will portray a more modern and realistic image of the YMCA.

The organization is changing its name to Y of Central Maryland. It's also adopting a sleeker logo and a new motto - "If you think we're just a pool, look deeper." It will launch a new Web site, www.ymaryland.org.

In the past, the YMCA has done little marketing, preferring instead to live off its reputation, executives said. Or it used campaigns that weren't aggressive enough. That led to its dated image, they said.

The organization, which serves more than 150,000 people, argues that its gyms are as good as those at high-quality health clubs. And even though it's not moving away from its mission of providing scholarships for people who can't afford its services, executives said the organization is a place for all income levels.

Nationwide, the YMCA has carved a niche among health clubs. About 18 percent of the nation's 41.3 million health club members in 2005 went to the YMCA or YWCA, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association in Boston.

The popularity of YMCA gyms cause some consternation among the owners of for-profit facilities, because its costs are lower since it's able to use donated money to build gyms and doesn't have to pay taxes.

"They do great against other fitness centers," said Thomas Richards, public policy manager for the international health club group. "Oftentimes, the YMCA is indistinguishable from their commercial counterparts but they have a huge tax advantage."

The for-profit centers' "cost of business will be much higher," Richards said. "Tax-paying fitness centers really struggle when the YMCA comes to town. They're competing for the same pool but the YMCA is able to do it at a much lower cost."

The Y's newest facility, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg YMCA at Stadium Place in Northeast Baltimore, has a rock climbing wall, dance studio, indoor basketball court and sports medicine clinic run by Union Memorial Hospital.

The YMCA also provides services such as full-time day care, summer camps, after-school programs and youth sports programs such as martial arts. The organization has seven health and wellness centers, three program centers and two Head Start centers.

Adult membership dues at the Y range from $41 to $49 a month.

The new 18-month marketing campaign, to be unveiled at the group's annual meeting today, is part of a broader strategy the YMCA announced in March to boost revenues, which have been about $30 million for the past few years, and double its size in the next decade. Donations, which the organization relies on to expand services and keep its nine centers up to date, have been flat in recent years.

"We don't want to be the best-kept secret anymore," said John Hoey, the organization's CEO. "We're kind of tired of that.

"There's been a history of modesty and not bringing attention to this organization and that doesn't work today," Hoey said.

Hoey, who was hired from the private sector to reshape the YMCA, said that he wanted the organization to operate more like a business than a nonprofit. The group is in talks to form corporate partnerships with businesses around the region. It has also reorganized into product segments, such as health and wellness.

The YMCA beginning in February interviewed members, board members and nonmembers and found that the organization had high name recognition. But the name meant different things to people. Members were loyal, while nonmembers knew little about what the organization offered.

The results of the survey were used to help create the marketing campaign, which will launch in July. It will include billboards, direct mail, print advertisements and some radio spots.

The print advertisements feature images of people performing activities at the bottom of a pool, such as a woman doing yoga, a young girl painting a picture and kids playing chess. The pictures are accompanied by the new motto "If you think we're just a pool, look deeper." It is meant to suggest that the Y offers more than just swimming lessons in an old pool, Hoey said.

Marketing experts said it is a good time for the YMCA to reposition its image in light of the country's obesity problem and many Americans focused on health issues. The organization also has a recognizable name to build from.

"Marketing is about evolving with the times that we live with," said Baltimore marketing consultant John McLaughlin. "I would think the YMCA has lagged a little bit in terms of staying ahead of the wave."


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