Innovator Interviews: Hydrow’s Gretchen Saegh-Fleming

When Gretchen Saegh-Fleming joined Hydrow in November as its chief commercial officer, it was a convergence of her professional and personal interests. A lifelong athlete (including a stint in rowing at Oxford University) and veteran marketer (she was most recently chief marketing officer at L’Oreal USA), she says that this new role “was one of those moments where all the stars line up in the right place at the right time” that allowed her to merge interests and help grow a startup in the fitness world.

When Gretchen Saegh-Fleming joined Hydrow in November as its chief commercial officer, it was a convergence of her professional and personal interests. A lifelong athlete (including a stint in rowing at Oxford University) and veteran marketer (she was most recently chief marketing officer at L’Oreal USA), she says that this new role “was one of those moments where all the stars line up in the right place at the right time” that allowed her to merge interests and help grow a startup in the fitness world.

In her new role, she oversees all commercial aspects of Hydrow’s business, including scaling ecommerce, while also leading Hydrow's sales and marketing efforts. Hydrow, a relative newcomer to the at-home fitness market, is often called “the Peloton of rowers.” It works like many rowing machines do, but it has a 22” screen that transports viewers to an outdoor setting. It also has a subscription-based model similar to Peloton, where users can join classes virtually and use the online community and its leaderboards to connect with fellow classmates. 

Saegh-Fleming says that during the pandemic, when so many people were working from home and stuck indoors, machines like Hydrow could help people stay fit. She also says that one of the benefits of Hydrow is that because of its high efficiency, users work 86% of their bodies’ muscles, making a 20-minutes workout equivalent to an hour on a treadmill or stationary bike.

Saegh-Fleming joined Hydrow from L’Oreal, where she spent the better part of six years. While there, she helped build the ecommerce and data muscles of the International Designer Collections portfolio, which housed Yves Saint Laurent Beaute, Giorgio Armani Beauty & Fragrances and Ralph Lauren Fragrances. She then moved up to an SVP role, overseeing ecommerce, CRM and media across a bigger portfolio of brands that included Kiehl’s, Lancome, Urban Decay, and more. In 2017, she became CMO of L’Oreal USA, where she was responsible for the digital transformation of the entire portfolio and its go-to-market strategy.

Brand Innovators caught up with Saegh-Fleming from her home in Montclair, N.J., to discuss moving from an established company with many brands to a startup, how she is looking at her 2021 planning, and how fitness habits have changed in 2020. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What about Hydrow attracted you to join as its chief commercial officer?

First of all, as a consumer, I just started to hear a lot about the brand. I’m a lifelong athlete, I’ve always played sports, and being a team athlete is what shaped me as a leader and how I think about teams and everyone leaning into their superpower to drive performance. So  the idea of being able to market something that I was so passionate about to begin with was really exciting.

Second, the more I learned about the brand, the more I felt it really resonates, especially in a pandemic because quarantine can be very isolating. Using connected fitness, specifically Hydrow, to plug into the community really creates a sense of emotional connection that I feel resonates with so many people right now and helps people with their health and wellness, both mental and physical. 

You just started this role last month. What are some of your first priorities?

When I joined the brand at the beginning of November, my first priority was having the right execution for the holiday period. We did have a successful sales engine, so that allowed me to immerse myself in the brand. I’m trying to get to know our consumers better and understand what makes them feel passionate. They often feel connected to their Hydrows and that continues to surprise me. For example, I learned a lot of members name their Hydrows as if it was a boat. That made me realize that, going forward, we have an opportunity to more deeply personalize the content and the experience that people have with Hydrow.

What was your marketing approach for the holidays? 

We released a fit Santa ad, an idea that stemmed from a brainstorm with our team where we thought about how we can bring the idea of holiday and gifting in a way that feels authentic to the brand. We wanted to reinvent the traditional notion of the round, red faced Santa Claus and bring him into the modern 2020 era, and have him be more concerned for his health. In the ad, he’s looking at a Hydrow and trying to understand what it is. We think the ad is disruptive because there are no words, only music, and there’s something about the motion of the Hydrow and stillness that comes through in that ad.

How are you approaching your planning for next year? Are you leaving things more open or flexible than in previous years?

A little bit of both. We’re a startup culture, we’re really agile and can take advantage of opportunities pretty quickly. We’re planning for continued aggressive growth. Regardless of whether people remain home or start getting back to pre-pandemic routines -- the stress that this year has taken on people has made everyone much more mindful of their health and wellness -- there remains a big opportunity for Hydrow with some flexibility on what our comms and brand innovations look like.

How is Hydrow positioning itself in an increasingly crowded fitness space, especially when products like Peloton have so much recognition?

There are few things we feel are unique: the overall efficiency of our workout and working so much of your muscles and getting an hour’s worth of workout in 20 minutes. The other thing is our live outdoor reality. We really have designed the workout experience so you feel like you're in the water on the boat with some of our athletes. Nature is unpredictable, it can be snowing or raining, so we reflect that in our footage. 

I also think that we talk about community and connectedness. There’s something that binds people together working out in sync that creates a stickiness around our brand. We hear people say they feel like they know the athletes. 

How do you capture that connectedness? 


It’s about synchronicity and this idea of capturing the idea of a rower’s high while you're working out with other people. We don't always have to do much because our customers are doing it for us. On our Facebook group, there are people answering each other’s questions. I knew this was a love brand, but I’m continually surprised by how much our customers are doing our word-of-mouth for us.

What’s your approach to partnerships and collaborations? Any future partnerships or you are looking to do?

In October, we launched a partnership with Fabletics. They have a consumer that’s focused on fitness. Their demo is slightly younger than ours, so that gives us an opportunity to expand our customer base. Fabletics is excited about bringing Hydrows in stores, so that gives us the opportunity to showroom the product, which gives us the opportunity to have people try it out. We’re open to considering other partnerships down the road, but we’re very happy with this one.

Maureen Morrison is a marketing and editorial consultant for Brand Innovators and is the founder of the consultancy Irving Park LLC, based in San Francisco.

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