Massage Envy Brand in Crisis Amid Assault Allegations

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Last year, spa chain Massage Envy implemented a rebranding to address the challenge of courting younger consumers. Now, following nearly 200 allegations of sexual assault of customers at its facilities, the company faces a more dire marketing crisis. On Wednesday, the Illinois attorney general initiated an investigation into the complaints, which include lawsuits and police reports, previously reported on by BuzzFeed News, as consumers advocated for boycotts of the Scottsdale, Arizona-based chain's 1,150 franchise locations.

Aside from issuing a statement to various news outlets that it does not comment on legal cases and that it "holds franchise owners accountable" to its policies, Massage Envy has largely kept silent. Company representatives did not respond to Ad Age's request for comment. Such failure to address the issue in its consumer-facing communication, especially during a week when prominent figures, including Matt Lauer, have joined the list of those under fire for sexual harassment, is a mistake, experts say.

"They obviously don't have a crisis communication plan," says Gene Grabowski, a partner at Washington, D.C.-based PR firm Kglobal. "When you think of a company that's touching people for a living not having a plan, frankly, from a legal perspective, I don't understand how that's possible." He noted that other franchise operators, like McDonald's, hold franchisees liable to strict quality standards.

Grabowski says Massage Envy should be getting ahead of the allegations by issuing an apology and promising to take responsibility by requiring all franchisees and their employees to take a requalification program. Such an initiative should include a provision promising to notify law enforcement of any complaints of inappropriate behavior.

Massage Envy's most recent Twitter post, from earlier this week—the same day of BuzzFeed's article—urged customers to take time for themselves following the holiday weekend.

Meanwhile, many, including Cindy Gallop, the diversity advocate, have tweeted against the wellness chain, which has nearly 1.7 million members.

"They've got people reluctant to go into their stores," says Grabowski. "You don't know if the brand's going to survive this—I'm not going to send my wife or daughter or anyone close to me for a massage."

Founded in 2002, Massage Envy had dominated the spa market with a product and price point affordable to most Americans living in the 49 states where it operates. In 2016, the company, which spent around $11.4 million on measured media in the U.S. that year, according to Kantar Media, rebranded its messaging to focus more on wellness rather than on pampering in an effort to appeal to younger, health-enthused consumers. Venables Bell & Partners handled that campaign, which included national and local TV buys. On Thursday, a Venables spokeswoman said the agency parted ways with Massage Envy last year.

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