What we can learn about branding from an Olympian: Uncovering the mindset of a champion

An interview with Stephen McCain, Olympic gymnast and health optimisation coach

Should we wear something sporty, we discuss as we wait for Stephen McCain. Yes, The Stephen McCain, the former Olympic gymnast and World Championship silver medallist. Clearly not content with that, he is also a Hall of Famer that works with the stars in Hollywood. Oh gosh, we gulp. The tension builds as we await his arrival. We want to explore what is branding in marketing through the mindset of an elite athlete.

“There must be something he is bad at”, we nervously laugh. “Hmmm…let’s quickly do some push-ups just in case…”

Suddenly Stephen backflips onto our laptop screen and greets us with a warm greeting. He explains how he has embarked on a second career as a health optimisation coach, to improve the health of many. Damn, he seems nice, maybe he will find a deep flaw later. However, we do not. He is passionate, charming and insightful. With the physique of a Greek god, we quickly begin to wish we had done those push-ups.

Stephen McCain, chilling out. Hmm…Really wish we had done those push ups!

Cross-training your way to success

In elite sports, athletes often take part in training outside their main sport. Known as cross-training, it can help improve performance. As an agency, we believe it is important to learn from the mindset of brilliance. Stephen has reached heights most people only dream of as an Olympian. Therefore, we set out to discover what we could learn about marketing and branding from him. As it turned out, there was a lot to learn…

Finding your “why” to drive branding in marketing

“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a karate guy because I used to watch the movies,” he says, leaning forward in his chair. “I even taught myself to walk on my hands”

Of course. Didn’t we all?

“I showed my mum and she took me to gymnastics. I wasn’t happy because I thought it was like ballet – I wanted to be a karate guy.”

Thankfully Stephen moved past his initial scepticism and realised he loved gymnastics. He found his calling, which was strengthened after watching the 1984 Olympics. This helped shape a lifelong love affair with health and well-being.

This sense of purpose is important to understand. From a marketing and branding perspective, it helps maintain focus. More importantly, it also helps attract customers who believe in your mission. This can have a profound impact on an organisation’s bottom line. The customer relationship moves away from being transactional to being something much deeper. People want to feel part of your tribe.

This is a concept not lost on Stephen. As a health optimisation coach, he says he “only works with people who have a compelling why”. That “why” can be different for different people. However, Stephen says individuals who are mission-driven are more likely to succeed. He believes it is all about mindset. This also helps to strengthen Stephens’s personal brand. He is a mission-driven individual on a quest to improve people’s health. Therefore, it is important that people who join his tribe, feel a sense of purpose too.

Stephen McCain, who competed at the 2000 Olympics for Team USA, says people must have a compelling “why” to work with him

Finding out the hard way

But, surely as an elite athlete, this is nothing special? After all, having a sense of purpose and being in peak condition just comes easily to them. Right?

Stephen smiles and shakes his head. Laughing he says “he loves this question.” Like a champion, we sense he is about to demolish our presumption.

“That’s what everyone assumes, but I have had to learn that,” he says leaning forward. “When I was a kid I loved what I did so much, I even made my coach train me on Sundays.”

However, “a piece of me died when I retired at 31. I had no purpose. I started hanging out with Russian Olympians – and they like to drink. In athletics that are some bad binge drinking habits. After retiring my whole construct of discipline evaporated.”

“I had brain fog, and I was feeling poofy. I was not working out; I was drinking and a sitting duck. Just because I’m an Olympian I don’t get a free pass. I was blown away by how quickly it went. From being world-class to feeling crap.”

After retiring, Stephen lost his “why”. As seen in this photo, he was no longer in great shape

It was clear that Stephen had lost his “why.” Without that sense of purpose, it was harder for him to focus. This is a lot like organisations that try to be too many things to too many people. They fail to attract customers because they cannot communicate what they stand for.

Honesty and Transparency

Stephens’s candid nature also piques our interest. He is unafraid to discuss his challenges and weaknesses. This again is something many organisations struggle to articulate. Vulnerability does not have to be a weakness. As Stephen recognises, it just makes you human and can in fact attract more people to your cause. It also helps build trust. In short, it is a powerful branding tool in marketing.

“In my darkest moment, I said I don’t have to retire. I am going to live my life like a professional athlete.” Understanding how he was harming himself, he decided to “crank the engine. I had to get leverage on myself and control my brain because I didn’t want to kill myself.” As such he returned back to what had made him successful in the first place. Identifying his inner why. This set-in motion a sequence of events that have turned Stephen into a leading health coach. From stunt people to celebrities, people want to work with Stephen. His background in athletics is obvious. His knowledge of how human physiology works is impressive. Yet it is his ability to communicate that helps him to stand out further.

Is this Tom Cruise? No, it’s Stephen – he now works in Hollywood with stunt people and celebrities

With a newfound purpose, Stephen has gained further perspective. He says “it’s hard enough to be great at something when you love it. When you don’t love something, it is impossible.” For Stephen, his passion is now imparting health insights to others. This is something all marketers should consider too. What is your organisation passionate about? If you simply don’t care, don’t expect others to either.

Living your brand

“Sorry, give me a moment”, Stephen says mid-flow, as he realises his laptop battery is running low. He gives us a guided tour of his stylish LA home as he searches for a power outlet. The tour takes us past several fitness devices. If Willy Wonka was into fitness, this is how you may imagine his house to look. He says there is “a ton of different exercise devices” on every floor of his house. “I am lucky because my fiancée is also into fitness.” It is clear. Stephen doesn’t just preach fitness. He lives his brand too.

“I have spent the last 13 years focusing on optimising my health,” he says. “I quit drinking and I have been doing skin treatments every five weeks since I was 22.” Hmm…we were wondering how he competed in the 2000 Olympics yet still looks really young. Maybe this explains it?

Stephen lives and breathes his brand. It means people trust him

Yet, it isn’t just about living a healthy lifestyle for Stephen. He also reads lots of books and attends many conferences. He is an avid learner and understands the need for constant improvement. This helps build his trust and authority. Stephen lives and breathes his brand, something we can all learn. Many organisations fall into the trap of creating isolated marketing content. They aim to excite or engage an audience without living by the values of the content they share. For example, if you profess to be a social media guru yet only have 3 likes on your own content, how can others trust you? Unfortunately, many organisations try to market to an audience without living their brand.

Moving online and getting visibility

A year ago, Stephens’s remarkable journey has led him to move his coaching online. “I was working with lots of kids, one-to-one. It was great and many went on to national championships etc. However, I felt I could do more by going online. There I can scale. Rather than saying the same things over again and again, I can multiply myself. This means I can focus on building something new.”

Stephen is embracing the power of online marketing which means his voice is heard by many. This has seen him embrace several online platforms. On his website, he has seen the powerful effects of optimising content for search engines. Using insights, he has managed to attract more readers. As a marketing analytics agency, we understand how effective this can be. Our data can provide such insights, yet many organisations continue to operate without.

Stephen has also embraced other platforms. He is on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. He says this has helped him reach new audiences. However, he has learned that to be effective, you also need to understand the social platform you are on. Each has its own unique characteristics and followers.

Authenticity matters for branding and marketing

At the start of his journey, he tried to “give too much content. I was trying to be a perfectionist. However, I realised when I do things naturally the content goes boom. That type of content does best for me.”

Stephen has recognised that social media is not about creating TV-quality content. Audiences demand authenticity, something Stephen has in abundance. He is passionate and tries to speak to his followers like he is “talking to one person.” This enables him to engage much more effectively.

He says there is often a “disconnection between what people portray and what they say. This gave me the confidence to go online because I do as I say.  For example, I don’t drink and the hardest part is implementing it and being consistent.” This authenticity is something audience’s demand.

Power of 360 Marketing for branding

However, Stephen has also continued to embrace other forms of communication. From building online courses to partnering with health companies and getting on stage. Stephen is living and breathing 360 marketing. The more people see and hear him, in different forums and platforms, the more visible he is. This helps build his authority further. The impact of this is clear. Many of his referrals come from word of mouth as his target audience trusts him.

This is no mistake. Through our conversation, it is clear Stephen is analytical and a deep thinker. He plans and evaluates.

Stephen speaks at many conferences. Here he is speaking at RAAD Fest – The world’s largest event focused on anti-aging

A fight to preserve science – getting your 360-marketing and branding messaging right

For health organisations, it is important to know what you are willing to discuss. A failure to do so can mean your mission becomes unclear at best. At worst, it could have significant reputational damage. Whilst good marketing can propel your brand, bad marketing can have serious consequences. 

We ask Stephen about covid misinformation. “I choose not to talk about it because it is so inflammatory. During covid, people were more frustrated. They were not using their prefrontal cortex. Instead, they were living in the basic part of their brain.”

“We have to fight to preserve science. But I will say to people, deal with covid as best as you think. However, don’t think you won’t get it.”

This makes sense. The pandemic generated considerable debate and became politicised. For Stephen, despite being a health coach, it was an issue he felt would do more harm than good if spoken about. This was despite his considerable knowledge of human physiology and nutrition.

 Yet, he is willing to openly discuss subjects that are core to his coaching services. His coaching principles focus on sleep, diet, exercise, stress and environmental toxic load. These are subjects Stephen feels deeply passionate about.

What is branding in marketing? Do as you preach

Solving the global obesity issue is a subject Stephen feels deeply about. “I always say obesity sneaks up on people over 20 to 30 years. It is like death by a thousand papercuts.” We ask Stephen if he ever recommends a specific diet. He smiles and shakes his head. He believes there is no such thing as the perfect diet. What works for one person may not for another.

“We can borrow from generally accepted ideas but you need to do personal testing. You should fine-tune what works for you. Non-inflammatory diets rich in whole foods that regulate blood sugar are best. That can be different for different people. However, it is a lifestyle change and you need to align it with realistic goals. For many people, it is impossible to follow something for 100% of the time. So, you should aim for something realistic like 85% so you get the best results. It is about being consistent.”

As always Stephen does what he preaches. He mentions he has done many different tests including four genetic tests. Surprisingly these tests have shown he carries a gene that makes him prone to obesity. This further emphasises his credentials. Stephens’s health regime works. He says “just because I have it doesn’t mean anything. My lifestyle prevents that gene from being turned on.”

Stephen “speaking” at RAAD fest, doing as he preaches

Key to Stephens’s brand is speaking about subjects that he understands in great depth. As an elite athlete, he understands nutrition and fitness. Furthermore, he is keen to understand the individual. He tries to avoid making generalisations, knowing it often does not lead to the best results. “For exercise – stability, strength training and metabolic conditioning are important. You need a balance of all three. But, if you are lacking in one of these, that is what you should focus on.”

Biohacking or health optimisation. Being clear on terminology when branding and marketing

Biohacking is an emerging health trend. In the US alone it generates over 22k Google searches per month. It has also caught the eye of the mainstream with shows about biohacking emerging on Netflix. Yet it remains a controversial topic because it covers a variety of people and practices. Some biohackers aim to optimise their health using the latest health research. This can include trying new foods or exercise techniques. On the other side, there are people who enhance themselves using digital devices.

“I have a love-hate relationship with biohacking. On one side it says I am holding myself accountable. I believe health should be democratised. On the other side, I am also sick of it. It implies there is a shortcut to health optimisation. There are things you can do to quicken your health journey but there is also work you need to do.”

So, does Stephen consider himself a biohacker?

“I prefer health optimisation.” Terminology clearly matters. For many, this may appear as semantics. Yet, it is important to understand the connotations of your messaging. Different terminology attracts different audiences. By using health optimisation, Stephen ensures his personal mission is void of debate. He wants to enhance human health and attract audiences who take accountability.

“I think sometimes people want misinformation. It gives them an excuse.” This is important to understand. In any given population there are people who will be resistant to your brand and marketing messages. Thus, it is important to attract as many people who are likely to believe in your mission. To do so, semantics matter.

Scaling to the peak. Twice.

We look up at the clock. It indicates we have been speaking to Stephen for two hours. It has been an eye-opening education. He has already scaled heights very few people do in his first career as an elite athlete. He is now set to do it again as a health coach. Yet it is clear why. Stephen understands his raison d’etre and he lives it.


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