Jun 16, 2020

How One Tweet Is Destroying the CrossFit Brand and What Every Business Owner Needs to Learn From It

14 characters. That’s all it took to irreparably damage the CrossFit brand.

Greg Glassman, founder of CrossFit, posted a bizarre tweet on June 6, “It’s FLOYD-19.”

It didn’t make sense. He was replying to a tweet by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation that wrote, “Racism and discrimination are critical public health issues that demand an urgent response. #BlackLivesMatter”

What was he thinking?!

Since the start of the crisis I have been saying, your company won’t survive the coronavirus if it’s perceived as opportunistic or icky.

A tone-deaf tweet can damage a brand. After Covid-19 and George Floyd, a tone-deaf, implicitly racist tweet can destroy a brand.

The backlash was fast and furious:

  • Reebok and Rogue Fitness cancelled their partnership with CrossFit HQ.
  • Top tier athletes like Rich Froning and Tia-Clair Toomey publicly spoke out and distanced themselves from the brand.
  • Thousands of CrossFit Affiliate owners are de-affiliating and rebranding.

For a company that’s entire business model is based on its brand — from naming rights and affiliate fees — CrossFit may never recover from this tweet.

Naming Created a Unified Community

Before coronavirus, and long before Glassman’s tweet, I posted on LinkedIn, “CrossFit may be the greatest branding story in recent memory.” The economics of the model are stunning. It is reported CrossFit generates over $100 million in licensing revenue annually.

What Greg Glassman did brilliantly was name workouts.

For generations, fitness coaches have been writing custom workouts. Glassman’s big innovation was to name his routines: Cindy, Fran, Angie, etc. (The girls.) If you want to level up you can do a “Hero WOD”: Murph, Nate, Luce, etc..

These names may sound like gibberish if you’re not a crossfitter, but if you’ve been to a box you know what I am talking about.

Giving something a name creates meaning. You can walk into any box (CrossFit gym), see the WOD (workout of the day, another great name), and participate. That common language helped the brand scale to over 15,000 affiliates worldwide.

Names make ideas meaningful and shareable, and that built a global community. People identify as “crossfitters.” For them, it’s more than a sport; it’s a lifestyle.

Brand-Distancing Out of Self-Preservation

In Brand New Name, my latest branding book, I write, “The name you choose for your brand will become the label by which people understand it. It will contain all the meaning and experiences that make up your business.”

Glassman’s actions have inserted toxic and damaging meaning into the CrossFit name, and the timing of the tweet could not have come at a worse time.

Gym owners are “bleeding” as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Their facilities have been closed since March (even earlier in Europe and Asia). Some owners have been able to pivot to virtual programs and retain their members, but many have not.

CrossFit affiliates are disgusted by the tweet and they are listening to their members and the community. They hear the anger, and they are responding. Thousands of CrossFit affiliates have already cancelled their affiliation with CrossFit HQ (the parent company).

Ashley Baynes, owner of CrossFit Barrie, shared on Facebook, “We are choosing not to reaffiliate. Our affiliation comes up at the end of June, and we will de-affiliate. Which means removing ourselves from the CrossFit brand.”

Shortly after that post, CrossFit Barrie changed its name to Ready Fitness Barrie.

There are hundreds more examples like this: CrossFit Limestone changed its name to Limestone Athletics; CrossFit Outbreak changed its name to BK Fit; CrossFit Invictus changed its name to Invictus Fitness; to name a few.

A Branding Nightmare (and CrossFit Affiliates Are Making a Mistake)

My heart goes out to all the box owners (affiliates) who are dealing with this branding nightmare. Coronavirus already created a fight for your life — both your health and your business — and then Glassman’s tweet tarnished the brand.

De-affiliating and changing brand names is justified, but the process affiliate owners are taking is flawed: They are moving too fast, and not building effective communication plans to pour the contents from one vessel (the CrossFit name) to the new vessel (the new box name).

Changing your brand name without a clear strategy may be worse for your business.

Think of it this way: Imagine you change your name to Jebediah. You do the process smoothly and swiftly:

  • Pick a new name
  • Change your website and URL
  • Update all your social media handles
  • Update your branding

Since you’re motivated, you complete the whole rebranding process and announce the name change in less than two weeks. Then your back to business as usual — operating and marketing yourself under the new name.

The problem is your friends, family and colleagues have known you by your name your whole life. Simply telling them you changed your name to Jebediah won’t stick.

And then how will they find you? If someone can’t remember your new name, how will they find you on social media? The old name has been overwritten and no longer comes up in search results.

The same thing is happening with CrossFit affiliate owners. They are moving with lightning speed to distance themselves from Greg Glassman, but may be creating irreparable damage to their businesses in the process.

Changing a brand name is a process. You’ve got to pour the contents from one vessel to the other.

  • In a best case scenario, CrossFit affiliates should run both names in parallel, and have a deliberate communication strategy to educate members, past members, and future members of the change.
  • If possible, run Google Adwords and social media ads to direct people searching for the old name to the new site.
  • At every touch point — from signage to social media to website to workout postings — make it clear how and why the name is changing.

Most importantly, take time. My advice: market and communicate the name change for a minimum of 18 months.

The Community Is the Brand

The biggest challenge for CrossFit affiliate owners is their business model is based on a community that self-identifies as crossfitters.

I grew up as a skateboarder and snowboarder. As a kid, I was all into that lifestyle: from the sport to the clothing to the music to my friends. It was who I was.

A crossfitter is more than a person that does high intensity interval training (HIIT), CrossFit is part of their personal identity.

De-affiliating, or decoupling, an individual gym from the community poses risks that are potentially greater to the affiliate owner than Glassman’s tweet. How does an individual gym — which is a small business dependent on a unifying sport and brand identity — connect itself to the community when it cannot use the name, CrossFit?

Some affiliates have large enough memberships and community awareness to weather this storm, but many will not. The community is connected with the name CrossFit, and now it’s fracturing.

In just 14 characters, Greg Glassman not only damaged his business (he is the sole owner of CrossFit Inc. and CrossFit HQ), he put almost 15,000 affiliates’ businesses at risk.

A Lesson After Coronavirus

After Covid-19 and George Floyd, you cannot afford to be tone deaf, opportunistic or icky. Emotions are frayed. People are hurting and they are sensitive. Seemingly small “mistakes” can explode into business destroying crises.

From time-to-time, I hear business owners make stupid statements. One of the more egregious is saying, “All Lives Matter.”

Even if you think it, you cannot say it. Read the tone of the world and what everyone is going through after coronavirus and George Floyd. This is the moment that requires absolute empathy, understanding and relevance.

Your business has every opportunity to thrive after coronavirus, but it won’t if it’s perceived as opportunistic or icky. What you say matters! What you do matters even more!

In a Crisis, Strategy Is Everything

As the economy reopens, the opportunities for “Green Shoots” and growth are immense. Learn how to create a “Slingshot Strategy” to come out of the crisis stronger than ever. If you’re interested, call me (Jeremy Miller) directly at 416.479.4403, or check out our Crisis Marketing services.

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