Who could have guessed that a brand like CrossFit, the popular fitness regimen, would top the headlines earlier this month? Affiliates, partners, and dedicated CrossFitters may have.
In a weekend tweet, CrossFit’s Co-Founder and then-CEO Greg Glassman’s response of “It’s FLOYD-19” to criticize a post by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation was outright shocking for the leader of a $4 billion brand. (A police officer killed George Floyd in May in Minneapolis, leading to worldwide protests.)
But by the time the tweet was aired, many affiliate gym owners were already fed up. Hours before, Glassman allegedly told gym owners in a private Zoom call, “I don’t think that there’s a general mourning for George Floyd in any community,” in partial response to why the company hadn’t put out a statement to condemn racism.
So, once his words hit Twitter, the fallout was swift. More than 1,250 gyms have disaffiliated, and 50 organizations and individuals have cut ties, including CrossFit’s highest-profile brand partner, Reebok. Ultimately, Glassman “retired” from his role as CEO on the evening of June 8 after backlash in the community grew. But fallout from the comments aren’t over with more high-level trainers, athletes, and owners vowing to disaffiliate from the brand.
“When a CEO doesn’t live up to the brand values that have been created, there’s a problem,” says Leslie Wingo, president and CEO of Sanders/Wingo, known for her speaking and consulting work in diversity, equity, and inclusion.
As we’ve written before, consumers expect more from brands now than they have in past generations. That attitude extends to brand affiliates. Brands with affiliates or franchises like CrossFit and Papa John’s (which had its own CEO debacle tied to insensitive remarks a couple of years ago) are held accountable by another vital standard.
“You have these affiliates across the planet who are also business owners,” she explains. These affiliates are judged by what the brand dishes out—both good and bad—and their entire livelihood is on the line.
Sound of Silence
And what about inaction? Is it worse? Remember that CrossFit was first criticized for its deafening silence. But is every brand—big or small, from Nike on down to your local dentist—responsible for declaring where they stand right now?
“[Brands] don’t want to say the wrong thing. They want to be politically correct (although being politically correct can be paralyzing). As a business owner, I get all of that,” Wingo admits. “But as a human being? And being a black woman in this moment when people actually see me for who I am…and are starting to get what I’ve been going through my whole life?
“I feel that brands have to say something. To recognize what is happening. And if they’re not comfortable making that statement, I don’t know how they’re going to recruit employees and even vendors or clients in the future.”
Employees are an essential constituency here as well. Brands including Bon Appetit and Refinery29 have had to come to terms with issues at the top lately due to whistleblower staffers and former employees fed up with racial inequity.
A Little More Action, Please
For brands to survive, Wingo says, they’ll have to first own up to those mistakes and do something about it.
“It’s one thing to say it. It’s another thing to believe it. And it’s a completely different conversation when brands are in action and doing things to be better,” she explains. “In my opinion, it can’t just be this one-off conversation. A ‘we did our diversity, equity and inclusion training’ or ‘we said this one thing and so we’re good now.’”
Lewis Williams, CCO and EVP at Chicago multicultural marketing firm Burrell Communications, told AdWeek that brands have to offer something measurable. Today’s consumers expect more than just words—especially after the way brands responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by throwing millions of dollars in donations at various communities.
Brands from the food industry, beauty industry and well beyond are putting their money where their statements are. Back in the sports and fitness arena, Trek Bicycles was given a wake-up call to do the same, although they haven’t responded as some would have hoped.
Dan Manco, principal of marketing and strategy consultancy at Live Oak Consulting and cycling enthusiast, brought the currently evolving Trek case study to our attention. During the nationwide protests, police were spotted using patrol bikes as weapons against demonstrators. Trek bikes were among them.
“There are a lot of ugly videos with Trek bikes,” Manco said. “They’ve been getting hammered in social media and by the bike industry press.”
Fuji Bikes, a competitor, swiftly answered calls to stop selling to police departments with a temporary suspension of sales of its police line “until a conversation with [police] departments has occurred and we are confident that real change is being made.”
Trek, however, made no such promise. The brand released a detailed “commitment to a better future” that includes five specific, measurable actions it plans to take. They involve creating 1,000 cycling industry jobs for people of color and investing $5 million over the next three years to establish new bike shops in underserved neighborhoods.
The brand called it their “all in” statement. But was it? Many cyclists, including Manco, were scratching their heads because it didn’t seem to answer the immediate question at hand. How will they help stop police from using their bikes as weapons?
Then, several hours after publishing the “all in” statement, Trek released a separate media statement, saying:
We have seen photos of Trek bikes used by police in ways that are abhorrent and vastly different from their intended use.
For over 25 years, we have seen police on bikes building relationships in the neighborhoods they serve. The past two weeks have turned the view of police on bikes from a community asset to a liability. A positive outcome of the protests is that we are starting to see real police reform discussed at local and national levels.
We believe bikes can play a positive role by continuing to get officers out of cars and armored trucks and into the community.
It’s not the answer protestors—and many customers—wanted, but is it an acceptable answer? Can they continue to sell to police departments (which doesn’t seem to be a big slice of their sales any way), while working toward a solution?
“The response so far is mixed,” says Manco.
Grace Moving Forward
“There’s no playbook for this point moving forward,” Wingo points out. When brands know better, they must do better.
“What worked six months ago or even six weeks ago, it’s not going to work today. And it’s not going to work in the future, either,” she says. “We are holding brands, CEOs, and people in positions of power to a different level of accountability. “This will not only be measured by balance sheets and VC funding, but also in human relationships.”
“Stonewalling won’t work. Honesty, taking responsibility, apologizing, and then a real action plan is a bare minimum,” says Manco. She adds that those first two actions can be non-starters with alpha C-level types. “If it’s done solely in house, things will be missed, and language and terminology can be used incorrectly, making matters worse.”
As for CrossFit? With Glassman gone, the brand has offered some explanations including (buried down deep) an apology:
We, the members of CrossFit HQ, have failed to meet a moment when the community wanted to hear from us most. For that, we extend our deepest and sincerest apologies. We are sorry.
No word yet on measurable actions to heal the hurt or to mend relationships with those who disassociated from them. But no doubt it’ll come in one way or another.
The generations behind us are going to ask, what did you do in this moment? If there were no actions to say ‘these are the things we’ve done,’ I truly believe it’s going to impact the bottom line [for years to come].
We’ve had the courageous conversations, and now we have points of reference. How do we get those points of reference into action? It’s not about feeling good. It’s about doing the right thing. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be worth it in the end.
—Leslie Wingo, president and CEO of Sanders/Wingo