No More SoulCycle—What’s the Role of Brands in Today’s Politics?

After the second Democratic debate, Kool-Aid weighed in after being directly mentioned by Sen. Cory Booker. USA Today declared Kool-Aid as the “official winner” of the debate. Although an overwhelming number of people on social media agreed, declaring that the company’s PR team deserves a raise, some also expressed displeasure, with calls for corporate brands to “stay out of it.”

Two weeks later, Equinox and SoulCycle faced immense backlash after the chairman of its parent company, Stephen Ross, unveiled plans to host a pro-Trump Hamptons fundraiser. Frequent customers of the gym and cycling classes tend to be liberal-leaning, who chose to be loyal to the companies based on similar values but found themselves feeling betrayed by Ross’s political leanings.

There is a marked difference between the two events— Kool-Aid, as a company, chose to be political, while Stephen Ross, an individual, did so while happening to be linked to two of the most popular fitness companies in the U.S. It was, however, more than enough to elicit public responses from celebrities and other brands alike. Huge names like Jonathan Van Ness and Sophia Bush canceled their memberships and pledged not to go to classes, and responses by the companies themselves weren’t persuasive.

Both companies expressed their lack of affiliation with and support for the event and pledged charity initiatives, like SoulCycle hosting over 350 free rides and Equinox’s $1 million donation to charitable organizations. It didn’t make much of an impact though, as seen by an email shared by Chrissy Teigan that showed the high volume of subscription cancellations Equinox received.

The sense of betrayal was heightened by the companies’ participation during #Pride, which Wilson Cruz labeled as “masquerading as a corporate ally.”

In light of the backlash, multiple fashion companies, such as Rag & Bone, have pulled out of fashion shows at Stephen Ross’s Hudson Yards.

Corporate brands haven’t had positive outcomes when they choose to publicly support conservative, pro-Trump agendas. Chick-Fil-A, which is inching closer and closer to opening a store in Back Bay, has had a difficult journey, fighting against a Boston ban. In 2012, then-mayor Thomas M. Menino asserted that Chick-Fil-A, known for its religious ties and homophobic views, doesn’t have a place in the city because “You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against the population.” Though some swear by their chicken nuggets, many also boycott the restaurant and opt for alternatives like Shake Shack.

The same holds for anti-Trump sentiments. We’ve seen similar actions fold out in other instances— Ben & Jerry’s political flavors come to mind— and consumers weren’t thrilled, calling for the ice cream brand to focus on the product instead of “political garbage” and sparking outrage from customers who wanted to see the brand take on other issues, like supporting veterans and first responders.

A provocative headline on The Cut, titled “Unfortunately All These Millennial Brands Have to be Canceled Too,” subtly calls into question the feasibility of modern cancel culture and how much consumer behavior should be tied to politics. In the article, Bridget Read lists all the companies Ross has a hand in, ranging from the organic tampon brand Lola to the Miami Dolphins.

Boycotting Ross means more than no Equinox and SoulCycle. It also means no more of Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar and no more of its Cambridge store neighbor, &pizza, among lots of other innovative businesses.

Are you boycotting? How much do your spending habits depend on brand activism?

 

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