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In the 21st century, ‘spiritual branding’ is worth a lot of money

SHARE In the 21st century, ‘spiritual branding’ is worth a lot of money
SoulCycle - 11/17/2014 - Los Angeles, California - CFDA/SOULCYCLE CHARITY RIDE held at SoulCycle, Los Angeles, CA. Photo Credit: Owen Kolasinski/BFAnyc/Sipa USA

SoulCycle - 11/17/2014 - Los Angeles, California - CFDA/SOULCYCLE CHARITY RIDE held at SoulCycle, Los Angeles, CA. Photo Credit: Owen Kolasinski/BFAnyc/Sipa USA

Owen Kolasinski/BFAnyc.com, Owen Kolasinski/BFAnyc/Sipa USA

Study after study has shown that Americans are falling out of love with organized religion, with a recent Gallup poll finding that "the church and organized religion is losing its footing as a pillar of moral leadership in the nation's culture."

But that doesn't mean that Americans aren't searching for a sense of spirituality in an organized setting.

According to Slate's Amy X. Wang, SoulCycle, a company known for its increasingly popular indoor bicycling "communities," is now going public, hoping to become a major force in exercise boutiques (and make a lot of money for investors).

"But how did SoulCycle go from a tiny one-studio joint in Manhattan, as it was in 2006, to a massive chain and national fitness craze?" Wang asked. "The answer is that SoulCycle’s appeal to customers runs deeper than a high-energy workout — the company also markets itself as something of a spiritual experience."

According to Wang, SoulCycle has been rather open about its spiritual intentions, even citing them in the company's IPO filing.

"SoulCycle instructors guide riders through an inspirational, meditative fitness experience designed to benefit the body, mind and soul," the company detailed in its filing. "We believe SoulCycle is more than a business, it’s a movement."

The setup of SoulCycle includes large crowds of dedicated bicyclists, peddling in unison as an instructor preaches a rowdy gospel of endurance and self-worth. Oh, and it's all done in a dimly lit room.

"It simultaneously offers a totally substance-less theory of spirituality and invokes complex ideas of personhood," The Atlantic's Emma Green wrote of the movement last year, "suggesting one way that contemporary spirituality manifests among a very, very limited set of Americans."

As Green explained, SoulCycle's classes are "designed to create a sense of self through exercise," complete with rituals, doctrines and a sense of redemption.

Another aspect that the popular exercise club has in common with religion, as New York Magazine's Alex Morris wrote in his in-depth profile of the origins of the company, is that SoulCycle relies on the "charisma" of its trainers. They even call the place where the trainer instructs the class a "podium."

SoulCycle's appeal to a sense of secular belonging is part of a larger trend in modern marketing. As The Atlantic's Derek Thompson wrote last year, brands have sought long and hard to cultivate a form of devotion from their customers.

"As branding loses some of its influence as a marker of quality, savvy companies are shifting their marketing efforts ever more strongly to this other source of brand advantage — identity and community," Thompson wrote.

Thompson even found that brands from Yelp to Air BNB have actually studied religious cults for inspiration.

“People have been thinking about the similarities between cults and brands for years,” Ligaya Tichy, who has worked for Yelp, among other companies, as a community manager, told Thompson. “Only now you’re really seeing people start to codify these practices with evangelists and groups like Yelp Elite.”

"One of the hallmarks of a cult is that members unite to oppose what they see as an oppressive or illegitimate mainstream culture," Thompson wrote, and companies like SoulCycle have found ways to develop secular communities around similar ideas.

But the communal feeling of SoulCycle also suffers from some of the same bumps organized religion has experienced since time immemorial — namely, dissenters.

Because, as Gallup found in its poll, it's not the positive elements of religion that Americans have lost interest in, such as a sense of belonging or personal empowerment, but what they judge to be "poor behavior on the part of some religious leaders."

And as history has proven again and again, all organizations are susceptible to bad behavior, even cycling instructors.

JJ Feinauer is a writer for Deseret News National. Email: jfeinauer@deseretdigital.com, Twitter: jjfeinauer.