ClassPass, Weight Watchers, & Organizational Culture: Who Are Your People?

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By Kristin Johnson

I’ve been consumed by organizational and corporate culture this week. It started at 8 a.m. on Monday, when I served on a breakfast panel at New York University with three other academic instructors from the School of Professional Studies Division of Programs in Business. The topic, “Organizational Culture: The Secrets to Success,” launched a rich conversation, including what it means to build culture and how culture influences the success of an organization.

Attracting more than 40 attendees (early on a Monday no less!) and fielding questions beyond our time limit — I considered the discussion a success.

That was, until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, when I received an email from ClassPass, my fitness obsession subscription service, announcing jacked up rates, from $125 to $190 a month in the NYC market. The hike came less than a year after rates rose from $99 to $125 a month.

Offense Taken 

ClassPass’ 48-percent-within-less-than-a-year rate hike, which came without any explanation, left me confused, angry, and dare I say…hurt? I fired up Twitter and Facebook to find #classpass trending on both platforms. There was a collective total freak-out outpouring of emotion.

Why? WHY? WHY!!!!???? That was the question on all ClassPass members’ minds. Presumably, the “why” was a business decision, but all I could think of was, “what’s in it for me?” In fact, the new rate increase will have members paying more money for fewer classes. I took a deep breath and checked the math. Okay, I’d still be getting a reasonable discount on gyms and fitness studios compared to regular rates, but it didn’t make me feel much better and based on social media’s response, other members weren’t happy either.

The passionate and personal “why,” I’ve concluded, refers less to bemoaning why one must now choose between groceries or fitness (okay, bourgeois drama), and more to why did ClassPass forsake me, in an “injustice of it all” spirit. Members, many of whom were early adopters, are hurt. They supported, nurtured, and advocated for a company that in a mere five years went from a pea of an idea to a company with more than $100 million in funding. Appreciating that ClassPass has to build sustainable profit, members are still left with the same product for a lot more money, feeling abandoned in the bait-and-switch dust of start-up success.

If I think back to the panel discussion from Monday on organizational culture, I realized we omitted an important community in our discussion, as ClassPass did in its Wednesday announcement: external culture.

Organizational Culture, Looking Outside-In

So often, the term “corporate culture” or “organizational culture” is considered an inside-out term. People often think of team building and corporate perks within a company:

“Hey, we’re Google and we have slides. Look at the creative culture we cultivate!“

“Bring your dog to work at Zynga! We have a rooftop dog park, for when you’re not using the indoor bike park, of course. We are fun!”

While culture has always been unwieldy, it’s generally contained within the organization. With the sharing economy and business aggregators, that is changing.

Today, many companies — especially tech start-ups and disruptors — rely on the active and enthusiastic participation of their customer base to build not only revenue, but a reputation and an identity. A company’s culture can be one of its strongest assets, or one of its greatest liabilities — and external culture needs to be considered.

Customers are creating a culture around companies, and that culture can power corporate strategy and identity. If the external culture is ignored or aggrieved, then the company may suffer wrath and fury in an external cultural revolution.

An example of a company nurturing external culture — or doing it well — is Weight Watchers International.

In January, the company launched it’s own social media platform, Connect, accessible within the mobile app that members use to track food, share ideas, and view weight loss progress. The app is barely five months old, but already a powerful tool for Weight Watchers, which is gaining valuable insights from members as they share successes, struggles, hopes, and encouragement with each other united in the pursuit of weight loss. Connect has been an overwhelmingly judgment-free and kindness-focused platform. Members share #NSVs, or “non-scale victories,” that include wearing shorts, riding a bike, and weighing less than the fake (low) weight on a driver’s license.

Weight Watchers recognizes that Connect participants are more than “users” or even “external stakeholders.” People participating are now a valued community of the Weight Watchers company, as a whole. Member commitment and loyalty is deeper than “just” a customer — they are part of what make up the culture, in this case external. At Weight Watchers, this added element of culture reveals and inspires new programs and opportunities, including “Glowments,” a type of #NSV moment that makes one beam from within. (It’s a thing.)

Organizational Culture, Explained & Expanded

I started my week thinking that my panel cohorts and I nailed “organization culture,” but we overlooked the importance of external culture. It wasn’t until Wednesday, when my fellow ClassPass members and I got blindsided with rate hikes, did it dawn on me what an omission it was to overlook external corporate culture. Brand ambassadors, followers, enthusiasts, groupies, diehards — whatever you want to call them — the external culture matters. How a company chooses to harness the culture — or renounce it — is a strategic decision that could have far reaching impacts.

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