It takes years of hard work to build a great brand.
But only seconds to destroy one.
The latest example of Death by Tweet is brought to us by Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit.
To millions of people around the world, CrossFit isn’t just a brand, it’s a way of life. CrossFitters are passionate about their sport, and will talk about it at every possible opportunity. They’ll tell you about their favourite “WODs” (“Workout of the Day”), their upcoming competitions, their latest “personal bests”… Once you get them started, it’s really tough to get them to stop. I can’t think of a better example of a “brand advocate” than your typical CrossFitter.
Q: How do you know if somebody does CrossFit?
A: Give them a minute, they’ll tell you.
I know this first-hand: I started CrossFit three years ago. The fact I’ve managed to keep up a fitness routine for three years—COVID-19 gym closures aside, of course—is remarkable to anybody who knows me well. I hate working out, and I always have. But I love CrossFit.
That’s not uncommon. To the uninitiated, CrossFit can seem intimidating, extreme, and even dangerous. But you only have to visit a Box—what CrossFitters call their gyms—to understand what’s so appealing about it.
It’s the community.
With all the cheering and encouragement that goes on during a typical class, you could almost forget that it’s a competitive sport. If you’re the last one to finish a workout, you’ll likely be surrounded by everyone else in the class, cheering you on. At the end of each class, it’s common to give everybody a high-five or fist-bump and congratulate them on a WOD well done.
CrossFit doesn’t care about your age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or even your fitness level. Everybody is welcome.
At least, that’s what we thought before last week.
Before the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation tweeted “Racism is a public health issue,” and Glassman replied, “It’s FLOYD-19.” In just 13 characters, he betrayed the CrossFit community. And the reaction was swift.
Longtime sponsor Reebok issued a statement: “Our partnership with CrossFit HQ comes to an end later this year. Recently, we have been in discussions regarding a new agreement, however, in light of recent events, we have made the decision to end our partnership with CrossFit HQ.”
That was an exclusive, 10-year agreement undoubtedly worth many millions of dollars. Gone.
Other sponsors have also begun to disassociate themselves from the brand.
Rich Froning, a well-known ambassador for the sport and four-time winner of the signature CrossFit Games, said that on account of Glassman’s comments, it was “impossible to stay loyal to leadership who make callous statements that alienate and divide in a time when unity is needed.”
Another beloved CrossFit Games champion, Tia-Clair Toomey, wrote that she was “incredibly saddened, disappointed and frustrated,” and that her “future with CrossFit is unclear and depends on the direction of HQ.”
And then there are the CrossFit affiliates. When a long-time CrossFit gym owner wrote a lengthy letter to the CrossFit organization explaining why she would be changing the name of her gym and not renewing her affiliation with the organization, Glassman doubled down on his stupidity and made matters worse with his response (you can read both the letter and Glassman’s insulting reply here).
It’s been reported that as many as 300 affiliates worldwide have decided to change their name and not renew their affiliation. My box is one of them: “CrossFit Bradford” became “Bradford Strength and Conditioning” on Monday, with its co-owner explaining: “Our fitness community has always been and will continue to be inclusive and supportive. In light of recent events and other ongoing concerns related to the brand, we have made the decision to end our relationship with CrossFit,” she said. “Our community deserves better.”
A once-beloved brand is now on the brink of destruction, thanks to the founder’s snarky, distasteful, 13-character tweet.
Of course, Glassman tweeted an apology: “I, CrossFit HQ, and the CrossFit community will not stand for racism. I made a mistake by the words I chose yesterday. My heart is deeply saddened by the pain it has caused. It was a mistake, not racist but a mistake. Floyd is a hero in the black community and not just a victim. I should have been sensitive to that and wasn’t. I apologize for that.”
Except what I just read was akin to, “It was just a mistake, see? Not racism. Just a mistake. And I said I’m sorry. Can’t we all move past this now?”
It won’t be enough.
Nothing short of Glassman’s total removal from the company is going to satisfy the community he offended, and that’s highly unlikely since Glassman owns the company.
CrossFitters who spent years proudly associating themselves with the brand are now stepping back from it. The community will survive. The CrossFit brand may not.
That’s a cautionary tale for any brand leader foolish enough to betray the core values their brands are supposed to represent.
UPDATE! Just two hours after this article was published yesterday, CrossFit sent their daily email to their distribution list and announced that Greg Glassman has decided to retire. I'll admit I didn't think that was going to happen... but I also think the damage is done, and that even Glassman's resignation won't be enough to save the CrossFit brand. Also included in that same email was an overdue statement from the organization, titled, "Why Didn’t CrossFit Just Say Something?".
This piece was initially published in The Message, a new voice for the new age of Canadian marketing. It can be found here.
This is me, back-squatting 295lbs. (My personal best is 315lbs.) The photo was taken 18 months ago... I'll need a few months back in the Box before I can do this again.