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opinion

Gus Carlson is a New York-based columnist for The Globe and Mail.

By many measures, Peloton is a brand that should be flying high: It is all about fitness and wellness, it creates community through its live online classes and on-demand library, its program selection appeals to lumpy couch potatoes and maniacal Navy Seal wannabes alike – and it all comes with the convenience of exercising at home.

Marketing experts say Peloton, buoyed by booming sales during the pandemic, when most gyms were closed, has reached brand Nirvana, achieving status as the de facto term for exercise bikes, like Kleenex is for tissues and Xerox is for copiers.

Yet Peloton has a reputation crisis, by name and by association. In a remarkable turnaround, the darling of pandemic fitness has become the butt of jokes and unflattering characterizations in popular culture.

On the new HBO Max Sex and the City spinoff, And Just Like That …, a main character named Mr. Big dies while exercising on a Peloton. On the hit HBO series Billions, a key character named Wags has a heart attack on a Peloton. And in a new TV ad for Allstate Insurance, villain/spokesman Mayhem falls off a generic stationary bike and crashes through French doors, then pitches home insurance.

To be sure, Peloton has had other business problems. Sales have sagged as gyms have reopened, its stock price has fallen 80 per cent from its high, and its chief executive officer is under pressure from an activist investor to resign amid charges of poor performance and nepotism. And the company was at the centre of a tragedy last spring when a six-year-old Colorado child died after being pulled under one of its new treadmills, prompting a recall of the product.

Peloton has also been tone-deaf in its marketing. In a 2019 television ad, a husband gives his wife a Peloton for Christmas, a gesture that generated backlash for ... no explanation necessary.

But marketing experts suggest the demonization of the Peloton brand in pop culture has less to do with business issues or past stumbles. Rather, it reflects consumers’ resentment of anything related to the pandemic era and its restrictions, no matter how much something may have been appreciated at the time.

Peter Shier, the president of Naked Creative Consultancy in Toronto, said that because people often associate brands with events and experiences, the attachment of Peloton to a negative time in our culture has seen its brand reputation make a U-turn.

“The premise of what Peloton stands for is amazing – it should be a wonderful beacon of health, wellness and community, but it’s not,” Mr. Shier said. “People associate it with a time of lockdowns, when home exercise was the only option. That’s how powerful the negative side of COVID is. We resent what COVID has done to our lives and punish brands that remind us of that.”

Grayson Brulte, an innovation and brand strategist and co-founder of Brulte & Company, said Peloton has been complacent since its lockdown sales boom and has not accelerated out of its association with the pandemic.

“Peloton is a COVID brand that is not innovating – not looking to the future – and is resting on its laurels and successes during COVID,” Mr. Brulte said. “Peloton does not give people hope.”

Mr. Shier said other brands have tested positive for COVID-19. Zoom, the virtual meeting platform used by many businesses during the pandemic, has been widely lampooned. Television ads feature users who forget to turn off their cameras while they’re in their underwear and people making brilliant points in meetings only to be told they are on mute.

Home delivery brands such as Uber Eats, HelloFresh, DoorDash and even Amazon have also been pilloried, he said. Despite their convenience – and the fact many reached essential-service status during lockdowns – they are reminders of dark days.

“We link brands with meaningful periods in our lives, both positive and negative,” Mr. Shier said. “No matter how useful or convenient these brands are, the connection to COVID can cause resentment.”

The Peloton experience seems counterintuitive. Like certain makes and models of hybrid and electric cars, Peloton has many positive traits, yet the brands have received wildly different treatment in pop culture.

Viewers of television’s Curb Your Enthusiasm might say the Toyota Prius, BMW i3 and Audi e-tron driven by its creator and star, Larry David, are the only redeeming features of his chronically curmudgeonly character. And the Tesla driven by Michael Prince, the new lead character in Billions, makes him a conspicuous, socially conscious contrast to his predecessor, Bobby Axelrod, whose trademark was flashy gas-guzzlers such as Range Rovers and Lamborghinis.

Why aren’t Peloton bikes similarly revered as symbols of enlightened success rather than portrayed as death traps of the rich and influential?

The question is fair – even if the answer isn’t. Still, Mr. Shier suggests that if Peloton continues to promote its many benefits, it will survive the crisis.

“People will move on from this if Peloton sticks to their core purpose,” he said. “It is a great product and a great experience.”

In the meantime, the Peloton brand will be haunted by Mr. Big, Wags and Mayhem, living the worst bad dreams of fitness in the time of COVID.

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