How cult brands like SoulCycle and Airbnb are actually kinda cult-like

Companies are employing quasi-religious tactics to inspire enthusiasm for their brands. What happens when customers have a crisis of faith?

Fast Company/October 22, 2019

By Katrina Brooker

When billionaire real estate tycoon Stephen Ross decided to host a fundraiser for Donald Trump last summer, it’s unlikely he was thinking much about SoulCycle. The spinning-class chain is a small piece of his $60 billion empire, Related Companies, which controls 13,000 apartment rentals, 5,500 luxury condos, 60,000 housing units, and 30 million square feet of commercial real estate around the country. It’s equally unlikely that SoulCycle’s customers—an army of spinning fanatics who built the company into a billion-dollar juggernaut—had given much thought to Ross.

At least not until the morning of August 7, when Shannon Coulter, founder of #GrabYourWallet, which organizes boycotts of companies that have financial ties to Donald Trump, alerted them. “This Friday the SoulCycle and Equinox Fitness chairman is throwing a fundraising lunch for Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign. Tickets are $100,000 each. Adding to the list,” she tweeted. Almost immediately, SoulCycle devotees took to social media and the streets to publicly cut ties with the company, whose message of inclusion and self-acceptance seemed antithetical to the Trump administration’s policies. “Soulcycle has no soul,” read the placard of one Los Angeles protester.

While Coulter has issued calls to boycott dozens of other companies over the years, including AT&T, Bank of America, and Boeing, this one appears to be particularly effective. Week-by-week attendance at SoulCycle dropped steadily in August, and dipped by 7.5% in the first week of September, according to data analysis firm Earnest Research. Second Measure, which tracks consumer spending, found that SoulCycle had nearly 13% fewer U.S. customers make purchases in August than a year prior. Coulter, who deliberately called out SoulCycle in her tweet rather than one of Ross’s other companies, is not surprised. “I know how people feel about SoulCycle,” she tells me. The company’s deeply personal connection to its customers—its vaunted “cult brand” appeal—made their sense of betrayal more profound.

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as susceptible to cults. But at this point, billions of us have been drawn in by some iteration of one. Nearly every major brand we interact with uses at least some tactics that are, by design, cultish. Steve Jobs wasn’t selling devices so much as an affinity—to him, to other Mac users, and to a more egalitarian vision of computing—in the same way that religions make people feel connected to one another and a shared system of values. Lululemon founder Chip Wilson infused his company with ideas about personal fulfillment that were drawn directly from Landmark, the controversial, cultlike self-help organization.

“We have this deep-seated need to be a part of something bigger,” says Jonathan Mildenhall, the former chief marketing officer of Airbnb, who helped build its following of travelers into home-sharing zealots. (He’s now cofounder and CEO of the consultancy TwentyFirstCenturyBrand.) “When we were cavemen, we didn’t sit around the fire looking for happiness. We were looking for belonging.” In the age of social media, with loneliness on the rise, companies are increasingly—and more deliberately—tapping into our troglodytic psyches to inspire loyalty and evangelical-like enthusiasm for their products. But exploiting consumers’ emotions can be a risky business.

“People didn’t come to SoulCycle because they got fit. It was [for] the connection they got in the room,” says Julie Rice, who helped found the company in 2006 and sold her stake to Equinox a decade later. (She is no longer part of the management team for SoulCycle, which declined to comment for this story.) She and cofounder Elizabeth Cutler understood from the start that they were selling not just spin classes but spiritual bliss. They dimmed their workout rooms and filled them with candles; instructors spoke of enlightenment, transcendence, higher purpose. During one class, a trainer eulogized his father-in-law, bringing riders to tears as they spun. Many instructors become deeply and emotionally involved with riders, giving them advice and guidance on their lives outside of class.

“People will go to their SoulCycle instructors for questions that they used to go to their pastors for, like, ‘Should I divorce my husband?’ ” says Casper ter Kuile, a Ministry Innovation Fellow at Harvard Divinity School. He coauthored a 2015 report titled How We Gather, which looked at how brands like SoulCycle and CrossFit have replaced the role of traditional religious institutions, particularly among younger people who feel isolated in their digital lives. A recent study by the research firm YouGov found that one in five millennials believes they have “no friends.” A new report published by the American Psychological Association showed that depression in 18-to-21-year-olds has climbed more than 46% between 2009 and 2017.

Over the past decade, as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have gained followers, churches, synagogues, and mosques have been losing them. Attendance at regular religious services in America is at an all-time low. But religious alienation, it turns out, can be good for business. Ter Kuile’s study describes how SoulCycle has thrived by focusing on transforming customers’ bodies and minds, and encouraging them to express their brand allegiance through clothing, playlists, and more. The result is “a cultlike loyalty . . . which illustrates both the depth of participant commitment and the hope for these organizations to fulfill brand promises, like ‘find your soul.’ ”

Such lofty promises are increasingly common. “Our mission is to elevate the world’s consciousness,” the coworking giant WeWork declared at the start of its S-1 filing in August. Airbnb cofounder and CEO Brian Chesky marked his company’s 10th anniversary in January 2018 with a blog post that laid out his corporate mission: To create “a world where every one of us can belong anywhere. . . . Where every city is a village, every block a community, and every kitchen table a conversation. In this world, we can be anything we want.”

In the real world, Airbnb has embraced a quasi-religious approach to brand building. From 2012 to 2017, its global head of community was Douglas Atkin, who wrote the 2004 book The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers Into True Believers. In it, Atkin explored what businesses can learn from organizations such as the Unification Church and Hare Krishna. He cited, for example, the Unification Church’s technique of hooking in newcomers by “love bombing” them, or making them feel enveloped by love. Airbnb deploys a version of this tactic by encouraging hosts to leave handwritten notes and cookies for guests.

The company has also excelled at creating a value system—centered on a belief that its guests are innately superior to other travelers—for people to rally around, sometimes literally. For several years, Airbnb has invited hosts from across the world to gather in different cities and celebrate the brand. “For hosts, it was like coming to Mecca,” says Mildenhall, who helped orchestrate the tent-revival-like events when he was CMO. That fervor creates an us-against-the-world mentality, which the company can redirect toward regulators. After San Diego passed an ordinance last year prohibiting short-term rentals on second homes, Airbnb helped galvanize home-sharing fanatics to collect 62,000 signatures for a petition to rescind it. City lawmakers withdrew the ban. “Local hierarchies, massive traditions, doctrine, an arsenal of stories—you can weaponize a superbrand,” says Mildenhall.

But just as believers can build a brand, they can tear it apart. “They go from being brand lovers to brand terrorists,” observes Atkin, who is now retired and living in Tuscany. “Cults often die when there is a betrayal. And the betrayal happens because the leader or someone close to the leader does something totally opposite to the mission or the belief system of that organization.” SoulCycle’s predicament is a warning to other brands.

Shortly after the boycotts began in August, SoulCycle responded by offering more of its “community rides.” For each of these free classes, the company donates what it would have received from a sold-out one to the instructor’s charity of choice. The brand has been touting these rides in an effort to win back disillusioned riders.

On a September evening, about a month after the scandal broke, I pay $40 for a class at a SoulCycle in midtown Manhattan. Over thumping music, I try to make out my young instructor’s words of encouragement. “You don’t have to be perfect,” she says, and adds something about expectations—though I’m not sure if I’m supposed to lower or raise them. Afterward, one rider cheerily tells me how many friends she’s made through SoulCycle. I look around the room. It’s 5:30 p.m. on a Thursday. There are about 10 other riders in a space designed to cram 60. Maybe most people aren’t off work yet. Or maybe this is what it looks like when a cult begins to die.

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