How Peloton Changed Me From Evangelist to Disgruntled: Brief Lessons in Bad Decision-Making

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“If the big boys are doing it, it must be working.”

~ a former boss, who could not have been more wrong on this point

It hasn’t been the best few weeks for Peloton.

There was the treadmill recall in the first week of May.  That’s been covered elsewhere, but suffice to say Peloton’s response was not what it should have been.

I’m not here to dogpile on that, though incidents like this do make one question one’s loyalty.

Meanwhile, Peloton has also made some inexplicable changes to its user experience – and, in particular, the Peloton scenic rides that were the favorites of many members, myself included.

My Experience With Peloton

Our Peloton bike arrived in April of last year.  Since then, I’ve averaged a little more than 22 miles of riding per day.  I took my 1,000th ride earlier this month.

So I’m a heavy user, but also not really like the people in the Peloton ads.  I prefer not to do the instructor-led classes, because pop music is not my jam, and most days I don’t want to be yelled at.  If Peloton wants to be a mass brand (and it does), it needs to appeal to many kinds of users.

I’ve primarily done Peloton scenic rides, in large part because there’s no instructor.  Up until recently, Peloton had a large library of these, allowing you to “ride” through the hills of French wine country, the streets of San Francisco or wherever.  I’d put one of my favorite playlists on the Sonos, shut off the sound on the bike, and enjoy the view as I worked my way through my own exercise program.

The Peloton scenic rides, like all its rides, displayed a leaderboard which shows how you stack up against other riders and your own personal best output (PB).

Importantly, if the leaderboard is not for you, you can hide it with the tap of a button.

Up until very recently, I’d been a huge fan of Peloton, and I’ve probably helped sell a few bikes to my friends.  But overnight, Peloton managed to change me from “evangelist” to “disgruntled.”  Here’s how.

Changes to Peloton Scenic Rides – And Member Reaction

Around May 1, without warning or explanation, Peloton:

  • Removed the leaderboards – not from all rides, only from scenic rides. 
  • Dramatically reduced the number of scenic rides.  For example, there used to be about a dozen 45-minute scenic rides; now there’s exactly one.

Here’s how I imagine that conversation went at Peloton headquarters:

Executive: “Here’s my big idea: Let’s get rid of the leaderboards – but only on certain rides!  But wait, I’m on a roll!  While we’re at it, let’s get rid of a bunch of the scenic rides too.”  (leans back in chair, grins confidently, awaits applause)

Underling: “But, sir!  With all due respect, I can’t imagine fewer options will make our members happier.  Removing the leaderboard also removes certain aspects of community. And if they’re trying to hit a PB, they’ll now have to do that math in their heads.”

Executive (pauses to ponder these points; then, triumphantly): “F*ck ‘em!”

Turns out I’m not the only member whose routine was disrupted by these changes.  The outcry on Twitter, for instance, was swift.  Here’s a sample:

One member even created a petition to restore more Peloton scenic rides and the leaderboard, which has over 400 signees at this writing.

As far as I know, Peloton has not indicated that it will overturn these changes.

What We Can Learn

Marketers, brand-builders and owners of the user experience can learn from these missteps.  (Framing them as lessons is more productive than trolling Peloton’s customer service department, though perhaps not as cathartic.)  Here are a few takeaways:

Don’t take decision paths with no upside.  This is a classic example of fixing something that was not at all broken. Removing leaderboards and reducing variety will not make one single member happier.  But they will piss off plenty.  There’s just no upside here.

You don’t even need to research this point.  It’s basic logic.  In branding and in life, avoid paths that have only negative outcomes.

If you have the data, use it.  If you don’t have the data, get it.  Peloton knows which classes its members take.  It wouldn’t take a deep cut into that data to reveal that some members favor Peloton scenic rides heavily or exclusively.

Did Peloton test a leaderboard-free experience with members?  Did they talk to members before reducing the number of scenic rides?  I can’t say for sure, but I assume that they didn’t.  If they had, their folly would have been made clear quickly.

Giving people reduced value for the same money is a foolish long-term play.  If a feature is unused, get rid of it.  If a feature is clunky, streamline it.  But removing features that people enjoy leaves them feeling like they’re getting a raw deal – and rightfully so.

Hemingway wrote: “How did you go bankrupt?  Two ways.  Gradually, then suddenly.”  The same is often true with consumer loyalty.  Marketers make changes that slowly chip away at loyalty, until one day consumers simply move on.  (And then marketers, inevitably, whine that “loyalty is dead.”)

Peloton’s “Rise and Shine” ad. Credit:

What you do matters more than what you say.  Peloton is running commercials in which the heroine takes a variety of classes, talks to the instructors on her screen (weird) and pushes herself to do a little more.  From her screen, a Peloton instructor says, “You did that, Peloton!”

Peloton clearly wants us to believe that it’s a brand about personal achievement.  In light of this, Peloton’s own explanation for the change – “We removed the Leaderboard from Scenic rides and runs to provide a non-competitive workout experience for Members during Scenic classes” – makes zero sense and confuses its own brand image.

Peloton decided that some of its members deserve achievement and community, but others don’t.  This will shape members’ perceptions of Peloton more than any commercial.

“Big brother knows best” is one of the worst postures to adopt when dealing with a community.  As a former Peloton evangelist, I hope this is a merely a collection of hiccups, and not a sign of things to come.

The rest of us would do well to avoid these kinds of mistakes.

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About Matthew Fenton: Matthew is a former CMO who helps brands to focus, stand out and grow.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He’s based near Portland, in Oregon wine country.

Copyright 2021 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.