How Peloton Came Unclipped: A master class in what happens when brand and empathy part ways
With the end of the year rapidly approaching, so begins a time for togetherness, giving thanks, and reflection. It also represents an advent of seasonal holiday adverts throttling us through every dopamine-inducing screen at our fingertips. There are hits, there are misses, there is cheese, and there is humor.
And then there is Peloton.
Image from Peloton’s Holiday Ad “The Gift that Gives Back”
You would be forgiven if at first viewing you thought “The Gift that Gives Back,” Peloton’s holiday spot that rolled out this last week, was intended as an ironic or even caustic reference to the age old ‘”male head-of-house surprises well-appointed wife with luxury car on their snowy drive replete with oversized bow and tinsel.” You know, those hyper-relatable and modern stories that connect with all of us in the season of giving, right?
It turns out it was not. In fact, Peloton’s response to the backlash was one of disappointment “in how some have misinterpreted this commercial.” This response, coupled with a dramatic decline in stock value (almost $1B drop), as well as a meek email to subscribers reducing the price of their subscription, are the signs of a brand coming loose from its moorings. More than a botched creative execution or PR gaffe, they are moments that betray a fraying understanding of their target audience as the company approaches maturity. Furthermore, these moments illustrate an unwillingness to see the truth in their brand and how it is (or is not) connecting. Stumbles like these can be momentary. Untenable, but salvageable. Or, if mismanaged, they are the harbingers of lengthy death by a thousand paper cuts.
Why was the public reaction so swift and visceral?
At Monigle, we view brand as intrinsically part of the human experience. We believe in humanizing brands. Moving people. More than emblems and logos, brands are vehicles for individual and collective identity. Brands have immense capacity to inspire and move people to action. Companies like Peloton have created an ecosystem of beautifully designed products, technologies that power a tribal community. They provide an experience that removes barriers and drives individuals toward achievement, capturing our collective imagination as consumers. Their power to connect and resonate begins and ends with a deep understanding of human needs, emotions, and the goal-oriented behaviors of real people. These foundations are what made Peloton so powerful in the first place…and why this past week has been such a disappointment.
Where exactly did Peloton go wrong?
From Peloton’s earliest days, the brand was centered on human truths and a system of content, product, technology, and experiences that unlocked a new category. Their early pitch deck demonstrated the red thread from emotional drivers to product to experience. But most powerful is what sat at the center of that world: Peloton’s role in removing barriers and making people feel empowered individually and part of a passionate, connected community, all at once.
Peloton’s Brand Wheel
In contrast, their holiday ad failed in two crucial ways:
1) The ad shifted the perspective in a jarring and uncomfortable way, and
2) It created what consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow referred to in AdAge as a “male fantasy ad.”
Did the protagonist of the story reap some of the emotional benefits from the brand? Certainly. But was she the hero? No. Was the community the hero? No. Were the instructors, the content, the bike the heroes? No. All of these options would have more directly connected the creative execution to their brand values. Intended or not, it was far too easy to interpret the male gifter as the hero, and that includes all its potentially demeaning and chauvinistic implications. To make matters worse, when their community raised their hand, they once again faltered telling people they weren’t seeing what they were seeing and attempting to stem the tide of negative backlash with a minimal and almost insulting price reduction.
So, enough piling on. What can brands learn to avoid similar pitfalls?
We’ve identified 3 key imperatives:
1) Put the human story at the center of your brand
Brands that move people share a common characteristic: they are anchored by a deep understanding of human motivations. One doesn’t arrive at that understanding by accident; it is cultivated by interacting and listening to the needs, emotional drivers, and values of their customers. Building a brand platform that contextualizes these core human motivations unlocks the ability to connect and create meaning beyond the functional attributes. It requires establishing mechanisms of interaction from ethnography and experience-mapping to more casual customer interactions and listening posts. In the end, understanding people is both foundational to brand creation and evergreen for sustaining a dynamic and sustainable brand.
2) Connect human insight to every aspect of the brand ecosystem
Deeply rooted connection to your customers unlocks brand potential far beyond a brand wheel. It enables you to connect that understanding to every aspect of your brand. In this way, brands can function as highly kinetic systems of meaning where every touchpoint and experience has the power to reinforce the value we create in peoples’ lives. Harnessing the power of empathy starts with turning insight into action, embedding it from the inside out, starting with onboarding employees, establishing behaviors, and sparking a positive culture. Only then can we strengthen the links between human need and product and experience design. Ultimately, human insight becomes more than a market research task; it becomes a force multiplier for our brand and a shared imperative for everyone throughout the organization.
3) When things go sideways, stay human
The world moves fast. No organization is gaffe-proof or inoculated from delivering a poor experience. That doesn’t mean we should lose our humanity. When employees, customers, or community call us out on our mistakes, there is no excuse, price reduction, or hastily crafted statement that can replace a simple mea culpa and promise to do better. We’re all human, after all. Act like it and we might just be rewarded.
Peloton may have strayed from what made the brand special, or at least its holiday advertising campaign has. But just as it is true for people, so too is it true for brands: it’s all in how we learn and respond. In the end, human-centered brands inspire, create meaning, and move people to action.