On January 1, as many started the year with the commitment to better health, luxury fitness club Equinox kicked off their high profile and controversial “We don’t speak January” campaign. They posted a message on their website saying they would not accept any new memberships because “…life doesn’t start at the beginning of the year. And that’s not what Equinox is about.” Doubling down on their stance and “you don’t fit with us” tone, the company posted a list of reasons in a photo on Twitter detailing why they were not allowing newcomers to sign up. The campaign predictably resulted in social media backlash for being tone-deaf and intentionally exclusionary.
Voice and tone are distinct attributes that an organization takes on to animate its brand and narrative. It is how they communicate with their vocabulary, attitude and the vibe that comes through with their visuals, advertising and customer experience. It is who they are and who they look to bring into their community. And some are using the brand narrative in adverse ways.
The shift to inclusive branding and communications
In recent years DE&I (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) has moved to the forefront. Brands have shifted to a more inclusionary and positive tone and positioning. This ranges from representation in imagery to accessibility (for instance, DTC marketers prioritizing website enhancements to help blind and visually impaired consumers shop.
There’s robust data and a business case for a brand to lean into a socially progressive and inclusive positioning. As McKinsey recently reported, social values shape purchasing decisions more than ever, for two out of three Americans.
Against that, why do brands go negative on their social position?
Brands go bold with exclusionary messaging
For some brands, the exclusionary and exclusive component is the foundation of their product and business offer. Teen retail phenomenon Brandy Melville has (controversially) only had one size on offer since they were founded in 2009. Described alongside Amazon, Zara and Nike for revolutionizing retail, their approach remains in stark contrast to the growing number of brands displaying their inclusivity. Despite allegations and settlements around body shaming, racism and labour law violations, the company has climbed to over 3 million U.S. followers on Instagram and sales projected between $100-$300 million annually, with no advertising.
For others like Equinox, an exclusionary messaging campaign is a bold stunt to affirm its aspirational position, support its elite pricing and speak to the vision of its existing communit—that they are with and for the type of people committed to fitness year around. They did it strategically. While the controversy around the campaign continued, the actual “ban” on new members was only for a day, making this a precise movement (and awareness stunt).
Deciding on an inclusive vs. exclusive brand narrative
So, how should leadership teams and founders know if this is the right move for their brand?
Brandy Melville has sustained this exclusionary strategy for so long because they work very closely with their target market (teen girls) in product design, photography, brand and social media marketing, and so understand the nuances of their offer.
Campaigns like “We Don’t Do January” often generate incredible levels of coverage, engagement and brand-boosting, and while it will not be all positive, that is part of the appeal.
For teams considering a campaign or position that takes on a more exclusionary tone, it needs to be based on a deep understanding of the market. Is there a large enough addressable market when you limit your customer base to just a segment of the population? Is that kind of message in line with the community you have and are trying to build? Does it contradict any company values or future plans?
Only then should a company consider branding with that exclusionary voice or trying an exclusionary component to their marketing. A more practical option is to take a performance communications lens and run hyper-personalized campaigns. They aren’t exclusionary, but rather tailored with creative and messaging on how a product fits with a specific audience segment and targeted toward those users.
In our experience, diversity and representation that is authentic to the brand has worked well in growing businesses, reaching new customer segments and building positive reputations. Whatever the messaging, the most effective campaigns are ones that follow that performance communications framework—built around audience insights to drive a specific outcome, engagement target and brand boost.
This article was initially published by our sister company SHIFT Communications on SHIFT Insights.
——— Reva Seth is Senior Advisor at SHIFT Communications, sister company of NATIONAL Public Relations