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Does SoulCycle Have A Soul Without The Cycle?

Can a broader approach to fitness and lifestyle help the cult brand seem, well, less cult-like? The chain expands, hoping to draw in a new type of consumer.

Does SoulCycle Have A Soul Without The Cycle?
[Photo: courtesy of SoulCycle]

SoulAnnex, the two-month-old New York City workout space founded by the creators of SoulCycle, does not feature a single bike. But that’s not what you first notice as you approach the dimly lit Flatiron studio purely devoted to the cycle-less arts–cardio, yoga, and HIIT, among them.

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The first thing you notice are the atmospheric lights: a trio of oversized ceiling lamps that hover over the minimalist studio’s white lacquered floors.

The futuristic fixtures, in an almost menacing manner, intensely glow with color–lilac, melon pink–as if they’re going to beam you up to an ’80s nightclub or meet Barbarella. A connected entrance hallway boasts soft, repetitive rectangular lights that look like a spaceship’s corridor.

[Photo: courtesy of SoulCycle]
The decor is certainly attention grabbing, which isn’t unusual for the brand, whose legion of die-hard spin-class fans expect their fitness experience to come with a dash of style and candlelit surroundings. Apart from its existing, popular athleisure line, the company just announced a new scent collaboration with upscale French fragrance brand Le Labo. Starting this month, locker rooms will feature pricey, grapefruit-inspired products. SoulCycle, it can be said, is meticulous about experience.

“We always say that SoulCycle is an amalgamation of thousands of details that go into every experience our riders have with us in the studio,” explains CEO Melanie Whelan. “We treat SoulAnnex the same way.”

Related Video: How SoulCycle Creates A Meaningful Experience Based On Customer Feedback and Input

The goal of SoulAnnex’s look and feel is to take attendees off the noisy, dirty, and crowded New York Streets and transfer them to a wholly atmospheric, ambient chamber meant “to transfer your energy” before you even start your class, says Whelan. “We consider the space, the amenities, the light, how to train the staff on how to talk about the classes . . . everything.”

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Melanie Whelan [Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images]
For those who assumed the latest fitness studio expansion would replicate SoulCycle–but just replace the bikes with yoga mats–they’re in for a sweaty treat. Yes, there’s the affinity for simple geometric logo graphics, cold lavender-scented towels, and plenty of merch by the cashier, but SoulAnnex has its own unique flavor. The skeleton of SoulCycle is visible, but the brand is trying something different with its latest invention.

SoulCycle cornered much of the cycling market with its community-focused and music-driven devotion to pedaling, but SoulAnnex offers, well, a little bit of everything. The $34 classes range across three modalities, labeled Move, Define, and Align, a mishmash of strength training, dance, stretching, cardio, and yoga–all meant to complement one’s existing SoulCycle workout routine. During a recent class titled The Finery, I participated in what I would describe as a challenging Vinyasa yoga class that included handheld weights, lunges, and squats. Basically, imagine your yoga instructor teamed up with a ThighMaster.

“Our [SoulCycle] riders had been telling us for years and years that they were looking for ways to spend more time with us, and that they were also cross-training and doing modalities other than cycling,” says Whelan.

[Photo: courtesy of SoulCycle]
Currently, SoulCycle boasts 80 studios across the U.S. and Canada. The 11-year-old chain opened an average of 15 studios a year for past five years. It has since become one of the most well-known names in the boutique fitness industry, a significantly growing sector within the $30 billion U.S. health and fitness industry. With the brand’s foray into other popular categories, SoulCycle may be better positioned to compete in a now-crowded market full of barre, pilates, and yoga studios–many of which have themselves aggressively expanded into more markets.

But still, can the brand synonymous with cycling effectively move beyond the wheel?

“We say internally that it’s never been about a bike,” says Whelan. “It’s always been about our rider and creating an experience for them. The bike was just the vessel.”

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SoulAnnex is the company’s first push into off-the-bike exercise, and as such, is still being treated like an in-house testing center. All the instructors hail from SoulCycle, but have been taught (or themselves previously taught elsewhere) the new modalities. There’s still some tweaking going on when it comes to the exercise routines and music–and the latter doesn’t yet seem on par with SoulCycle’s reputation for perfectly aligning movement to beats.

As Whelan explains, the company isn’t putting any money or advertising behind the new “in-pilot mode” studio. The most you’ll see in terms of marketing is a shout-out in a branded newsletter every so often. SoulAnnex instead relies on word-of-mouth, primarily via its instructors, who enjoy nearly celebrity status within the SoulCycle community. (During the company’s 2015 IPO filing, it stated that its core identity is “fueled by the personalities of our instructors,” who propel the brand during after-class chats or on social media.)

“It is a very intentional strategy,” explains Whelan. “We believe if you invest money in your experience, in your community, and in the connections with the riders–that’s the best marketing for any brand. It’s really part of our overarching strategy of how we build awareness.”

Whelan says her team is continuously evolving SoulAnnex and absorbing member feedback to deliver a consistent, high-end experience. “We really viewed this as sort of an incubator from the beginning,” she says. But online reviews of SoulAnnex are mixed, with some customers attesting to an “awkward” mix of exercise moves, or pointing to the lack of showers (which many SoulCycle studios do have) in SoulAnnex locker rooms.

[Photo: courtesy of SoulCycle]
Negative reviews have not stopped SoulCycle enthusiasts from trying out the medley of classes still in beta mode. Since it opened in October, a majority of SoulAnnex classes are full, with several classes each week selling out within a day’s posting.

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SoulCycle has long attracted affluent women in top urban cities such as Los Angeles and New York. But with SoulAnnex, the real opportunity lies in gathering more general fitness enthusiasts across the country–ones who don’t necessarily share the same single-minded obsession for gripping handlebars. Whelan notes that customers in other cities, including Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., repeatedly asked for what SoulAnnex eventually became.

“What we’re hearing people say is, ‘I was intimidated to come to SoulCycle because it is this very tightly knit community or tribe,'” says Whelan.

[Photo: courtesy of SoulCycle]
Fitness, notes Whelan, is intimidating–period. Part of the challenge for SoulCycle has always been to tear down that intimidation barrier to get people in the door. The classes do, in some ways, make for a welcoming experience–the dark lights, for example, help some feel anonymous within a group setting. But the idea of working with equipment scares off some prospective clients, while SoulCycle’s intense fandom and cool factor shoos off others.

“If we are able to use SoulAnnex as a different entry point for people and take down any of those barriers, that’s a win,” says Whelan.

In a sense, SoulCycle’s obsessive following is a double-edged sword: Fans flock to its community-minded “tribe” (which undoubtedly helped the company grow), but others are put off by it.  Now, new members see an opportunity to join a studio that doesn’t yet have an established group, or see something they believe is less, well, cult-like.

If Whelan is concerned that SoulAnnex could potentially dilute the brand, she’s not copping to it, instead focusing on how the new endeavor could attract more fitness enthusiasts to the die-hard community. At the same time, the CEO seems in no rush to expand SoulAnnex just yet, as the formula still needs fine tuning. It is about experience, after all.

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“It is too early to say, but it’s something that we are evaluating,” she says, before adding, “we believe there is is more opportunity . . . We’re starting to think about what’s next.”