In the summer of 2015, a team of hackers released the details of 35 million members of dating website Ashley Madison in one of the biggest data breaches ever seen. The rest, as they say, is history.
For any brand this would have been an unqualified PR disaster but for Ashley Madison, which was built on enabling married people to commit adultery discreetly, it rocked the very foundations of its business.
Yet despite being handed what many would consider a poisoned chalice, lifelong marketer Rob Segal – who was recruited as Ashley Madison’s new CEO in April to takeover from Noel Biderman – exudes confidence in an interview with Marketing Week.
Since the scandal broke last July, he says Ashley Madison has added five million new users. Negative headlines, he insists, have only added intrigue.
“[The scandal] opened us up to the mainstream and we realised there was suddenly a lot of intrigue around Ashley Madison,” he says. “People want to explore their own sexuality and have more open relationships; it is a global phenomenon and the hack didn’t stop that.
“After the scandal happened, we very much saw Ashley Madison as a Hollywood starlet who went off the rails and needed to go to rehab.”
Rob Segal, CEO, Ashley Madison
Focusing on women
Admitting that he had considered scrapping the Ashley Madison brand altogether, Segal says the “global exposure” it attained from the scandal would have made that a “foolish decision”.
Instead Ashley Madison’s parent Avid Media, which also owns smaller, tailored dating brands such as Cougar Life, rebranded to Ruby – a move intended to change the very DNA of how the business operates.
“By making our parent into Ruby, the business becomes inherently feminine, modern and clean. It is a new culture that is then built from the inside out.”
Ashley Madison has also completely changed its brand messaging, something made immediately evident by the three TV ads it launched earlier this year. Such was the drive to make people forget about the hacking scandal, it premiered one of the female-focused ads on prime time American TV.
“We ran it on NBC and it opened the door to a market Ashley hasn’t been exposed to before,” Segal reveals. “The campaign made us grow our female users by 18%.”
It has replaced the provocative previous slogan, ‘Life’s short. Have an affair’, and the mischievous wedding ring motif in its logo, introducing the new strapline ‘Find your moment’. The overarching goal is to make Ashley Madison a female-focused brand that prioritises open relationships rather than affairs.
With a ratio of five male users to each female (Ashley Madison has previously admitted using female bots to add greater balance), this shift makes a lot of sense. However, Segal insists the rationale goes a lot deeper than that.
“We began to humanise the brand in our discussions and decided to treat it as feminine and to make her a person,” he explains.
“We looked at the data very closely and it showed us 45% of people on the site were single and of those in relationships many were looking for open experiences. So we felt the old positioning might be a little narrow and polarising, and that the brand should become ubiquitous with open-mindedness.”
Addressing security concerns
But what about security? After all, a lack of security created the mess in the first place.
Segal says Ashley Madison has become the “quickest company in history” to be awarded PCI level 1 compliance. The credit card security award means it must now have yearly on-site reviews by an internal auditor and requires network scans by an approved scanning vendor.
However, he still cannot give any assurances that Ashley Madison will not be compromised by hackers again.
“This is 2016 and the reality is nobody can make an assurance this won’t happen again – that’s just the world we now live in.”
Rob Segal, CEO, Ashley Madison
He adds: “But Privacy and security, I can assure you, is our main focus right now. It is something we are investing millions into monthly.
“The reality is we are working with Deloitte, the top in the field, daily to assure our users are protected and we are now approved by the most stringent credit card confirmation programme in the world. Yes, we are probably seen as an example to the business world, but hopefully they can learn from what happened here.”
What comes next…
Since its inception, Ashley Madison claims 48 million people have signed up; it operates in 46 countries and in 30 languages.
But despite this scale Segal is aware he has a “tremendous rebuild job” ahead of him that will take “years, not months” to complete. He is also acutely aware the brand will have to go much further than just a new marketing campaign to rebuild trust. And with a federal trade investigation ongoing, he knows the negative headlines are not about to disappear.
Segal, however, is hoping his expertise as a marketer will help him accentuate the positives. “I worked for an ad agency for over four years after college, then I built from my apartment bedroom an agency that grew to 130 employees. We handled Ford, PlayStation; we even brought Facebook into Canada.
“That experience will help me, as the task at Ashley Madison is a marketing challenge first and foremost.” He pauses. “Probably the greatest marketing challenge I’ve ever been faced with.”
Although Segal uses outside agencies to buy its media, Ashley Madison is creating all of its above the line campaigns in-house. This, he insists, is “the best strategy”.
He concludes: “I am intrigued by what lies ahead. People have said it would be the greatest comeback story of all time. I am confident in my team and it is about building trust and becoming a more open, transparent organisation every single day. If we do that, we can only see success.”