A Lesson for Equinox and SoulCycle: Even Sweat Can Be Political

In a different era, the dual statements that SoulCycle and Equinox Fitness posted on Twitter this week might have seemed radical: two popular American brands essentially disavowing a sitting president.

The statements were designed to distance the fitness chains from a fund-raiser on Friday for President Trump being held at the home of Stephen Ross, the chairman of the company that owns controlling stakes in Equinox and SoulCycle.

When word of the fund-raiser — and Mr. Ross’s connection to Equinox and SoulCycle, the indoor cycling studios it owns — became widely known, there was a furious reaction from customers. “We want you to know that Equinox and SoulCycle have nothing to do with the event and do not support it,” the Equinox statement said.

It was just the latest example of major brands edging away from Mr. Trump. But in an indication of how distasteful any connection to the president has become among some consumers, even those statements were not enough to stem the criticism.

The Equinox statement “was super inadequate,” said Wesley Rowell, who works as a membership adviser at the Greenwich Avenue Equinox, a popular location in Manhattan. “There are people who have quit immediately, canceled their membership with a lot of indignation.”

The backlash against Equinox and SoulCycle, which have locations around the country, demonstrates the reality facing corporate leaders in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election: Any company, even one that seemingly has nothing to do with politics, could find itself in the middle of a partisan storm.

“C.E.O.s and executives are basically being treated by the general public and consumers as politicians would have been in past cycles,” said Josh Ginsberg, the chief executive of Zignal Labs, a software company that works with marketing and public-relations firms. “There’s a real question of, ‘Are companies prepared for that right now?’”

Since Mr. Trump was elected, a number of major companies have taken public stands against the president or been drawn into disputes with him. After he moved to reduce the size of two national monuments in California last year, the outdoor gear seller Patagonia splashed a bold pronouncement across its website: “The president stole your land.”

Other companies have opposed the president on issues like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act or the Paris climate accord. And after the president’s tepid initial response to the violence at a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, the chief executives of several major companies quit a White House business panel in protest.

But the fact that even some Equinox customers are leaving is an indication that major companies — no matter the industry — have to prepare for political firestorms, experts in crisis communications said.

“This is something that is coming up time and time again as we lead up to the 2020 election,” Mr. Ginsberg said.

Katherine Rosman and Jacob Bernstein contributed reporting.

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