SoulCycle spins into politics and back pedaling

WE Communications Blog: Brands in Motion, WE Communications Blog: Purpose

8/7/2019
— Kass Sells, Global COO/President of International 

For the last two years, WE Communications’ Brands in Motion global study has shown that in a world of motion, consumers think brands can provide stability. Seventy-four percent of respondents in 2018 wanted the brands they support to take a stand on important issues. Of course, what kind of stand you take depends on who your customers and employees are and what they value.

We’re seeing an example of this unfold in real time right now.

Yesterday, a Washington Post article about Trump’s planned re-election fundraising events in the Hamptons revealed that one $100,000-a-head lunch would be hosted by Stephen Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins and the chairman of Related Companies. Related Companies owns the luxury exercise club chain Equinox, which in turn owns SoulCycle. These are two brands beloved by a loyal audience which includes LGBTQ+ men and women and their allies — groups that have often felt like they’re in the crosshairs of the Trump administration’s policies.

As many have pointed out, Ross’s political actions are at odds with his brands’ LGBTQ-friendly attitudes. Ross’s actions have created the kind of motion a brand has no control over but must account for. When Chrissy Teigen shames your exercise brand on social media to her 25 million followers, you know you’re in trouble. Based on what we’re seeing today, Equinox and SoulCycle’s motion is in jeopardy of moving in the wrong direction when it comes to connecting with their key customers and consumer audiences.

I sympathize with these brands’ communicators and brand managers — they’re not responsible for their holding company and owner’s actions, but they’re the ones fighting the fires he set — but at the same time, who can blame consumers for reacting the way they have? It’s challenging for consumers when a brand sponsors Pride parades one week and then turns around and allocates corporate profits for political campaigns that contradict what they perceive as the brand’s core values.

Consumer expectations only get higher

For consumer brands, not meeting consumer expectations is especially punishing. It’s easy to cancel your SoulCycle membership if the company’s owner does something you don’t agree with — you can sign up with a competitor. With so many choices available, a brand MUST always align its values (and ownership’s values) with those of its customers or risk the kind of reaction that SoulCycle and Equinox are seeing now. Our Brands in Motion research calls this phenomenon “Love you today, shame you tomorrow.” In 94% of situations we surveyed in 2018, consumers told us they would shame a brand if it stepped out of line — even if they loved it.

When SoulCycle chose to sell to the Related Companies, no doubt they did it for many of the right reasons — expertise, real estate smarts, capital, and the ability to extend their brand and grow faster. However, if you don’t take into account the values of the investors you do business with, it could all be for nothing. It’s not worth it if you lose market share, your reputation, and more because you didn’t stay true to your values. A brand’s purpose needs to be aligned everywhere — from communications, to investors’ public stance on politics, all the way to how you treat customers at your brick-and-mortar locations.

WE’s Brands in Motion 2019 publishes on September 17th. And if my coworkers’ early reactions are any indication, we’ll have a lot more to say about purpose, values, authenticity and the soul of a brand. The challenges consumer brands face today are significant, and so are the opportunities. This can be a great moment for SoulCycle to do some examination and reconnect with their values as well as their core customers. They can take steps to separate from this fundraising event as well as their owner’s politics, but the time to act is now. When a brand speeds into controversy like this, consumer reactions — particularly, the backlash — can leave you breathless.

At SoulCycle classes, instructors will often tell the class to “tap-it-back”, which requires the riders to change positions on their bikes and work their legs and core in a different and new way. This seems like it might be an excellent opportunity for the company to use this moment — and their current motion — to “tap-it-back” and rediscover the heart and soul of their brand’s purpose.