This article is for the Professionals
Sign up to Inside Retail Professional now for only $5+GST for your first three months.
That's an 85% discount plus you’ll get FREE access to all Masterclasses during Retail Week. 5 retail industry leaders like you’ve never seen them before.Already a professional? Log in
· After the death of a six-year-old boy, which sparked a recall of its treadmills a few months ago;
· When it featured prominently in the last moments of a main character in the long-awaited reboot of Sex and the City, And Just Like That.
This raises the question: is all publicity good publicity? And what happens next?
The ad that kept on giving
Peloton’s 2019 holiday ad featured a husband gifting his wife a Peloton bike for Christmas. There was so much backlash about its sexist overtones that the actress playing the ‘Peloton wife’ was hired to spoof the character in an ad for Ryan Reynolds’ Aviator Gin where she is out drinking the gin with friends and, it is implied, no longer with the husband.
The ad went viral for unflattering reasons – because it was a bad ad. But it didn’t hurt the product’s reputation – just its reputation for ad making. The viral nature of the ad and the following spoof brought the brand a huge audience and made it memorable. Peloton was able to embrace it and use it as a launchpad for awareness and business growth.
If the ad made the product look bad, then that would have been a different story. In this case, talkability was a benefit.
Treading more carefully
In March 2021, Peloton CEO and co-founder John Foley posted a letter on the company website to inform readers of the death of a young child in an incident involving a Peloton treadmill. A US Consumer Product Safety Commission investigation revealed that it had received 72 reports of adults, children, pets and objects being pulled under the rear of Peloton’s Tread+ machines, including the 6-year-old who died.
This was understandably damaging for Peloton, which was not only impacted by the perception of the product for a period but it also meant there was nothing else the brand could talk about for a while. Peloton issued a recall of its treadmills and, in the ensuing months, the brand’s communication was focused on issuing refunds and how it was working to improve the safety of its product.
While none of this compares to the unbelievable pain felt by those who experienced loss and injury, this set Peloton back in its work towards growing its customer base and encouraging loyalty.
Peloton had been an early winner in the pandemic as people sought at-home workout equipment, but sales had begun to wane as the US returned to ‘business as usual’. The recall was a blow to already declining sales and diminished future potential.
Peloton and the city
Peloton’s latest appearance, in the highly anticipated Sex and the City series And Just Like That, has stirred up talkabiilty for the brand once again.
Near the end of the episode, Carrie’s husband Mr Big dies from a heart attack (in a very unrealistic way) after taking a Peloton class. Within hours of the show airing in the US, shares in Peloton dropped 11 per cent.
Peloton was just as surprised as viewers were by the plot twist. And while show developer Michael Patrick King said Peloton had “nothing to do with the heart attack”, social media commentators thought otherwise.
Peloton sprang into action, with a media release featuring a cardiologist and social media posts explaining that its at-home fitness equipment is designed to improve physical health and doesn’t lead to health complications, and that an indulgent lifestyle was likely to blame for Mr Big’s death.
Peloton had worked with the producers of And Just Like That, loaning them the bike and arranging for star instructor Jess King to play her fictional counterpart, Allegra. Perhaps the marketing executives thought the product placement would have a similar effect to the cult status SATC gave to Manolo Blahniks. They were not aware the character would die after experiencing the product and I bet they regret not asking more questions!
Given that Peloton had spent the early part of the year with its brand linked to a child’s death, the storyline may have hit a little too close to home. Peloton could reasonably consider litigation, especially since HBO did not disclose the storyline involving the product and the use of their brand tarnished Peloton’s reputation and disparaged its product’s key claims, which are to make its customers fitter and healthier.
Rather than take legal action, however, Peloton decided to turn lemons into lemonade with a strategy that worked well for them in the early stages of their brand: a Ryan Reynolds spoof.
Lemonade, not litigation
This course might have forfeited their grounds for legal action, but given that this is all about perception, it is important to consider how many consumers view companies as being litigious. There is still an inherent bias against a company going to court over a fictional depiction, particularly as there’s a perception that it implies guilt, that is, that the company believes it could actually happen.
The whole reason for Peloton participating in SATC, was to win over the show’s huge audience, so in order to redeem itself, it needed to respond in a way that would give them that chance.
In the response commercial, Jess King (‘Allegra’) and Chris Noth, who plays Mr Big on the show, are seen cosied up in front of a crackling fireplace. They ‘toast’ “to new beginnings” – a reference to the Aviator Gin commercial – though without any booze in sight – and he suggests “another ride” because “life’s too short no to”. They look behind the sofa at a Peloton bike as a voiceover by Ryan Reynolds reminds viewers of the health benefits of cycling: “And just like that, the world was reminded that regular cycling stimulates and improves your heart, lungs and circulation … He’s alive.”
Key to the ad’s success was its fast turnaround – Reynolds’ marketing company produced the 38-second clip in under 48 hours – so it could follow the momentum of the show. Reynolds shared the video as an ‘Unspoiler alert’ and Peloton CEO Foley tweeted it out using the caption: “He’s alive.”
It would have cost a fortune, but in desperate times…
For a brand that started with hype and talkability, that then struggled to maintain recognition and buzz, this has brought back talkability and some relevance. But is this beneficial? Just because the brand is now cemented in SATC popular memory, will it lead to an increase in sales? Or is the brand collateral damage?
Renew the conversation
Using famous figures such as Ryan Reynolds, Chris Noth (although he is now under scrutiny as a result of recent accusations of sexual assault, prompting Peloton to pull the ad in recent days) and Jess King may be a way forward for Peloton, which needs to shake off negative connotations and start a new conversation. It’s not enough to be known for what you are not – you need to be known for what you are for.
When people say “all publicity is good publicity” this implies that every time a brand or person is talked about in the media – good or bad – it is beneficial because it gets people talking. But this ignores one key component of publicity.
Being featured in the media does two things – creates awareness and cements credibility and reputation – but the concept of “all publicity is good publicity” only looks at awareness. So, while all media coverage or publicity might get your name in front of more people, ideally relevant people, you also need to ask: does it elevate my reputation or hurt it?
Media mentions are rarely neutral. They almost always portray a perception of what you are like. And since awareness is not the only thing that prompts people to make decisions, such as the decision to spend money with you, not all publicity is good publicity.
To elevate your reputation and further your credibility, you want to make sure any publicity positions you well, and to make your media coverage worthwhile, you want to make sure that all publicity is relevant, seen by the right people, and consistent in its message.
With that in mind, do you think Peloton is on the right track?