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It is not unusual for fitness centers to focus their branding on personal achievement, and Equinox excelled at it—until last week, that is, when the media caught word that Equinox investor Stephen Ross was planning a fundraiser for President Donald Trump. Suddenly the carefully-groomed image has turned inside out. Members are bailing, and competitors smell blood. All because Equinox found itself embroiled in the middle of a controversy in which no business wants to be mired: accusations of purpose-washing.

What is purpose-washing?

The concept behind purpose-washing, or “woke-washing,” has been bubbling under the surface as the corporate responsibility movement matures.

Unilever CEO Alan Jope articulated it in a speech earlier this year:

“There are too many examples of brands undermining purposeful marketing by launching campaigns which aren’t backing up what their brand says with what their brand does. Purpose-led brand communications is not just a matter of ‘make them cry, make them buy.’ It’s about action in the world…’”

Purpose-washing resonates far and wide in today’s era of employee activism. Both employees and consumers expect brands to reflect the fundamental values they espouse in their corporate responsibility reporting and their branding messages. They also expect companies to respond to issues of public concern.

The Equinox situation represents a corollary: Behind-the-scenes brand owners and investors are also expected to act in ways that reflect and support the brand image.

What happened to Equinox?

Ross owns Equinox and other fitness properties such as SoulCycle under his Related Companies firm, where he sits as chairman and majority owner. It’s no accident that Equinox has come in for the majority of the attention, though—even though some have been quick to defend Ross as a passive investor in these companies, and a spokesperson for Equinox distributed a statement to the media emphasizing that point.

The Equinox brand launched in 1991 and adopted its signature “It’s not fitness. It’s life” marketing campaign in 1999.

That campaign has stuck for the past 20 years. The brand has been built around making fitness part of one’s personal identity. The purpose of Equinox has been to take working out beyond rote exercises in the sweaty halls of the local gymnasium and transform it into a spiritual quest.

The brand’s other long-running slogan is “commit to something,” which reinforces the suggestion that personal fitness can sub in for other kinds of commitments.

A 2016 article in GQ magazine provides some key insights. One member summed it up for reporter Carrie Battan, telling her that “the journey of Equinox … is a journey into self-discovery.”

An Equinox member herself, Battan observed: “Spend enough time at Equinox, and it starts to feel less like a gym and more like church, less like exercise, more like worship—an exorbitantly expensive religion in which everyone prays to the gods of achievement.”

For some Equinox members concerned about the policies and behavior of the president, the Ross fundraiser was like having the rug pulled out from under their feet.

Intentional or not, the fundraiser slapped the Trump brand on the Equinox doors. Members found their personal quests lumped into a physical manifestation of their deepest concerns, whether it involves misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia or a combination of all four—all supported by their own membership fees and add-ons.

How boycotts can work, as they open a door to the competition

In a Washington Post article last week, fashion critic Robin Givhan portrayed the fundraiser as a unique betrayal, but she also questioned whether a boycott would have any effect beyond a smattering of dropped memberships. She described the environment at Equinox as a transformational feeling that “can sometimes be hard to come by.”

However, Equinox has risked a blow to its brand reputation, and good brands in decline can be more vulnerable to boycottsBoycotts can also have an impact where alternatives are close at hand. Equinox’s competitors in the crowded space of personal fitness are leaping at the opportunity to attract members with special offers and free trials.

On August 8, USA Today noted that Town Sports International, with 185 clubs in four major cities, was offering free workouts through the weekend. By August 10, Town Sports had plenty of competition, including Crunch and New York Sports Clubs, as well as trainers with individual studios.

Market Watch reporter Jeanette Settembre noted that, among other issues, “critics slammed the gym for being hypocritical for billing itself as LGBTQ friendly and supporting a president who has opposed the Equality Act, and whose policies have targeted people of color and women.”

What happens next?

Of particular interest is the approach of celebrity fitness instructor Tracy Anderson. Settembre was among those citing Anderson for her pledge to donate 20 percent in revenue from classes at several of her fitness centers last weekend to the Human Rights Campaign, Everytown for Gun Safety and the Martin Luther King Foundation.

The offer demonstrates a keen understanding of the purpose-washing at play in the Equinox situation. Anderson’s donation provides a clear contrast with the self-improvement-as-a-mission message promoted by Equinox. She provided her clients with an opportunity to offer material support to top influencers in the area of social justice.

If Equinox continues to lose members over the Ross fundraiser, it will be interesting to see how the company responds. Perhaps providing opportunities for its members to practice what Equinox preaches would be a good start.

A quick reminder about this October’s 3BL Forum!

Join us at 3BL Forum: Brands Taking Stands – What’s Next, at MGM National Harbor, just outside Washington, D.C., on October 29-30, 2019. The two-day event will continue our newly established tradition of bringing corporate leaders together on a fast-paced main stage, keenly focused on the ‘why’ and ‘how’ behind their thinking as we navigate a rapidly changing business environment.

Receive a 25 percent discount using this code PUNDIT2019AUGUST when you register here during the month of August 2019.

Remember, tomorrow, and every Wednesday, is Brands Taking Stands Day on 3p! We’ll focus on why more companies and their executives are taking stands—whether over the most vexing social and political issues of the day, or by embedding sustainability and social impact into their everyday operations which, in our view, is taking a stand.

Image credit: Victor Freitas/Unsplash

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The Equinox saga shows that behind-the-scenes owners and investors are now expected to act in ways that reflect and support a brand's image.
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