What Happened to Grace from Boston?
By Rachel Fox
It’s been decried as everything from sexist and dystopian, to cringe-worthy and tone deaf.
When at-home fitness equipment company Peloton released its 2019 holiday ad, it had the entire internet spinning its wheels. Normally, a campaign with this type of buzz is a win for a brand in the busy holiday season, but what the company thought would be an inspirational anecdote to spike sales was instead a genuine nightmare before Christmas. “The Gift That Gives Back” took away more than Peloton got back: the brand lost more than $1.5 billion in value—a 15 percent plunge in its market cap. This hard backlash might be surprising for a 30-second commercial which seems fairly benign—it’s about a woman whose husband buys her a Peloton fitness bike for Christmas.
And for the first five seconds of the ad, it is indeed quite benign. Holding hands with her young daughter as she sees the bike for the first time, the woman—”Grace from Boston”—appears excited. Then the ad abruptly transforms into an episode of Black Mirror. The woman documents her Peloton workout journey for a year, showing viewers how she rushes home from work to jump on the bike, wakes up at 6AM to squeeze in a sunrise spin, and feels a sense of awe-struck validation when the spin instructor cheers her on by name. What viewers initially saw as a look of gratitude for a luxury present is instead reinterpreted as an expression of terror. By the ad’s conclusion, the audience realizes they have been watching a spliced-together “thank you” video given to the woman’s husband the following Christmas to show him just how much she has changed.
The woman begins her Peloton journey already fit and shows no outward signs of change during the year depicted. In an effort to shift fitness marketing away from the before and after visuals of physical transformation, Peloton instead attempts to show a metamorphosis of the soul. Of course, the lack of an easily perceived difference prompts an unsettling audience question: “If the change wasn’t physical, what did that bike do to her?” Emotional change is hard to translate in a 30-second video. By speaking to the complex personal journey the brand’s core adherents understand, Peloton shut itself off from a growth opportunity.
When brands assume all of their customers fit a single persona, the trust and loyalty of a diverse customer base begins to erode, and alienated audiences end up running into the arms of competitors.
Peloton’s problem lies in the fact that the internal transformation it claims to provide is from a singular perspective. While the company’s hardcore ride-or-dies may share this view and understand exactly what the commercial was trying to portray, the larger, casual consumer audience was left scratching their heads. Not everyone sees themselves in the Peloton woman. Underneath the patriarchal dystopian veil, the journey shown in the commercial is clearly aspirational, yet most consumers who buy into the same dream (being thin, strong, hardworking, and content) don’t start off looking like “Grace from Boston.” For a brand that sees themselves in the fitness experience business, Peloton offers a narrow definition for what the proper experience—and result—should be.
By showing audiences what the “right” Peloton metamorphosis looks and feels like, the brand comes off as unrelatable to all but the most die-hard customers. The result is successfully alienating three groups: current riders who don’t like the way they were depicted, potential riders who didn’t see themselves in Peloton’s depiction, and a broader world of people who may never have become a customer, but still felt compelled to voice their distaste.
When a brand manages to upset its current customers, future customers, and their non-riding friends in 30 short seconds, it may have misunderstood its audience. And, no matter which of these matters most, the impact has negative reverberations.
When Peloton first launched, it targeted an audience with a high net worth who saw the appeal—and were willing to pay an unprecedented amount for—a high end stationary exercise bike. The company’s early ads were focused solely on an affluent demographic and depicted riders working out in their expansive luxury homes. Owning a Peloton was about more than a piece of fitness equipment—it was an important sign of success, and an activity that signaled belonging to a certain social set.
Four years after launching, Peloton realized it was missing out on the market of ordinary consumers who were willing to make the hefty investment in their fitness. Research showed that its bikes were also going into modest guest rooms and finished basements of middle-class homes, so Peloton began to pivot. The company rolled out financing plans, added larger sizes to its branded merchandise, and began showing ads in all types of homes.
Peloton’s appeal lies in creating a community of connected riders and instructors from around the country—all from the sanctuary of a rider’s home. People define themselves by the communities in which they participate, and Peloton’s had made theirs so aspirational that it drew in an increasingly broader set of riders, no doubt fueled as much by how they wanted to be perceived as by the convenience of the equipment itself.
Yet, this compelling brand story seems gets lost in campaigns like “The Gift That Gives Back,” which is light on community, and heavy on the type of mindless isolation that might be found in a cult. It confuses viewers just as much as it fuels Twitter fodder. Towards the end of the ad, the Peloton Wife says to her video diary, “A year ago, I didn’t realize how much this would change me.” That change is unclear to the audience, and their imagination fills that void of uncertainty with the type of sinister thoughts neither Peloton nor its customers would prefer to be associated with (and, given the fluctuation in stock price, investors, as well).
Brands who don’t build a solid strategic foundation with their core story often see their tactical campaigns fall flat. Peloton, to its credit, invested in the right foundation. But it then committed the cardinal sin of veering away from a story-driven growth strategy: allowing tactics (which might appear to be effective) to deviate from the strategy. While “The Gift That Gives Back” generated an abundance of brand buzz, it failed to communicate the purpose Peloton had invested so much in: empowering people to be the best versions of themselves. And when a brand strays from its narrative and its reason for existing, audiences tune out; campaigns and marketing aren’t a brand’s story; story is the strategy.
A brand is defined by its purpose. But its strategy story becomes how people perceive the company, and when other messages or actions are inauthentic to that narrative, customers notice. Peloton’s mission statement underpins its brand story of connection and community, yet its principles aren’t clearly reflected in the ads it creates. Its “Peloton Difference” calls it a “platform to connect, bond, inspire and grow stronger together,” but the only thing “The Gift That Gives Back” is inspiring is parody and critique.
Peloton seems to blame its customers for misunderstanding the ad: “We constantly hear from our members how their lives have been meaningfully and positively impacted after purchasing or being gifted a Peloton Bike or Tread, often in ways that surprise them,” a spokesperson said. “Our holiday spot was created to celebrate that fitness and wellness journey. While we’re disappointed in how some have misinterpreted this commercial, we are encouraged by—and grateful for—the outpouring of support we’ve received from those who understand what we were trying to communicate.”
Peloton’s passive aggressive non-apology is akin to the breakup retort, “I’m sorry you feel that way”—and that’s not a good look for any brand. When a brand’s message is so universally misconstrued, the disconnect is probably on the end of the storyteller, not the customer. Peloton’s statement makes it clear it doesn’t agree. Ironically, the brand has an effective strategic story and position, but instead of doubling down on that and reframing the execution of this individual message, Peloton undermines itself by emphasizing a single spot that is fairly unimportant in the broader scheme of its brand.
This misstep not only cost the brand market share, it made potential customers reevaluate who they want to give their business to—and whether or not Peloton’s values align with their own.
When a product is exceptional, attracting early customers isn’t a major hurdle—they just “get it.” In order for a brand to truly evolve, however, the organization requires a framework that all stakeholders can align behind, and that can resonate with a mass market, if necessary. That is brand story. A story told through a narrow lens always limits the audience who consumes it, and when a company has a community of hardcore believers, like Peloton, outside perspective is necessary in order to get its messaging right.
Rachel Fox is a manager at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss how we can help tell your story.