In August, righteous fitness buffs took to social media to protest Equinox and SoulCycle’s parent company’s connection to a Trump fundraiser, threatening to take their workout habits elsewhere. Two months later we wanted to know:
They talked the talk…
…but did they walk the walk?
…so read the signs held by protestors outside a West Hollywood Equinox gym. The luxury gym and the spin class mecca, SoulCycle, were the subject of a boycott the past August after it was revealed that Stephen Ross, the chairman of Related, the fitness chain’s parent company, was hosting a $100,000 a ticket Hamptons fundraiser for the reelection of President Donald Trump.
The boycott quickly made its way to social media as hashtags calling for people to cut their memberships to Equinox and SoulCycle and even to Blink Fitness, which Related also owns, in addition to a wide array of luxury real estate holdings including Hudson Yards. It appeared effective, too: not only were hashtags for #cancelequinox and #boycottequinox trending, but celebrities like Billy Eichner, Chrissy Teigen, and Michael Moore all tweeted that they would be ending their relationships with the clubs. Meanwhile, a Change.org petition calling for Equinox to quit Trump gained its own momentum. Its call to arms goes as such:
People were outraged – yes, outraged – over the favorite gym’s corporate connection to the Trump campaign. And the boycott got a ton of attention, at least according to Google.
The petition reached 12,500 signatures within a month and the media covered the efficacy of the boycott even speculating that the brands could suffer lasting damage. For a few summer days after the planned fundraiser was first reported, it seemed like that was all anybody was talking about. Then, the event happened, toasts were made, the chilled lobster bisque was served, checks were written, and the Trump campaign raised $12 million. And the boycott? Was it effective? Did it hurt the bottom lines of either SoulCycle or Equinox? Did social media outrage convert to consumer action or was it all talk? We decided to find out.
Did people actually stop going to Equinox or stop going to SoulCycle? Let’s see…
Since both Equinox and SoulCycle declined to share their own numbers, we analyzed status updates for signs of any significant change. Status updates are a widely accepted gauge of overall foot traffic to a business since, while not everyone announces they’re working out, enough people do to reveal fluctuations. And if you look at the pace of status updates posted from Equinox and SoulCycle you’ll see it began to slow in the midst of the public outrage.
Meanwhile, data collected by analytics company Earnest based on SoulCycle’s public-facing class booking system showed a decrease in class attendance immediately following the August 2019 boycott (which began right after August 8 when it was first revealed that Ross would hold the Trump fundraiser), causing some publications to declare the boycott successful.
But did it last or did many vocal critics just skip a day or two?
As of today, Equinox and SoulCycle appear to be doing just fine. Despite some high-profile membership cancellations and likely hundreds others, foot traffic growth hasn’t changed much. In fact, the number of selfies and status updates posted from Equinox to Facebook hasn’t slowed one bit during the so-called boycott, even when measured day-by-day.
While measuring the number of selfies and status updates posted from Equinox isn’t a perfect way to measure foot traffic, it does provide a proxy for activity, especially any severe movement. In this case, Equinox hasn’t seen a drop in activity when it comes to people posting selfies after their latest yoga or spin class draped in a eucalyptus towel.
But if Equinox is getting out of this unscathed when it comes to its core concern—that is, its revenue operations—that would imply to some that the boycott, despite the attention it received, was a failure.
But was the boycott a failure?
Not necessarily. It would be easy to declare that the boycott is dead and wrap up here, but it turns out that both Equinox and SoulCycle ended up making financial amends that appear to have quelled almost all digital activism targeting the brand. In August, Equinox’s executive chairman Harvey Spevak sent an email to gym members announcing that the gym would make $1 million in donations across five charities. The same week, SoulCycle announced on Instagram that it would encourage its instructors to host free community rides, with proceeds equivalent to the amount the classes would have cost going to charities of the instructors’ choice.
So did the boycott accomplish anything?
In order to answer that, one would have to look at back at Related and its portfolio—Equinox, SoulCycle, Blink, and its real estate developments. In addition to Hudson Yards, Related has also launched the Time Warner Center in New York and City Place in West Palm Beach.
In other words, the answer is: the boycott both worked and it didn’t. We live in a digital world in which reputation is both everything and nothing. While a movement like the one we saw in August can raise awareness and get a company to “do some good” as reparations, but it no longer means that company’s bottom line will be hurt. That’s partially because businesses like Equinox and SoulCycle reach across so many demographics, but it’s also because the companies that own them have such a deep reach and broad portfolio—from skyscrapers to David Chang restaurants—that a clean boycott is virtually impossible.
Gone are the days of shaming picket-line breakers. Gone are the days of starving a business into action. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see something like the 1955 Montgomery Bus boycott that effectively cut a bus company’s revenues by 55% in the space of 381 days—and that required actual walking in streets. With signs. In the cold. Outside. Considering the sacrifice it takes to skip a workout or two and post some self-righteous outrage on Instagram, perhaps when it comes to consumer boycotts, ultimately you get what you give.