Introduction: The Soul Cycle experience

The relationship between the Soul Cycle brand and its consumers is unique, most notably because consumers have engaged with the brand in the exact way in which the brand intended.  Specifically, through marketing a Soul Cycle spinning class as a group experience rather than simply a forty-five minute exercise routine, Soul Cycle has been able to cultivate a loyal client base that has developed a community around the brand.  This essay uncovers Soul Cycle’s strategy through the examining the brand’s social media platform that is used in order to communicate with consumers, the program for maintaining their client base and obtaining new members, as well as Soul Cycle’s targeting specific types of consumers that promote their brand’s image and ideology.  Soul Cycle consumers have positively responded to the brand’s marketing strategy by forming strong communities revolving around instructors and studio locations, engaging with the brand and other clients through social media outlets as well as attending classes, and attributing a divine-like characteristic to the Soul Cycle experience by forming personal attachments and identities to the brand.

The following sections first define Soul Cycle’s particular marketing strategy, and then demonstrate how consumers have responded.  The three components of Soul Cycle’s marketing strategy are social media engagement, securing a loyal client-base and targeting the ideal consumer.  In general, consumers have responded to the three-pronged plan by forming a community around the brand; however, more specifically, in response to Soul Cycle’s communication using Social Media, consumers engage with the brand through social media and participation in classes.  Additionally, Soul Cycle’s strategy for maintaining existing clients and obtaining new members is reflected in consumers creating communities around the brand based on instructors and studio locations.  Finally, in an effort to target the ideal consumer, Soul Cycle customers respond to this strategy by forming an identity and community revolving around the brand. Overall, the most prevalent feature of Soul Cycle’s brand strategy and the reaction from consumers is the cultivation of a brand community.  Muniz and O’Guinn classify a brand community as, “a specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relationships among admirers of a brand.” (Muniz, O’Guinn 412).  The upcoming sections demonstrate that consumers form community through engaging with the brand and other riders through online outlets as well as when they attend classes.  Whether the communities are formed about the brand in general or about specific instructors and locations, each community is participating in “the brand’s larger social construction” and playing “a vital role in the brand’s ultimate legacy” (Muniz, O’Guinn 412).

Promotional Content typically used in Soul Cycle's studio decor and merchandise.  Screen Shot taken from Soul Cycle's instagram page.

Promotional Content typically used in Soul Cycle’s studio decor and merchandise. Screen Shot taken from Soul Cycle’s instagram page.

Brand Engagement:

Dialogue between the producers and consumers are almost entirely facilitated through communication on social media.  Before further describing the details of how Soul Cycle and its clients engage with each other on various social media platforms, the significance of this type of correspondence will be explored through the findings of Alison Hearn, Adam Arvidsson and Celia Lury.  In Hearn’s research on self-branding, she explains the significance of Facebook and other social media sites in the formation of branding and the formation of self-identity.  Hearn states, “it currently appears as though social network sites are the centre of both community and commerce in the virtual world” (Hearn 210).  This statement concisely describes the rationale behind both the producers and consumers social media activity; Soul Cycle is seeking to promote commerce and customers are forming community and identity around the brand and product.

Soul Cycle communicates with consumers almost entirely through online media sources; it is important to note the lack of printed ad campaigns issued by the brand. The use of online rather than printed promotional content indicates that the ideal consumer is one who has a strong social media presence and incorporates these media outlet into his everyday life.  The fitness company has expanded to several social media channels such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and even Spotify.  However, the main web source utilized by Soul Cycle is their official webpage titled www.soul-cycle.com, which also contains their “soul blog” page.    The content on their social media sites is majority re-posting from their blog, but the integration of their media content shows consumers that they have a substantial online presence, the information is easily accessible, and the brand has a desire to interact with it’s clients.  It also shows that Soul Cycle is innovative and very much a part of the contemporary culture.   The brand uses social media in order to promote this sense of brand immersion and to perpetuate their trendy image.  Specifically, Soul Cycle’s classes have extra appeal because of the music selections that are part of each unique class’s choreography.  As a result, Soul Cycle has started reaching consumers by publishing playlists on Spotify that are a reflection of the instructors’ favorite hits or are selected by a theme.  The brand’s emphasis on music is relevant because Soul Cycle’s main locations are in Los Angeles and New York City; both of these cities have strong music cultures and thus Soul Cycle may be using this medium to connect to consumers in these locations and to keep them interested and engaged. The use of social media and online marketing reflects their interest in appealing to a younger demographic of culturally hip and tech savvy individuals.  Specifically, Hearn claims that Facebook and other social media sites are “coveted sites for web advertising” because, “corporate interests see a way to embed their brands in the minds of hard to reach teens by talking to them in ‘their online vernacular’” (Hearn 211).

Soul Cycle image promoting the brand's online presence on Twitter (Screen Shot taken from Soul Cycle's Instagram page)

Soul Cycle image promoting the brand’s online presence on Twitter (Screen Shot taken from Soul Cycle’s Instagram page)

Interestingly, Soul Cycle members interact with the brand in a way that is reflective of how the product is marketed to consumers.  Specifically, as previously stated in earlier sections, Soul Cycle’s entire marketing campaign is presented through social media and the company seeks to appeal to consumers by promoting a sense of community and brand identity.  Therefore, it is no surprise that Soul Cycle’s members are engaging with the brand primarily through social media outlets as well as forming communities based on favorite instructors and locations.  In regard to communities developed on social media, Soul Cycle has 28,904 likes on Facebook, 24,752 followers on Twitter and 22,000 followers on Instagram.  As a point of comparison, Soul Cycle’s main competitor, Flywheel Sports, has 17,505 likes on Facebook, 10,481 followers on Twitter and 6,241 followers on Instagram; this demonstrates that Soul Cycle has reached far more consumers through social media than many of the brand’s competitors have.  Beyond the standard posts by consumers documenting their status of going to Soul Cycle, members have engaged with Soul Cycle on social media in unique ways. Specifically, “participation on these sites also involves the formation of groups around shared interests and connections” (Hearn 211).  For instance, even simply entering “soul cycle” on twitter leads one to find various ways in which consumers have incorporated soul cycle into their daily lives and identity.  Fans have created twitter accounts such as @Soulcycleprobz, which indicates a sense of closure within the community because only Soul Cycle regulars would be able to understand the jokes.  Additionally, even in twitter bios members have put that they are Soul Cycle “addicts” or “enthusiasts,” and instructors are very active on twitter as well as other social media outlets.  Therefore, while on the one hand the incorporation of Soul Cycle into the online presence of clients helps to promote the brand, clients are also using their involvement with Soul Cycle to help form community and to craft digitized self-branded identities.

Since Soul Cycle is a brand that provides a service, the main activity that consumers engage in around the brand is attending the Soul Cycle classes. On occasion, Soul Cycle will sponsor a ride for a particular charity, which is a way in which consumers can engage in an activity around the brand and also feel that they are apart of a loving community.  Additionally, Soul Cycle also sponsors competitions such as their “Movember Competition” in which men submit photos of them with a moustache for a chance to win 10 free classes; the point of the Movember Competition is to raise awareness for men’s health (soul blog).  Also, the launch of the Soul Cycle clothing line has facilitated an easy way for members to feel like they are apart of a community by wearing the products.  In addition, Soul Cycle community members can be easily identified as Soul Cycle clients when they wear the brand’s clothing line.  But by far the most interesting aspect of examining Soul Cycle in terms of brand community is the fact that each Soul Cycle ride is supposed to be a community experience; therefore, it is only natural that members would form a community around the brand.  One author explains, “the exercise program focuses on the “energy of the pack” and creates a strong community bond between the riders” (prnewswire.com).  Therefore, the most effective way that the brand facilitates communication and community among consumers is by having a main component of the class structure be oriented around the idea of riding as a group activity, rather than an individual challenge.  Also, Soul Cycle frequently has themed rides featuring a particular musical artist or genre, which naturally brings people together in class who have similar interests.

The significance of the relationship between Soul Cycle and consumers in the digital realm and through participating in Soul Cycle’s classes and programs is best explained through the concept of “immaterial labor.”  Immaterial labor refers to “the practices that produce either the immaterial content of commodities, or the social context of production itself” (Arvidsson 241).   Arvidsson argues that when consumers interact with the brand through engaging in “immaterial labor,” an “ethical surplus (a social bond, a shared experience, a common identity)” is created “through productive communication” (Arvidsson 235).  In other words, consumers are not passive bystanders in the construction of brand value and meaning, but rather, through their active engagement with the brand, consumers form personal ties between the brand and other members of the brand community, which directly correlates to the “direct basis of its economic value” (Arvidsson 237).  So when critics try to grapple with why loyal customers can pay up to seventy dollars for a Soul Cycle class, the rationale is rather simple- the social relation, shared identity and emotional attachments developed through immaterial labor and direct engagement with the brand’s product justify the economic value.  Furthermore, the significance of consumers engaging in forms of “free labor” such as “participating in online discussions and mailing list, simply recommending products to their friends, or adding new cultural meaning to products” is that “free participation is a crucial part of contemporary value production” (Lury 104).  Therefore, the line between production and consumption is becoming less defined and consumers have greater influence in “transforming the commodity in use” (Lury 104).

Securing a Loyal Client-base:

Soul Cycle’s ability to secure a loyal client-base is heavily dependent on Soul Cycle’s brand image as well as the ability to create a brand community.  According to Muniz and O’Guinn, the three core community commonalities are consciousness of kind, rituals and traditions and moral responsibility.  Soul Cycle has secured a loyal clientele as well as facilitated a brand community because the brand incorporated these factors into its strategy.  The most relevant of the three is moral responsibility, which is, “a sense of duty to the community as a whole, and to individual members of the community” (Muniz, O’Guinn 424).   Moral responsibility is manifested in the overall strategy for obtaining new clients; the strategy seems to be similar to that of a “trickle down effect.”  Specifically, Soul Cycle’s marketing techniques seem to focus completely on immersing the existing clients in the brand so that they will spread the news to their friends and invite them to join.  An example of this strategy is that often Soul Cycle will send out e-mail blasts promoting that if existing clients bring a friend, the friend will ride for free.   The attempt to focus primarily on existing clients is consistent with the idea that “to insure long-term survival it is necessary to retain old members and integrate new ones” (Muniz, O’Guinn 424); this concept is linked to moral responsibility.   Additionally, the act of inviting friends to join Soul Cycle demonstrates that “moral responsibility also includes looking out for and helping other members in their consumption of the brand” (Muniz, O’Guinn 425). More broadly however, Soul Cycle also has weekly themed rides in order to keep existing clients interested and to appeal to their eclectic musical tastes.

Furthermore, many of the featured stories on the soul blog are about existing clients’ success stories.  By promoting the success stories of customers, Soul Cycle and the brand community members are engaging in the ritual component of the formation of brand communities.  Specifically, “sharing brand stories is an important process as it reinforces consciousness of kind between brand members and contributes to imagined communities” (Muniz, O’Guinn 423).  The emphasis on favoring existing clients is evident in the way in which the Soul Cycle staff is trained; for example, “Emphasis is put on making riders feel special. Every corporate employee works the front desk for a week, so that each gets a sense of who is coming and going. Instructors are encouraged to know riders’ names, to learn about their lives, and to interact with them accordingly. Favored riders may be pulled to the coveted front row or even asked to ride the instructor bike” (Morris).   This technique is supported by Lury’s claims that branding goes beyond the actual product and even transforms the actual inner-workings of the company.   In Lury’s discussion of markets and branding in Consumer Culture, she describes a phenomenon called “brand engagement” or “internal marketing,” in which the relationship between the brand and the employees are stressed in order for the employees to embody the core values of the brand; this is an important step in securing brand authenticity.  Specifically, Lury states, “the first step to creating brand authenticity is therefore to ensure that its core values are clear and have been fully internalized by those who work within the company” (Lury 145).   Therefore, much of Soul Cycle’s success in securing loyal clients is attributed to the popularity of instructors and their ability to fully embody Soul Cycle’s brand persona.   Additionally, selling fashionable soul merchandise that is themed and changes every season is also a way that Soul Cycle uses existing clients to attract new consumers; wearing a soul cycle t-shit is basically a walking advertisement for the brand.  This is enhanced by the fact that the symbols of yellow, bicycle wheels and skulls are now easily identified with the Soul Cycle brand.

Soul Cycle’s main marketing premise to secure a loyal consumer base is to promote a sense of brand community amongst customers.  The tendency for customers to form community around the brand is due to Soul Cycle’s emphasis on moral responsibility and consciousness of kind.  Consciousness of kind is, “the intrinsic connection that members feel toward one another, and the collective sense of difference from others not in the community” (Muniz, O’Guinn 413).  The concept of moral responsibility directly relates to Soul Cycle because instructors structure the class around riding as a pack; if they see certain members getting tired or giving up they will emphasize that each member has a responsibility to the other riders in the class.  Additionally, phrases such as “pack, crew, cult, posse, community, soul cycle” are printed on the walls of the studios and on some of their merchandise.  Therefore, the overall feeling of being a part of a community and for each member to have a moral responsibility to the community as a whole is intrinsic to Soul Cycle’s core values.  Soul Cycle customers also form community in separating themselves from the clientele of Soul Cycle’s competitors.  For instance, an author explains the relationship between Soul Cycle and Flywheel as, “the two companies are fierce and unfriendly competitors, with strong allegiances and a divided clientele. In a New York Times article about the breakup, one frequent spinner put it bluntly: “It’s like team Angelina and team Jennifer.” Said another: “It would be wrong to go to both of them” (Price 1).  Therefore, each company has their respective clientele and there is very little cross over because members of Soul Cycle have developed a personal attachment to the brand.  This phenomenon is supported by the tendency of brand community members with consciousness of kind to “frequently note a critical demarcation between users of their brand and users of other brands.  There is some important quality, not always easily verbalized, that sets them apart from others and makes them similar to one another” (Muniz, O’Guinn 418).

However, the most prominent way in which consumers form a community and attachment around the brand is by developing cult-like groupings around certain instructors and locations.  From personal experience, when talking to individuals who frequently attend soul cycle, the most common discussion is about which instructors they like.  Soul Cycle does an excellent job at marketing their instructors and helping consumers form attachments to them based on music tastes and fitness background; there is even an entire section of the Soul Cycle website dedicated to the biographies of the instructors.  During my visits to Soul Cycle, I have witnessed the interactions between loyal groupies and their idolized instructors and it is clear that members will go out of their way to attend classes with their favorite instructors.  One author states, “Soul Cycle customers don’t pick a class based on location or time; they pick based on instructor” (Epstein).  They will talk to the instructors after class, follow them on Twitter and Facebook and make sure they sit in the front row and get their names mentioned during class.  Soul cycle regulars are very loyal to their favorite instructors, and classes for popular instructors can fill up within minutes of the weekly sign-ups starting at noon every Monday.  As one Vanity Fair journalist explains her experience interacting with the popular instructor Stacey Griffith, “Obviously, I’d done my Googling (stalking), and I knew that she was a celebrity favorite with a cult following. It was apparently a big deal that I had gotten into her class” (Volpe 1).  As a result, communities form amongst the “groupies” of specific instructors.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWu2vPI4j2M (Promotional Video for Celebrity Instructor Stacey Griffith)

Targeting the Ideal Consumer:

The key to understanding Soul Cycle’s appeal to consumers lies within the “cultural process of branding” (Banet-Weiser 5).  Specifically, Soul Cycle has marketed their brand as an experience rather than a product, so consumers have attached social, cultural and emotional meaning to the brand and participation in Soul Cycle classes.  Banet-Weiser uses the term “brand culture” to refer “to the way in which these types of brand relationship have increasingly become cultural contexts for everyday living, individual identity, and affective relationships” (Banet-Weiser 4).   Soul Cycle does not appear to have one overall ideal consumer type, but rather there are several qualities that are key to their ideal consumer base.  One quality that Soul Cycle seems to look for in their ideal consumer is the potential for a dramatic transformation.  For instance, in their soul blog, almost weekly an article is published highlighting a client who overcame some sort of obstacle in their personal health and whose life was changed because of exercising at Soul Cycle.  Therefore, Soul Cycle is looking for consumers who have the ability to give them the publicity of a weight loss success story. The process of Soul Cycle enthusiasts sharing their success stories and Soul Cycle publishing these anecdotes contributes to the ritualistic feature of the formation of a brand community.  Specifically, “Storytelling is an important means of creating and maintaining community.  Stories based on common experiences with the brand serve to invest the brand with meaning, and meaningfully link community member to community member” (Muniz, O’Guinn 423).  Therefore, through storytelling community members can bond with each other and the personal ties between the brand and consumers are reinforced.

Soul Cycle rider Trenice lost 53 lbs since starting at Soul Cycle. (screen shot taken from Soul Blog)

Soul Cycle rider Trenice lost 53 lbs since starting at Soul Cycle. (screen shot taken from Soul Blog)

http://www.soul-cycle.com/blog.cfm?season=Summer%202013

Furthermore, the choice of locations in wealthy neighborhoods indicates that Soul Cycle’s ideal client base consists of high-income individuals.  Specifically, Soul Cycle has studios in some of the most expensive areas in the country such as, Beverly Hills, Greenwich, Upper East Side and Soho.  This also leads to the question of whether Soul Cycle is trying to avoid certain consumers.  The evidence thus far does not demonstrate any intentional discrimination of any specific type of consumer, but their choice in location and their prices seem to lead to the majority of their consumer base to be wealthy and primarily white individuals.  This assumption is based on the demographic of the studio locations as well as due to the realities of social stratification and the high prices of the classes.  Specifically, Soul Cycle charges thirty four dollars per class as well as provides the option to buy class packages in which the price per class can go up as high as seventy dollars for their most premiere package.  The premiere package includes early sign ups, priority on waitlists and even a concierge service  (Ioannou).  In order to appeal to different types of consumers, such as an Upper East Side mother riding in the morning as opposed to an NYU student spinning after school, the instructors are cast very specifically to meet the expected needs and personality of each class and studio (Morris).  Ultimately, the ideal consumer is someone who is searching for a brand identity.  Soul Cycle is seeking a consumer who will be completely engaged and committed to participating in the Soul Cycle lifestyle. In order to attract this type of consumer, Soul Cycle presents itself as an alternative type of exercise.  For instance, even though the brand was bought by Equinox, the company does not work like a traditional gym, in which each member pays a membership fee and pays monthly or yearly. Rather, Soul Cycle’s economic structure is based on a class-by-class basis and there is an emphasis on community and that exercise should be a mind, body and spirit experience.  In this way, Soul Cycle’s appeal as an alternative type of exercise with a spiritual component is similar to Banet-Weiser’s discussion of yoga and the branding of religion.  Furthermore, Banet-Weiser claims, “branded spirituality…is less closely tied to religious institutions, histories, and communal practice and more connected to individual affiliation and circuits of consumer culture” (Banet-Weiser 196).

Additionally, the kinds of consumers that are forming attachments to this brand are very consistent with the ideal consumer prototype that Soul Cycle targets.  The fan base predominately includes upper class white women, who are in search of a brand identity and community.  One author claims that Soul Cycle is simply an exercise chain for “the one percent” (Ioannu). Julie Rice, one of the founders of Soul Cycle, has even said, “there was a hole in the marketplace, especially for the female consumer, for a fitness experience that was joyful, efficient, and provided community” (Cutruzzula 1).  Fans also include celebrity clients such as Jake Gyllenhaal and Lady Gaga.  Besides the celebrity clientele and average upper class individual, the consumers who are most attached and who also receive the most attention from the brand are individuals who have attributed life-changing stories to Soul Cycle, and thus, now revolve their life around attending classes on a regular basis.  For instance, a New York Magazine article describes a woman who “arranged her schedule to have Mondays off work so that she can always be at her computer the moment classes are released… (and) she counts her instructors among her closest friends” (Morris).  Jamie, the twenty-seven year old Soul Cycle regular interviewed above, is one of many consumers who have formed an attachment to Soul Cycle and as a result have formed an almost fetishicized meaning to the brand.  Specifically, Jamie states, “I’m seven years sober. You don’t really get love and acceptance and encouragement and self-gratification from a cocktail… this is what I need in my life, and it just so happened it’s an exercise class” (Morris).  Jamie’s description of Soul Cycle helping her stay sober is fairly consistent with the meanings that the brand attempts to project and demonstrates how consumers have attached emotional meanings to the brand. Holt explains that brands like Soul Cycle have “identity value” in the eyes of consumers.  Specifically, “Acting as vessels of self-expression, the brands are imbued with stories that consumers find valuable in constructing their identities.  Consumers flock to brands that embody the ideals they admire, brands that help them express who they want to be” (Lury 150).  Additionally, Soul Cycle has gained appeal due to the brand’s assertion that it is both a physical and spiritual experience.  For instance, “through branding, the cultural meanings of spiritual practices such as (indoor cycling)…are reimagined not merely economically but also in terms of the relationship individuals have with this practice” (Banet-Weiser 196).   Soul Cycle consumers such as Jamie who have overcome addictions or those who have lost weight and reversed health problems due to Soul Cycle’s intensive routines have attributed a spiritual meaning to the brand. For example, one of Soul Cycle’s celebrity instructors describes the phenomenon as when, “the “outside person” looks better, the “inside person” begins to heal” (Grigoriadis 1); this rationale is precisely playing into the mind, body and spirit component that Soul Cycle promotes and consumers are believing.

Candid shot of the demographic of a typical Soul Cycle class (Upper East Side Location). Image source: NYT A Workout to Make Pulses and Pedals Race

Candid shot of the demographic of a typical Soul Cycle class (Upper East Side Location). Image source: NYT A Workout to Make Pulses and Pedals Race)

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/19/nyregion/19joint.html?loadDynamically=false&ribbonAdDisabled=false&_r=0

Conclusion:

The core of Soul Cycle’s branding strategy as well as the response from consumers can be summed up by three main components: brand engagement, securing a loyal client-base and targeting the ideal consumer.  By implementing this branding strategy, Soul Cycle has led consumers to attach emotional, spiritual and cultural experiences beyond the limitations of the actual physical product.  The most significant form of secondary production through the act of consumption is the cultivation of a brand community. Overall, the theories of Adam Arvidsson, Celia Lury, Alison Hearn, Sarah Banet-Weiser, Albert Muniz and Thomas O’Guinn, have significantly contributed to analyzing the relationship between producer and consumer in the case of the Soul Cycle brand.

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