How do brands like Peloton deal with an unexpected PR crisis?
Over the last few decades, mainstream clubs and gyms have slowly lost that steady stream of customers for various reasons.
Some are obvious (lengthy contract agreements or hefty monthly memberships) to other factors (customers becoming more interested in taking specialized classes that meet their needs for both fitness and lifestyle).
It used to be that the only place you could find group fitness classes was at the local YMCA or athletic club. But, as with all things, a disruption took place.
The next wave of fitness became all about the boutique fitness experience – whether someone was into Pilates, spin, or even programs like CrossFit – the emergence of these options helped splinter consumers into smaller studios with specialized workouts and a community of like-minded enthusiasts.
Naturally, the next progression of fitness opportunities went online.
These boutique studios run the gamut of options out there. From PureBarre to SoulCycle, Orangetheory to Row House, if there’s a fitness activity you prefer then there’s a good chance a boutique studio exists.
Fast forward to the last few years and the fitness industry has moved forward into a new realm: technology. Touting the ability to get an effective workout from the comfort of home, brands like Peloton combined tech with a community aspect to give consumers even more flexibility.
And while Peloton might be considered the frontrunner in this new wave of fitness tech, there’s been a wave of new options in recent years with the likes of Tonal, Hydrow, and Mirror that give customers the experience of group fitness from the comfort and privacy of home. Add in the unexpected pandemic and it’s no wonder these fitness options took off in a major way around 2020.
Here’s where things get interesting with Peloton: from that advertisement that went viral to the product placement in not one but two shows in which central characters died as a result from using the bike, it’s been a wild ride for the brand, to say the least.
So, what happens next for Peloton and how do brands come back after being skewered in the court of public opinion?
Where it all started
Let’s roll things back to the beginning: where does Peloton’s story begin?
Even though it might feel like the company is relatively new because of all the latest publicity, it’s been around since 2012. Funding for the concept (which John Foley pitched as a ‘technology that helped people with limited time get a professional-esque workout from the comfort of home) took place over the course of 2012 and in 2013 the first bike was sold on Kickstarter.
By 2014, the first stationary bikes were made available and sold to consumers and within a few short years topped more than one million users.
But what makes Peloton so appealing to consumers? Unlike other iterations of stationary bikes and exercise equipment from years past, the company figured out how to bring the palpable energy and live experience of a spin class in the living room.
There are another feature users love about Peloton: the ability to feel like you’re in a spin studio without ever needing to leave the house. Gone are the excuses of not having time to work out – from the massive streaming library to live class schedule, there’s no longer a barrier from getting experience in on any schedule.
From the large screen to the streaming services that allow users to take an assortment of live cycling classes, fans of Peloton say this: it’s like being in class without the hassle of getting there.
What’s not to love?
Remember *that* advertisement?
Think back to December 2019. If you were anywhere near social media, you probably recall this image:
On the off chance you’ve been blissfully unaware of the wild ride going on over at Peloton in recent years, here’s a recap.
In December 2019, Peloton launched a holiday commercial featuring a young woman who received a bike by a man (who one is to assume is her partner).
Over the course of the commercial, we see the woman riding each day but at the end of the clip, the viewer realizes the woman spent a year recording herself. Fast forward to the present day and the couple is together, marveling at just how much the bike changed their life.
Unfortunately, once the ad aired, the reception was not what Peloton expected. The backlash was swift.
What started as a presumably innocent advertisement, created just in time for the holiday shopping season, turned into a lump of coal for the entire Peloton brand and the stockholders. Within days of the release, Peloton’s stock dropped 10% and became the subject of trending hashtags, memes, and plenty of hot takes from thousands online.
A spokesperson for Peloton tried to turn the narrative around.
Telling CNBC at the time, the company spokesperson shared this: “While we’re disappointed in how some have misinterpreted this commercial, we are encouraged by — and grateful for — the outpouring of support we’ve received from those who understand what we were trying to communicate.”
Investors weren’t too worried, though. With holiday shopping and Black Friday on the horizon, website traffic and demand stayed on track as expected by analysts.
What many didn’t see coming was a worldwide pandemic that would hit in a matter of weeks from this advertising snafu and propel the brand to heights it couldn’t have anticipated.
Peloton and the pandemic obsession
Even though Peloton had its share of popularity pre-2020, the pandemic took the energy and demand for the brand to the next level—some even going so far as to call it an (acceptable?) cult.
As gyms closed down in the early days of the COVID pandemic, demand for at-home workouts reached a fever pitch. Despite the viral memes and public roasting of Peloton not a few months earlier, the brand couldn’t keep up with demand.
This massive demand wasn’t just because people were looking for a place to get a workout in while they were stuck at home. Instead, users started getting attached to certain instructors and following them on other platforms.
In addition to getting that heart-pumping workout alongside hit songs, a unique feature of Peloton was connecting with fellow members and instructors for a more personalized experience. Buzzfeed News also shared this interesting tidbit:
“Peloton has possibly become the first cultish fitness company to draw talent in for their personal branding before their fitness cred. This is not to say its instructors are not incredibly talented and don’t have impressive credentials.
But at Peloton, it seems to be more important for an instructor to be relatable, likable, and aspirational to their students than the most talented fitness trainer.”
For those who need further proof of the instructor’s rise in popularity, there’s this: Cody Rigsby dancing alongside Cheryl Burke in the fall 2021 season of Dancing with the Stars.
It’s no wonder then that Peloton and its instructors started to pop up in the likeliest of places: television shows.
Not all publicity is good
With the dozens of trending shows on streaming platforms, you may or may not have caught the latest season of Billions or And Just Like That on Showtime and HBO Max respectively so here’s a fair warning: proceed with caution, there are spoilers ahead!
In not one but two recent episodes of hit shows, Peloton has been featured in a not-so-good light.
First, viewers were seriously upset after the premiere episode of the Sex and the City reboot, And Just Like That, after a central character dies post-workout.
In the episode, Mr. Big (husband to Carrie Bradshaw) chooses to stay home from an event with his wife because he’s looking forward to his 1,000th class on the bike. After an intensive ride, Mr. Big heads to the shower where he suffers and eventually dies of cardiac arrest.
Once the premiere episode aired, fans were left reeling with the sudden loss of what they think is an integral character to the overall story. What’s more, is the association between Big’s heart attack and his Peloton ride.
After the episode aired (which featured real-life instructor Jess King as fictional instructor Allegra) even Peloton seemed to be surprised by the episode’s event. While a spokesperson said the brand was aware of the placement of the bike in the series, they had no idea how it would be featured.
From stocks falling 10 percent to cardiologists writing statements to major newspapers on the heart benefits of cardio fitness, Peloton definitely had to do some damage control in the court of public opinion.
As televisions viewers started to come to terms with the death (and drama) of a major character it wasn’t long until another character on a completely different show had his own health crisis.
In Showtime’s show Billions, the character Mike Wagner completes a Peloton workout, and once it’s done, starts to feel chest pain. He seems to recover and upon returning to office jokes that he’s ‘not going out like Mr. Big’ (which, according to Variety was added during postproduction).
This time, Peloton was not happy and issued a statement:
It didn’t stop the Twitterverse from mocking and skewering the brand though.
In my best Carrie Bradshaw impression, I couldn’t help but wonder…what happens when pop-culture portrays a band in a negative light, and then those sentiments hit the mainstream audience?
What to do with a PR crisis
Peloton isn’t the first, nor last, brand to experience a PR crisis. Search Google for business PR fails and you’ll find endless lists of cringe-worthy examples.
Travel brand Away went through a crisis of its own as it was riding high with sales and celebrity appeal.
In 2019, an article published by The Verge highlighted some of the toxic behaviors permeating throughout the brand’s upper echelon – namely the CEO and Founder, Steph Korey. The back and forth response by Away created confusion and a sour taste in the mouth of customers and non-customers alike.
For brands moving forward, dealing with a PR crisis in a methodical and organized way is helpful. Connecting with reputation management is key, but even then it’s hard to say how an outcome will ultimately affect a brand’s growth.
For now, Peloton seems to have weathered the immediate storm, though it’s anyone’s guess on what will happen on the brand’s next ride.