“People don’t believe what you tell them. They rarely believe what you show them. They often believe what their friends tell them. They always believe what they tell themselves.” — Seth Godin, Tribes

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In the summer of 1965, at the Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan plugged in an electric Fender Stratocaster guitar and promptly pissed everybody off.

What’s happening now in CrossFit isn’t so dissimilar.

In both cases, the drastic changes were about adjusting expectations, shifting perceptions and redefining the future. At the time, the boos and hisses from the crowd were plenty proof that success wasn’t assured for Dylan. It worked out okay, though. I think it’ll work out okay for CrossFit, too. But it’s far from guaranteed.

We’ll take a step in the right direction if we start spending more time trying to understand why these changes are happening and less time indulging our collective dislike for change. We’ll take a step when we recognize that these adjustments of expectation, these shifts of perception, are all — pardon my use of obnoxious business jargon — issues of branding.

We’ll take a step in the right direction if we start spending more time trying to understand why these changes are happening and less time indulging our collective dislike for change.

I recognize “branding” is sort of an ephemeral concept, so let’s try to bring it down to earth. Here’s what Jeff Bezos says about it: “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” Here’s Howard Schultz: “Authentic brands…emanate from everything the company does. If enough people believe they share values with a company, they will stay loyal to the brand.” If I could be so bold as to offer my own definition: Branding is all the ways you keep or break the promises you are making.

It takes a lot of guts to break promises on purpose, to intentionally screw with your established brand, to go electric at a folk festival. When Dylan walked off the stage that day, nobody was left saying he was just a singer of acoustic protest songs. He lost some people whose values no longer aligned with those of this “new” artist.

But I think Dylan knew he had written himself into a corner and that drastic action was needed to free himself from it. I think those who are great at branding play chess when the rest of us are playing tiddlywinks. Dylan was three moves ahead of everybody else that year. Dylan is great at branding. So is Greg Glassman.

The CrossFit Games were always a loss leader, designed to produce what’s called a halo effect. The Games was created to cast a bright, sexy light onto the philosophy of constantly varied, functional movements performed at high intensity. They were created as a barbell-sized middle finger to a fitness industry Glassman was trying to disrupt. He created the Games as a means of gathering the tribe, connecting us even more deeply and celebrating our otherness.

[The Games] were created as a barbell-sized middle finger to a fitness industry Glassman was trying to disrupt. He created the Games as a means of gathering the tribe, connecting us even more deeply and celebrating our otherness.

These are all efforts of branding — all efforts of keeping the promises CrossFit HQ was making about how they were forging elite fitness. Just like a certain kind of person flocked to acoustic music and flower-power in the early 60s, a certain type of person flocked to the hard edges and irreverence of early CrossFit. The brand — the attitude, the ethos, the values — collected those of us who believed a special thing, who felt a special way, who wanted the be part of a special club. In turn, we did our part of building the brand. We bought the t-shirts, went to the seminars, started the businesses, opened the gyms.

Then the CrossFit Games got big and its bigness amplified its extremes — the grueling tests, the absolute obsession necessary for success, the focus on individual celebrity.

For a while, the amplification of those extremes was appropriate. The brand of CrossFit was all about working harder than anybody else, doing things most thought stupid (at best) or dangerous (at worst). The halo effect worked wondrously. Until it didn’t.

If Seth Godin is right that people don’t believe what you tell them, that they only believe what they tell themselves, then what happens when someone’s first exposure to CrossFit is on ESPN or a Netflix documentary? What happens when they see that and tell themselves it’s only for incredibly fit people? Or that they don’t want to look like that? Or that it seems dangerous?

Coach Glassman knows one of the meaningful ways to do any of that is to separate the brand of the CrossFit Games from the brand of CrossFit…It might piss a lot of people off in the short term. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

Nothing bad happens as long as your ambition isn’t to grow to 150,000 worldwide affiliates. Then it’s a pretty big problem.

If we really want tens of millions of people in hundreds of thousands of gyms, then we need to start talking about CrossFit differently. We need to find the right language, the right imagery, and the right attitude with which to engage a different kind of person seeking a different kind of edge. That person, and those edges, are not going to be the same as what originally attracted so many of us to CrossFit.

We need to recognize that we’re no longer making the same promises we once were and that we need to start acting differently in order to keep those promises.

Coach Glassman knows one of the meaningful ways to do any of that is to separate the brand of the CrossFit Games from the brand of CrossFit, for no other reason than that he’s written himself into a corner and needs to get out. It might not work. It might piss a lot of people off in the short term. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.


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