Panasonic, a well-known name worldwide for electronics and high-tech gear, has jumped into the fitness arena with its spin-off corporation, Fitness Innovations, which debuted with the Core Trainer at the recent IHRSA show.
But don't call the company a subsidiary of Panasonic. Although it is funded by the Japanese technology giant and has the rights to use the name and logo, Fitness Innovations is a separate corporation run by a separate management team, including long-time fitness industry veteran Steve Payne as its vice president of sales. And it has its sights set on more than the Core Trainer.
"We're entering the fitness market, and we're serious, and we're staying," Payne told SNEWS®. "We have a product and we'll have more."
Although the Core Trainer debuted formally at the IHRSA show in March in Las Vegas, you may have seen its earlier iteration at the Health & Fitness Business Show in Denver in August 2005. No, the company doesn't really want to talk about it since it was just an experiment and the current management group hadn't completely come aboard yet. Basically, Panasonic saw potential for the piece -- since it had been selling gang-busters in Japan for four years -- but wasn't really sure how to mine it in the United States, let alone what to call the product here, how to market it or to whom. Click here for our Sept. 12, 2005, SNEWS® story, "H&F Biz show '05: Kickboxing … and the vibrating Equus." Yes, this is the piece that looks like a saddle that's about chair-height that you sit on, like on a horse, as it rocks and gyrates to challenge your core muscles, balance and stability. Unfortunately, at that time, they talked about toning and fat loss, which left folks mostly snickering and cracking off-color jokes.
"Panasonic didn't understand the U.S. fitness market," Payne said. "I went by and chuckled like everybody else, and then I started going by again and again to look at it."
Although it drew giggles and jokes in Denver and even at IHRSA too (ride 'em, cowboy, and the like), it does have strength and balance benefits, depending on how it's used. In Japan, it was originally developed for use by children who have some handicap or coordination challenge, for example, someone with Down's syndrome, autism or cerebral palsy. In the United States, it turns out there is actually a non-profit association called North American Riding for the Handicap (www.narha.org) for groups that use horses for therapy for both adults and children with physical, emotional and learning disabilities, so the horse thing isn't so far-fetched. In Japan, these days, Panasonic is turning out about 2,000 a month.
Forget toning and fat loss, as the prior version pitched, this is about the core.
"The core thing is just really hot," said Payne, who came on with the company in February from SportsArt Fitness. He has also worked with Life Fitness and Technogym. David Hughes, president, and Mark Skolnik, vice president, both come from a technology background and a company called Technology Sourcing that has worked with Panasonic on product development and patents.
At this point, this is the only product offered by Fitness Innovations (retail, $2,400), although it is also selling Panasonic's massage lounge chairs. But Payne promised more is in the works.
"We're not going to come out with another treadmill. We're not going to come out with another elliptical. We're not going to come out with another me-too product," he said, declining comment about what direction the company is going or even in which category.
Panasonic, for its part, is serious, putting the Core Trainer on its home page next to its digital cameras and printers at www.panasonic.com because of all the attention it's gotten.
"They're watching this really carefully, watching how it does in the United States," he said. "We're just scratching the surface in the United States. We're just barely getting off the ground."
Payne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SNEWS® View: We giggled with the best of them in Denver last year. But with a schtick that talked about toning and fat-burning showing women having a good time while sitting in the saddle, what else could you do? No, this ain't going to be for everybody, but it definitely has its demographic, which if properly reached with a smart message could turn the product into the real deal. Will it be The Next New Thing? Nope. It doesn't and won't have broad enough interest for all exercisers to be that. But thanks for playing. Nevertheless, it has potential with a good marketing and sales campaign and image development that is based on the U.S. mindset about fitness and training, not the Japanese one.