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How not to navigate a political storm: three lessons all brands can learn from Equinox

By Allen Adamson

August 23, 2019 | 5 min read

In the current political landscape, every day brings with it another story of vitriol and divisiveness. It’s not just affecting people and their relationships with family and friends, but people and their relationships with brands.

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Given this volatile environment, companies need to be even more prepared to deal with what’s going on and the potential impact on their brands. The recent Equinox brand imbroglio, in which the gym’s financier Stephen Ross hosted a fundraiser for President Donald Trump, provides a good learning opportunity for all marketers – albeit, in this case, how not to navigate through these challenging political times.

Equinox has long positioned its brand as a champion of diversity and inclusiveness. So, after reports on the real estate investor’s political leanings emerged on social media, enraged Equinox members, including celebrities, called for a boycott of the company.

People started canceling their memberships in droves. Equinox executive chairman, Harvey Spevak, immediately came out with a press release, stating: “Ross is one of the investors, including myself. He does not run the company. I do. I am the executive chairman of Equinox and have led the vision and strategic direction of the company since I joined in 1999.”

Then, in the hopes of additionally diffusing this sensitive situation, matters were, instead, made even worse by an incredibly clumsy, wholly reactive, brand-saving attempt: Equinox would donate $1m among five charities.

Spevak wrote that “from 17-31 August, every check-in will be an opportunity for our members and employees to select how a donation will be allocated among the causes.” (Presumably, those who don’t cancel their memberships and boost their gym visits will have the most sway in deciding which charities get the largest payout.)

Given the continuing fallout, it’s evident that Equinox did not exactly exercise great branding judgment. Here are three lessons all brands can learn from this episode:

Align leadership values with employee and customer values

All senior leaders should be seen as, and act as, brand ambassadors. In a transparent world, consumers do their research when deciding to make a purchase or become a brand advocate. So when any major stakeholder makes a move that undermines a brand’s values, consumers can and will express outrage and break their ties.

Given the times in which we live, brands are likely to be hit by lightning sooner rather than later. The first line of defense in preparation for a potential values-centered crisis is to ensure everyone is on the same page in terms of core values, and speaks and behaves appropriately.

This said, if you know your leadership is not aligned with your brand values, deal with the situation preemptively. Either get them in alignment or get the message out there before it becomes a media tsunami. The best defense is a good offense.

Don’t rewrite the facts

Don’t justify. Don’t rationalize. Be authentic. Don’t tell people to ignore the person behind the curtain. In other words, be honest, direct and truthful.

Disingenuous management of public perception will almost always backfire, weakening your brand’s strength. Trying to spin your way out of a difficult situation will only make it worse.

Spevak’s remarks, trying to distance Ross from the brand, was a harmful move. There are legions of brands that have found themselves in hot water for one reason or another. Dealing with a situation in an above-board manner is essential to regaining your reputation and your authority as a brand. Anything other than telling the truth will only cause further damage.

Treat your customers with respect

The $1m initiative launched by Equinox was nothing short of a phony attempt to try and hastily patch up a politically volatile situation. You can’t close a surgical wound with a Band Aid.

The program was a transparent attempt to get members to stay members while putting them in the troubling position of having to choose between one worthy charity versus another

Linking your brand to a social cause is a strategic long-term effort. It’s not something thrown against the wall to mitigate an immediate crisis. Socially responsible initiatives need to genuinely reflect the brand’s values and the customer’s values, not be used as a distraction.

These polarizing political times will not end anytime soon. I can’t tell you how to deal with any differences of opinions between you and your family and friends. However, as you try to navigate your brand through these rocky times, I can tell you that it would be wise to learn from what Equinox did not do – namely, act as a brand of authenticity.

Allen Adamson is the co-founder of Metaforce and adjunct professor at NYU Stern Business

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