My name is Vanessa, and I have an addiction to 1Rebel.
Despite having no real desire to exercise five years ago (beyond a very self-indulgent free yoga class at the Hoxton hotel every Saturday), I joined 1Rebel as a founding member after just a handful of classes.
The 'triple concept' gym which offers Ride (spinning), Reshape (weights and running), and Rumble (boxing) from 6 am each day was, and still is, the only thing that gets me up before dawn. When you consider how unmotivated I was before, this is no mean feat. So, what is the attraction? The next-level equipment and the opportunity to have your morning shower with the Spice Girls blaring through the surround-sound system was noteworthy, but the real pull was the employees. From a front of house team who remember your name and sign you in before you get to the front desk, to the instructors who can make you feel like you're the only person in the room, there is a real sense of belonging.
Over the years, instructors have become friends and the space itself has become a place of emotional significance, especially for my sister and I, who, with busy and often conflicting diaries, can sometimes only find time to sit next to each other on a bike in the dark on a Wednesday morning.
In 2015, Casper ter Kuile, a Ministry of Innovation Fellow at Harvard Divinity School, co-authored a 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. I get it. 1Rebel trainers have changed over the years (I still mourn the loss of some of my faves), but the brand ethos and loyal community have remained constant, and that's what makes it works.
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. Brands are wise to tap into this, and it goes some way to explaining why inclusive group exercise is leaving exclusive "no pain no gain" gyms for dust. "Don't side-eye the person on the bike next to you, you don't know what their journey was to get here" said trainer Esmee in one of her classes.
I am confident that 1Rebel will continue to be a success as the brand lives and breathes its values. But what happens when the brands we feel a deep-seated connection to behave "off-brand"?
That's what happened to 1Rebel's competitor SoulCycle. With promises like 'find your soul' the brand thrived by focusing on transforming customers’ minds as well as their bodies, with the goal of reaching "spiritual bliss". Instructors would speak of enlightenment, transcendence and higher purpose, with many of them giving riders advice and guidance in their wider lives. When the SoulCycle chairman threw a fundraising lunch for Donald's Trump's 2020 presidential campaign at $100,000 a ticket, SoulCycle followers felt betrayed. The messages of inclusion and acceptance that are in integral to the SoulCycle brand were antithetical to Trump's policies. Members took to the streets and to social media to cut ties with the brand.
Capitalising on consumers’ emotions can be a risky strategy. Week-by-week attendance at SoulCycle in the USA dropped steadily in August and dipped by 7.5% in the first week of September according to data-analysis firm Earnest Research.
If a brand is leveraging an emotional connection, it needs to practise what it preaches.
This is possibly even more important for employees of a brand than it is for their consumers. After all, they are the people influencing, creating, and building your product. There’s no shortage of research proving the relationship between company culture and performance. By hiring employees based on their ideological alignment to your company mission rather than their raw skill set, you can begin to build a brand loyalty seen in the consumer world.
So, what can company culture learn from cult brands?
- Develop an Employer Value Proposition that shows everyone the give and the get for being part of your mission, and an employer brand that brings it all together. This helps candidates and employees understand the emotional contract of your organisation. It helps the wrong people self-select out of applying, and gives your employees something to believe in whether that’s encouraging more people to exercise, bringing healthcare to millions, or developing the technology solutions of the future
- Assess candidates against the company vision and values, rather than just competency. When values are well embedded in an organisation, they help people make decisions that are right for the business and encourage the behaviours that will help you achieve your mission. It’s easier to up-skill employees than to change what they believe in, so recruit those who have the right behaviours to succeed rather than those who have done a role before. Even though colleagues and managers will move on and new people will join, if the ethos and values are embraced, the culture will remain
- Shape your incentives and benefits to reward mission-related achievement, reinforcing the behaviour. Benefits and rewards typically reward individuals for individual achievement. If your business success is reliant on entrepreneurship or collaboration, find ways to identify and recognise those behaviours instead of arbitrary targets
- Build a community around your brand. At a time where trust in corporations is declining, and LinkedIn and Facebook algorithms make it more difficult for your followers to see your content, employee advocacy is vital. Employees, on average, have a network that’s 10 times larger than your company’s follower base. And, brand messages are re-shared 24 times more frequently when distributed by employees vs. the business account. Engaging colleagues throughout your EVP process naturally builds brand champions that can leverage your brand. Encourage brand champions to share examples of your brand values on social media, and be advocates when talking to suppliers or clients, or attending conferences and events.
But, above all. . .
If you are going to stand for something as an organisation, make sure your actions align with your words.
Just as believers can build a brand, they can tear it apart.
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.”