Comment on Peloton’s ad is bad, but it will ultimately benefit the brand by Mark Young

A beautiful 20-something woman descends the stairs hand-in-hand with her equally beautiful five-year-old daughter. The snow is falling outside but the young mum is oblivious to the weather because she has her hand across her eyes. “Now!” shouts her husband and she lowers her hand to see….an exercise bike.

“A Peloton?” she exclaims with a look of wonder plastered across her face. The next 30 nauseating seconds follow ‘Peloton Woman’ through the subsequent 12 months she spends filming herself working out on her new stationary bike. After her year of biking/filming, she replays her home video to her husband on their giant plasma screen as she sits nervously next to him awaiting his endorsement and affection.

“I had no idea how much this would change me,” she concludes earnestly. “Thank you,” she says on the recording.

As the ad reaches it denouement she gazes up at her husband with a mixture of awe and adoration.

There is so much to hate in these 30 seconds that it’s hard to conceive this ad was made as anything other than pastiche or an attempt at brand suicide by a disgruntled marketing employee. The idealistic lifestyle of the couple. The fact that the pre-bike mum is a supermodel and already preternaturally thin. The weird obsession/adoration for her off-screen husband. This cloying, continual need for approval and endorsement seems entirely at odds with an actual, functioning relationship between equals.

And then there is the creepy, overbearing role of the husband. He who buys exercise equipment for his wife. Who films her while telling her to keep her hands over her eyes (don’t look until I say!). And the diminutive way that Peloton Woman looks at Peloton Man, which gets worse every time you watch it.

Peloton missed a huge brand opportunity with its sexist ad

Even the title of the ad, ‘The Gift that Gives Back’, is strange and uncomfortable. It suggests a man giving something to his wife in order to benefit himself from her eventual improved appearance. Icky.

This is an ad that was clearly made by not only men, but men who have managed to avoid having a serious adult relationship with a woman their whole life. If I, and I suspect other real men in real marriages, had tried this festive “surprise” it would have gone down very differently:

Real Man: Put your hands over your eyes.

Real Wife: Fuck off.

[Real Wife pauses to take in what Real Man has done.]

Real Wife: You bought me an exercise bike for Christmas? [Long silence. Not a good one.] You ride it. Go on. Get pedalling, fat boy. I’m going to get my phone and film this…get pedalling!

Media blowback

Even in the US, where there is traditionally a greater tolerance for the clichés of personal transformation and positive aspiration, the ad has gone down sensationally badly. Despite only airing for two weeks, it has already become a rallying call for those intent on improving the gender imbalance within advertising, and specifically its creative departments.

The ad was also widely debated across the talk shows of America last week and covered extensively in the news media. Saturday Night Live, still the key indicator of the American Zeitgeist, went hard over the weekend with several cutting references to Peloton including a new sexist strapline for the brand: ‘You’d better keep it tighter than the babysitter.’

And then things went properly meta last week. As the negative coverage grew, its star, the actress Monica Ruiz, was approached by Ryan Reynolds and his team at Aviation Gin. Ruiz agreed to reprise her role as the, now apparently single and bikeless, Peloton Woman. In the new ad, released online, she sits at the bar with her two best friends toasting new beginnings and slamming down Martinis.

For Peloton, the ad was no laughing matter. While the company’s leadership has stayed tight-lipped over the campaign, shares in the exercise company fell by 15% as the criticism of the ad intensified last week.

Let’s acknowledge three things and then have a more serious discussion about what it does and does not tell us about brand building. First, this was a shit ad. Second, there are troubling gender portrayals contained within it that are so badly executed they invite ridicule and should also spur criticism. Third, the combination of crass ad and badly misconstrued gender relations created a surge of almost completely negative sentiment.

But here’s the challenging point: was it bad for the Peloton brand?

The answer to this much trickier question depends on your take on the nature of brand equity. And your answer to that question – what is a brand? – should be clear and squared away in your mind if you fancy yourself as a proper marketer. All too often, brands fall foul of being run by people who want to build them without first achieving clarity on what they believe a strong brand actually consists of.

I would suggest that there are two main schools of thought when it comes to answering the brand question. The first consists of old-school Kellerites – named after famed branding professor Kevin Keller. They believe that brand is a combination of two things: awareness and associations. Brand awareness is close to a ‘gateway variable’, in that once it has been achieved all the focus and branding investments go on creating and reinforcing brand associations, fashioning a differentiated image for the brand.

There is such a thing as bad publicity. Brands can and do fall foul of scandals that generate tons of publicity but also cost them dearly in the market place.

For Kellerites a brand is a precarious construct. Any inconsistency or contradiction can impact brand image and thus damage the commercial prospects of the company. Seen this way, the Peloton ad is a disaster because its associations of clunky, outdated sexism run directly counter to the contemporary, egalitarian image that the company wants to project.

The second school sits at exactly the other end of the spectrum from the Kellerites. We can call them Sharpists after the Dark Lord himself, Byron Sharp. Sharp does believe in a form of differentiation but it’s a form that is bland to the point of meaninglessness.

Indeed, many of the disciples of this approach trumpet the idea of “meaninglessly distinctive” as one way to explain their point of view. The target consumer can perceive brands to have different names, sizes, availability but little more beyond that.

The main goal is to achieve distinctiveness and strong mental availability, not a differentiated brand image. Unlike brand awareness, the concept of mental availability can and will fade from consumer view, so its upkeep becomes a central challenge for brand managers.

Sharpists would see the Peloton ad very differently from Kellerites. Their critique of the ad itself would be no less merciless but their ultimate prognosis would be that it would do little damage, and perhaps some good, to the brand.

The ubiquity of the Peloton name. The exposure to the ad itself. The shots of the bike in use. All serve the broader branding goal of mental availability. And for a brand like Peloton, which might be famous among marketers but is less well known both globally and among the broader socioeconomic swathes of America, such references and entry points are likely to result in a net positive.

The true effect on the brand

These days I sit closer to the Sharpist side of the see-saw than the Kellerite end. There is a dramatic lack of evidence to prove that brands, once you control for their differential sizes, actually do stand for different things in the market.

That is probably as much a function of measurement limitations and brand managers attempting to prove too many ephemeral associations, but it also speaks to the massive gap between how marketers talk about differentiation and what anyone actually achieves. More importantly, over many years of observing apparently brand image-destroying events there seems to be a general lack of subsequent market impact in most cases.

My favourite example was back in 2016, when Unilever raised the price of its Marmite brand as a response to the falling value of the pound after the Brexit referendum. Tesco pushed back against the move and threatened to delist the brand from its stores. The response earned Tesco tremendously positive coverage in the general media while Marmite was hammered for its opportunistic and greedy pricing.

Marmite sales soar as price row boosts brand awareness

The argument was quickly resolved but it took a significant toll on Marmite’s brand image for several subsequent weeks. YouGov’s BrandIndex showed a massive slump in Marmite’s brand perception among British shoppers. Marmite’s brand reputation, value perception and purchase intent also all fell severely after the pricing saga.

You’d be hard-pushed to find a more significant or sudden impact on a brand’s image than what happened to Marmite back in October 2016. It’s a perfect storm for Kellerites, who believe that image, reputation and perception are the building blocks for brand success.

So how do we explain the fact that, during this period of unpopularity, national Marmite sales increased 61% compared to the same period in the previous year? A statistically significant decline in brand image, value and stated purchase intent resulted in record sales lift. What?

The answer comes down to the greater power of salience and distinctiveness over differentiation and image. ‘Do I come to mind?’ appears to be more important than how I present myself once I pop up there. That’s a very disappointing discovery for marketers, who have convinced themselves that their brand is an important part of culture and a major player in consumer lifestyles – but that does not stop it from being true.

And that means that Peloton can expect a bumper Christmas not despite, but because of, the extensive negative coverage that surrounded its new ad, as consumers who gleefully tut-tutted at the inane execution found themselves later perusing Peloton website’s for a look at its bikes and special offers.

Staying the right side of the line

But before we swing completely to the Sharpist end of the spectrum, we need to address another uncomfortable truth. Everything we have discussed thus far suggests that image is pointless and awareness is everything. If we were to extend this idea to its ultimate conclusion then there is, to quote a million bad marketers, no such thing as bad publicity.

You’ve seen this argument as many times as me, you know how it goes. Yes, it’s a shit ad or stupid promotion but at least people are talking about it. Ergo: great marketing.

But there is such a thing as bad publicity. Brands can and do fall foul of scandals that generate tons of publicity but also cost them dearly in the market place.

Thomas Cook did not get a surge of bookings with the news that it was perched precariously close to bankruptcy. Gillette saw nothing but decline in the market after it woke-washed its way through toxic masculinity. WeWork’s occupancy rates declined during the third quarter of 2019 despite this being a period in which the brand was rarely out of the headlines.

Talk of crisis could be a death spiral for Thomas Cook

Brand image does have impact. But it comes with a couple of big caveats.

First, you cannot prioritise image over mental availability. The old research model of two questions for awareness and then 28 on how the brand is perceived across a raft of increasingly arcane and obscure attributes no longer passes muster. Maintaining salience is a brand manager’s biggest job. It can happen accidentally – as with Peloton – or through a more strategic, deliberate management approach. But it should be top of the list.

Brands are certainly much smaller, less important things than we all used to believe and they do not have a dozen unique associations that drive purchase and which, when contradicted, send the brand into a spiral of sales decline.

But some degree of brand image is important for some brands. If a consumer is buying a holiday for a date six months in the future and your brand is perceived to be financially perilous versus the other options in the market, you will lose out. If you position a brand on masculinity, then suddenly raise a badly pointed finger in that direction and make masculinity the problem, your brand will go backwards.

All publicity is not good publicity. But most publicity is. Provided it does not completely undermine the central position of a brand to its target market. The Peloton ad does not do this. Yes, it is stupid, sexist, weird shit. But it has also resulted in tens of millions of people seeing the brand, the product and the proposed benefit of the bike.

In a Kellerite world of brand image, this would be a giant fail. In the bleaker Sharpist environs of the 21st century, Peloton will emerge not only unaffected but actually in better shape as a result.

The trickier question here is whether Peloton is actually better off with this clunky ad versus a better constructed, more appropriate one. A better ad would have built the brand in a more acceptable, aspirational manner but the ensuing lack of coverage and debate would have reduced its reach by a factor of 50. Are you better off crafting a consistent ad that reaches the few, or a work of great stupidity that reaches the many?

The obvious answer, of course, is to do both and generate a ton of debate while staying on brand at all times – something Ryan Reynolds and his Aviation Gin understand all too well.

The issue for marketers is that too many of them grew up in a risk-averse, image-centric world, which limited the distinctiveness they could achieve. They’d have done better with a looser grip on image and a more determined focus on mental availability at all costs. The consistency drowns out the controversy and the brand loses as a result.

Sure, an on-brand and distinctive message is the best outcome. But if you had to choose between a perfect image or enormous distinctiveness, you’d always plump for the latter.

And that should teach brand managers a very important lesson. Don’t panic too much about brand image. Don’t spend your life aiming for semantic perfection and the total control of all the touchpoints. Instead, push hard to be out there, all the time. Yes, you want to manage brand consistency but not at the cost of coverage, impact and notoriety.

In an age where we have commoditised outrage and any move seemingly garners complaints from at least one sector of society, it is easy for marketers to pull in their heads, tortoise-like, and manage brands with obsequious trepidation.

That would be a mistake. You have to get close to the line to have any impact. Cross it occasionally. Fuck with it. Take some risks. In the contemporary world of brand management, making a statement, even when it is dunderheaded, is often more important than the statement itself.

Right, back to the pedalling.

Scroll to Top