SoulCycle’s Success Began with a Story
It’s often called–whether in derision or admiration–a “cult.” SoulCycle is a spin class, but it’s a spin class that’s a few notches above the indoor cycling classes that are wedged between Zumba and pilates on your local gym’s group fitness calendar: SoulCycle is 45 minutes of not just pedaling, but also handlebar push-ups, light weight-lifting, and a message of spiritual enlightenment set to a mix of Charli XCX and Lil Wayne that would earn the respect of most DJs. Instructors begin class by dimming the lights — SoulCycle studios are lit with candles — and setting the expectations of a challenging experience (“You’re going to sweat.”) They go through a fluid narrative of intention and purpose over the course of the class, and end with a yoga-inspired “namaste.” And it’s addictive, so addictive that urbanites all over New York and Los Angeles are paying a pricey $34 per class to keep going back.
That kind of loyalty is enviable to any brand marketer. SoulCycle’s experience is high-quality and its branding is top-notch — its iconic “lemon wheel” logo is instantly recognizable across NYC and LA, and the company finds clever ways to help that brand and logo permeate the entire SoulCycle experience right on down to the exclusively lemon-scented products in its locker room showers. But for an experience to border on the religious, it takes something more to ensure that customers and fans will feel like they’re part of something bigger. And for SoulCycle, that’s storytelling.
SoulCycle itself started with a story: two busy, ambitious women couldn’t find a cardio routine that “made their hearts sing” in New York City. In early 2006, they met over lunch and decided they should start their own indoor cycling studio, emphasizing a full-body workout and spiritual component. They rented a 72nd street space via Craigslist, folded their own towels, and passed out flyers on the street. They knew every rider who came through their doors. Today, SoulCycle has 17 studios around NYC and LA.
But SoulCycle’s own origins aren’t the crux of its marketing. Instead, it publishes an extensive amount of digital content that serves to welcome all riders into the fold with conversion-like testimonials. They tell Ally Rice’s story, a former competitive tennis player who joined SoulCycle to rehabilitate her injured knees. They share the transformation of Ryan Foley, who lost 60 pounds through SoulCycle and then became an instructor. Their blog tells a rider’s “Soul Story” and introduces an instructor every week in addition to sharing the latest news (mostly made up of user images and studio event coverage). They don’t need awkward self-promotion; the proof is in the personalities.
For an experience to border on the religious, it takes something more [than good branding] to ensure that customers and fans will feel like they’re part of something bigger.
For the Soul Blog (as well as an audience of 20,700 followers on Twitter and 12,800 on Instagram), stories come easily because the staff spends time in-studio and then relays ideas to the director of digital, who is also a rider. Instructors and riders approach SoulCycle with their personal stories of transformation. And with almost every tale, a product is showcased. Babies wear “Soul Baby” onesies on Instagram. On Facebook, instructors frolic on the beach in their soft Soul tanks. Riders are excited to show off their wares because, as Cohen puts it, SoulCycle is more than a workout: “it’s a badge of honor.”
Indeed, SoulCycle enthusiasts eagerly pay up not just for class, but for the SoulCycle retail apparel line, which switches up every month with a new selection of bright-colored tank tops, leggings, and hoodies emblazoned with the signature Soul wheel. Because their clothes are more like streetwear than sweat-wicking gym rags, riders are brand ambassadors even when they’re not in class.
Gabby Cohen, SoulCycle’s director of marketing and PR, attributes this success to SoulCycle’s strong community, both in and outside the studio, which has been fused by the company’s sense of brand storytelling. “The moment you meet someone who also goes to SoulCycle, you immediately have this commonality,” Cohen said. “You can talk to them about anything because it’s like, ‘Oh, I get you.’ You understand each other.”
SoulCycle’s content strategy is meant to stem out of this supportive, personal-story-based community feel. Their social media team is “literally manning our Twitter account and Facebook and Instagram on a 24/7 basis,” Cohen said. “We want to make sure that when people are talking, positive or negative, we can respond.” The majority of SoulCycle’s Twitter feed consists of conversations, meaning riders are actively reaching out to the brand and then getting an immediate reaction. And though SoulCycle currently operates out of 17 studios, they chose to unite the brand under one Twitter handle. “SoulCycle really is one large community,” Cohen said. “We felt like breaking it up would lose some of the power and strength of that community.” Their content strategy is founded on a collective voice.
SoulCycle attracts riders by offering an immersive physical experience. But it’s their knack for storytelling that lets them elevate that experience into a lifestyle. At the end of class, instructors send them into the outside world with total affirmation: “If you can do this, you can do anything.” At SoulCycle’s core, that is exactly the story they tell, and more importantly, the one that its customers want to believe most and be a part of.Image by Merydolia