NEW YORK, United States — US fitness companies SoulCycle and Equinox are backpedalling after being embroiled in controversy due to their billionaire Chairman’s links to US President Donald Trump.
Over the weekend, the real estate mogul and private investor Stephen Ross, chairman of The Related Companies which owns Equinox Fitness and a 97% stake in SoulCycle, hosted a fundraiser that generated $13 million for Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.
It led to protests outside Equinox and SoulCycle studios and widespread outrage across social media, as people including model and TV host Chrissy Teigen and actress Sophia Bush, declared they would be cancelling their memberships.
A FIRST OF ITS KIND DIGITAL PLATFORM
The fierce public criticism has drowned out earlier news that SoulCycle and Equinox have partnered with a “first-of-its-kind digital platform for on-demand fitness content”, in direct competition with US at-home cycling giant Peloton as well as Technogym’s collaboration with 1Rebel in the UK.
Last Wednesday in an email to members, but lost among the Trump fundraiser backlash, SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan wrote: “I’m so excited to announce the launch of SoulCycle’s at-home bike experience, which captures the best of Soul, and delivers the magic of the room to you, everywhere.
“And this is only the beginning. Our at-home bike experience will launch in partnership with a first-of-its-kind digital platform for fitness content from SoulCycle, Equinox, Precision Run and more.
“This digital platform will work seamlessly – digitally and across our brands’ physical locations – to deliver you personalised experiences and immersive content from the best brands.”
More recently, Whelan has had to respond to the Trump news with a statement claiming the company had nothing to do with the fundraising event and adding: “Mr Ross is a passive investor and is not involved in the management of SoulCycle”.
WELLNESS TREND OF NEGATIVE PUBLICITY
The negative publicity follows a trend of wellness businesses getting into hot water with consumers after inadvertently aligning themselves with polarising politicians.
Earlier this summer better-for-you sausage brand Heck, one of the UK’s biggest sausage manufacturers, also sparked outrage following an ill-advised photo opp with the pro-Brexit British prime minister Boris Johnson.
With a string of sausages draped around his neck, Mr Johnson posed for pictures at Heck’s Yorkshire factory, holding two packs of “Boris Bangers” made in his honour.
The stunt led to the hashtag #BoycottHeck trending on Twitter with users pointing out the sausage maker’s largely Eastern European workforce and the hypocrisy of founder Debbie Keeble who had previously said Brexit would be “cataclysmic” for business.
The SoulCycle episode also bears similarities with celebrity-led calls for a boycott of luxury hotels the Dorchester in London, and the Beverley Hills in Los Angeles, due to their associations with the highly controversial Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah.
Bolkiah had proposed anti-LGBT laws mandating the stoning to death of gay people in the country he has ruled as a supreme monarch for decades. Celebrities including George Clooney, Elton John and Ellen Degeneres called for a boycott of Bolkiah’s luxury hotel business.
THE PERILS OF POLITICS
All of these examples highlight the perils of engaging in political discourse during an especially volatile and polarising time on both sides of the Atlantic.
Commenting on the Heck backlash, Emily Keogh, the MD of Palm PR & Digital, told PRWeek the publicity stunt backfired largely because it wasn’t consistent with the company’s past messaging.
She said: “Clearly, there is an awful lot of risk when brands decide to wade into politics and it is something that needs to be considered extremely carefully.
“The right time to do it is when it’s part of the deep value system and when it’s something of real importance to the company.”