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Why SoulCycle and Equinox could be especially vulnerable to boycotts

Protesters chant slogans and hold signs outside the luxury gym Equinox in West Hollywood, Calif., Aug. 9, 2019, during a demonstration against the gym and fitness company SoulCycle as well as against President Trump and his benefactor Stephen Ross, the billionaire owner of Equinox and SoulCycle. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Luxury fitness brands SoulCycle and Equinox faced a chorus of calls for a boycott last week over news that Stephen Ross, the billionaire chairman of the company that owns the fitness boutiques, was hosting a lavish fundraiser for President Trump at his home in the Hamptons.

Research shows that boycotts don’t tend to do long-term damage to companies’ bottom lines, and that only about a quarter of them bring about desired change at the institutions targeted. But SoulCycle and Equinox are nonetheless more vulnerable to the effects of a boycott because of how they market themselves as lifestyle brands, according to research by Mary-Hunter McDonnell and Brayden King, management professors who have compiled an extensive database of hundreds of corporate boycotts.

“Building a strong reputation as a socially responsible firm creates certain expectations, making incongruent behavior more noticeable and damaging to the firm’s image,” the authors wrote.

SoulCycle, for instance, sells itself as a “meditative fitness experience that’s designed to benefit the body, mind and soul.” It positions itself as a company that is pro-woman and pro-LGBTQ, and it partnered with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund to organize fundraising rides during Black History Month.

Similarly, Equinox’s tagline is “It’s not fitness. It’s life.” The company goes big on Pride Month promotions. In 2018 it unveiled a “line of one-of-a-kind luxury products” to feature “extraordinarily committed people and organizations.” Offerings included lipstick made from “blank newspaper pages from The Washington Post” and a perfume “infused with the actual DNA of Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon.”

Leaders of many companies believe marketing themselves in similarly “prosocial” ways will insulate them from criticism, McDonnell and King write: “Proactive social responsibility is thought to deter activists from opportunistically launching campaigns against a company.”

But their research showed the opposite. They compiled a database of boycotts against 189 firms between 1999 and 2005, culled from contemporary media reports. They measured the pro-social marketing of these firms by searching news release databases for releases from these companies dealing with “social justice and diversity initiatives, disaster relief, environmental protection programs, promotion of education, and support of the arts.” They compared these firms to other Fortune 500 companies that were not targeted by a boycott during the study period.

They found that companies that were more aggressive in their pro-social marketing were also more likely to be targeted by a boycott in a given year.

“Rather than buffering a firm from being targeted, these results suggest that a firm’s prosocial activity may make it more vulnerable to being targeted,” McDonnell and King wrote. “Firms that actively engage in prosocial activities and implicitly make claims about being socially responsible appear to synchronously be making themselves more shame-able.”

Ironically, McDonnell and King found that firms targeted by boycotts often respond by increasing their pro-social messaging. The classic example in this case is Nike: In the 1990s, the company was the target of boycotts over its use of sweatshop labor. The firm responded by changing its practices and overhauling its public image. It “now proudly touts its commitment to environmental responsibility, implementing environment-friendly policies that caused the Dow Jones Sustainability Index to include the firm,” as McDonnell and King wrote.

Whether SoulCycle and Equinox will undergo a similar transformation remains to be seen. Following the initial outcry, SoulCycle chief executive Melanie Whelan issued a statement saying the company “in no way endorses the political fundraising event” organized by Stephen Ross. On Friday, the company went on to announce that it was inviting each of its instructors to “teach a community ride for a cause of their choice,” donating the proceeds “to the social justice causes our instructors and studio teams select.” The statement noted the company planned to respond to the controversy with “diversity, inclusion, acceptance, and love.”

Ross’s Friday fundraiser went on as planned.