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Brand Genius

How SoulCycle’s Co-Founders Turned a Grueling Workout Into a Spiritual Empire

Adweek’s 2015 Brand Genius winner for fitness

Unhappy with New York's gyms, Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice started a soulful spin empire. Photo: Sasha Maslov

Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice have much in common. Both are New Yorkers and young, driven professionals for whom career and exercise are important. Ten years ago, over lunch, they discovered another thing they had in common: They both disliked all the gyms in New York.

Finding a rigorous workout was simple enough, but none seemed to be any fun. None of the gyms they'd seen nurtured a community of overworked, overstimulated urbanites by offering a meditative, blissful experience that also scorches calories. Since nobody was doing it, Cutler and Rice decided to start SoulCycle.

With more than three dozen studios across the country, SoulCycle is essentially a spinning class on a spiritual quest. To the beat of curated tunes, members pedal through the toughest workout of their lives while high-energy instructors motivate them. Marketingwise, SoulCycle is one of those rare brands that runs on its own energy. It basically does no advertising, yet it enjoys plenty of exposure thanks to its devoted clientele, including celebrities like David Beckham and Charlize Theron, and religious commitment among clients.

And now the co-founders' brand-creation savvy has earned them the distinction of being Adweek Brand Genius winners for 2015.

SoulCycle isn't just an exercise class—it's a spiritual experience.

"I am a SoulCycle disciple," says Melissa Shapiro, U.S. investment president at MediaVest. "It is a 360-degree lifestyle brand that celebrates fashion, fitness, friendship, music and everything in between. I'm hooked for life." SoulCycle's 45-minute classes (which range from $35 to $80) are booked well in advance, and sessions with the most popular instructors sell out in seconds.

Cutler and Rice say they wanted to introduce joy into exercise. At SoulCycle riders experience a sensory environment that focuses their attention on their ideal selves. The walls are emblazoned with terms, in all caps, like LEGEND, WARRIOR, RENEGADE and ROCK STAR. Meanwhile, SoulCycle's logo, featuring a yellow bicycle wheel, is not unlike the wheel of dharma found in Eastern religions. Inspirational words from instructors, their faces lit by the soft glow of candles, urge riders to live their best lives. Music is also a driving force behind the SoulCycle gestalt, even though it isn't always spiritual—some classes feature the likes of Taylor Swift and Janet Jackson.

"The genius of SoulCycle's marketing strategy mirrors the genius of their business strategy; they've found a way to make each and every interaction feel personalized and premium," says Lauren Crampsie, global CMO at Ogilvy & Mather. "Whether it be the relationship you have with your favorite instructor or a tweet reply you receive after a great ride, SoulCycle has mastered the customer experience both in and outside of the studio."

Fitness with a stylish bent. Source: Instagram

Much of that wisdom dates back to SoulCycle's early days when Cutler and Rice manned the front desk and interacted with everyone who walked in the door. "We always say what we learned behind the front desk of the studio in the morning was more than we could learn in an office in three weeks," Cutler says. "You can really listen to your riders and understand what they want."

Testimonials via social media are an important part of SoulCycle's marketing strategy. Soul Stories are first-person accounts of how SoulCycle has changed clients' lives.

Aside from its Hollywood devotees, SoulCycle turns its instructors into mini-celebrities through snappy profiles on its website. Curated playlists, teaching schedules, meal plans and inspirational quotes are all aggressively pumped through Facebook and Twitter.

The payoff for the brand is apparent. Between 2012 and 2014, the chain expanded from 12 studios to 36 and grew its revenue from $36.2 million to $112 million. Last year, 2.9 million rides were taken at SoulCycle, according to the brand.

Meanwhile, SoulCycle continues its own thrilling ride. In July, the startup filed for its IPO. 

This story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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