What Orangetheory Is Doing to Engage Its Users During Covid-19

The brand has had to bring its operations fully digital over the last couple of weeks

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We were supposed to be basking in the crowds of SXSW with a massive activation. Instead, the team was in a studio, filming workouts with Costco-sized packages of soap, an overstuffed suitcase and a rolling pin. Days later, the props became giant utensils and an 8-month-old child. Welcome to marketing in the age of Covid-19.

Orangetheory is a global company, with more than 1,300 franchise studios in 24 countries and a loyal following. So, what do you do when your brand is all about sweating in a community environment—the very kind of environment that health officials want everyone to avoid? You find out really quickly how well everyone understands the definition of our brand DNA. In our case, the entrepreneurial nature of OTF was critical to the first few days of this ongoing crisis.

In the two weeks since SXSW was canceled, the impact of the virus became unavoidably obvious. We closed all corporate-owned studios and encouraged franchisees to follow suit. In their place, we’re building a program on the fly to help people and the brand weather the storm.

Along the way, we’re learning just how essential it is for everyone in an organization to understand the difference between the essence of a brand and the tactical manifestations. At the start of the month, more than 1 million members worldwide were cueing daily for treadmill and rower assignments. Now they’re emptying the junk closet in search of the perfect exercise object.

Normally, our fitness team works with a group of fitness scholars and industry veterans to deliver a 60-minute interval training workout that is distributed to coaches everywhere. At first, the at-home plan was to offer members a downloadable PDF of workouts. To the frustration of some, our CEO Dave Long stepped up and said that plan sucked.

The problem was the plan didn’t reflect what made Orangetheory the brand it is. There was no coach-inspired energy and, more importantly, had no shared community. Enter the freewheeling minds of our chief brand officer Kevin Keith and in-house creative director Bowen Mendelson.

Before everything was shut down, a guerilla team of creatives and fitness experts was in a studio filming blocks of exercises. Instead of high-end equipment that most people don’t have, they were using objects people could find around the house.

These were people who understood on a very fundamental level what mattered most to our members. Come hell or high water, we were going to continue delivering workouts for our members and anyone else who wanted them.

At this point in time, our organization was buried under a mountain of logistical issues just trying to take care of our members. How do you freeze hundreds of thousands of memberships? What do you do to respond to an exposure when the local health department isn’t returning calls? And how will we help the employees of our franchisees?

It was frustrating that our CEO was demanding the workout get online sooner than we’d planned. There wasn’t time to get it right. But he was right.

Overnight sentiment across social media pivoted from growing anger over billing issues to wild enthusiasm. Members were posting pictures and videos of themselves doing the workouts, using everything from bags of peat moss and 25-pound bulldogs for weights. Small children are learning it’s best not to be in arm’s reach when mom or dad are doing the routines.

Unexpectedly, the workouts fundamentally changed the attitude across the company. Now we were acting, not reacting. It energized a workforce of 200 that had been grinding nonstop for more than a week. Inspired by the speed and ingenuity of the workouts, people across the organization are suggesting new ways of doing everything from operations to development.

Our agency partners Tombras, Razorfish and Ketchum leaned in, too, offering suggestions and plans to make the workouts more available and easier to get online daily. Around the world, our franchisees and coaches are jumping into the fray, organizing virtual classes where people do the workout at the same time, networking together through Facebook Live or video conference tools.

To be honest, it’s still a huge challenge. I spent 12 years covering disasters and mayhem for daily newspapers, and I never worked as hard as I have the past two weeks. But having the essence of our brand front and center is making all the difference.