Rebranding Infidelity: The Ashley Madison Story

It’s sad to say, but in our technology-infused world with hackers and trolls stirring up mischief all over cyberspace, data breaches have become a pretty common occurrence. In corporate America, these breaches cause firms to mobilize their PR efforts, apologize profusely via news outlets, and then spend a good chunk of change in enhanced cybersecurity to ensure that such a horrific thing never happens again.

But what if you have a massive data breach and your name is Ashley Madison, the online site for extramarital affairs? It happened in 2015, when an anonymous hacker leaked the names, email addresses, online messages (including sexual preferences and fantasies), and photos of 30,000 Ashley Madison users to the public. If it were me, I would have shut the whole thing down and waited for the lawsuits to roll in. But not only did Ashley Madison weather the considerable storm after the breach (think divorces and suicides), they have successfully rebounded and rebranded themselves. According to a 2020 report, they have 70,000 active users.

Before I go any further, I want to state categorically that I am not endorsing infidelity. Consenting adults will do what consenting adults will do. That’s their business and not mine. My business, however, is to examine Ashley’s rebirth from a marketing perspective and offer what key learnings I can. What readers do with those key learnings is—well, their own business.

Interest in Ashley Madison’s shady past was revived with the recent release of Netflix’s “Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal”—a documentary series that pulled back the satin sheets on the 2015 data breach. Though neither of the former owners participated in the series, Netflix was still able to get to the bottom of things. It appears that Ashley Madison wasn’t very cyber-secure in the first place, and never got rid of its dirty laundry (aka deleting old messages and profiles).

This is a good story about a brand that was down but not out. You could say that the first steps in Ashley Madison’s rebranding were forcing CEO Noel Biderman to step down and choosing to settle a $576m class action suit brought by former AM clients for pennies on the dollar. Biderman’s replacement, Rob Segal, came in promising to install new security measures and protections. As trust in the online service was restored, Madam Phoenix began to rise from the ashes.

Writing in a recent Forbes article, Dr. Marcus Collins noted that Ashely Madison was perfectly poised for a rebrand for three reasons. First, the culture was trending toward greater empowerment for women. They also had a solid origin story that went back to the early 2000s, long before the destructive data breach. Finally, they had a product to offer that clearly demonstrated the company’s beliefs. This bears some fleshing out (sorry), so let me give it a try.

In an interesting way, the repeal of Roe vs. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court had the opposite effect. Restricting abortion rights brought women out onto the streets, pushing back against the court’s ruling and reinforcing their right to decide what they can do with their own bodies—including (we assume) the right to have extramarital affairs. In case you thought Ashley Madison’s clientele is primarily a bunch of horny old men, their demo is actually 50% female. Add to that the rise of empowered cultural icons like Taylor Swift and Barbie (that’s Margo Robbie in the movie, not plastic Barbie in the box your sis got for her tenth birthday), and you’ve got a lot of women asserting their power and autonomy to do as they please.

In the same Forbes article, Paul Keable, Ashley Madison’s Chief Strategy Officer described the brand’s origin. The inflection point came back in 2000, when they learned that a big percentage of and eharmony users were actually married, though online they claimed to be single. That key fact started the whole thing, and the opportunity was born. For those who had been lying about their marital status on other dating platforms, Ashley Madison offered them a place to go where they could tell the truth.

What impresses me is that all along, Ashely Madison had a deep understanding of their clients’ psyche. They knew that the prevailing culture mores about around women and fidelity in marriage didn’t align with the facts. They understood that men and women cheat for different reasons. While men cheat in hopes of getting some kind of emotional validation, women cheat because they feel like sex with their spouse has become a desert wasteland. Finally, they reasoned that women, as opposed to men, are infinitely practical. By using an online resource for their extramarital affair, women could conveniently “outsource” their sexual needs while keeping their marriage intact—which, for busy wives, might just pass as another form of multitasking.

There was also a makeover of Ashley Madison’s tagline. Previously, the company’s line was “When monogamy feels like monotony.” The current version, “Life is short. Have an affair.” speaks more directly to women users’ need to feel empowered.

For a long time, our culture has been more accepting of men coloring outside the lines of marriage than it has for women who do the same. But based on the popularity of, the c-change may already have begun. Ladies, start your engines.

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