Nietzsche famously declared, “God is dead” in the 20th century. But nature abhors a vacuum. In the 21st century, brands like SoulCycle have replaced Catholicism as new secular religions in the West.
Walk into any SoulCycle in any of the same interchangeable global cities and you will be bombarded with quasi-religious messaging imprinted on the walls, comparable to the Arabic inscriptions in Istanbul's Hagia Sophia:
“We aspire to inspire … Change your body. Take your journey. Find your soul.”
Davis Richardson is a Web3 media strategist who has written for the New York Observer, New York Post, The Daily Beast, VICE, Paradox Politics and Wired. He owns bitcoin, ethereum and other cryptocurrencies.
Just as the Catholic Church exploited followers’ fears of endless damnation by selling indulgences, SoulCycle tells its customers they have no soul without the needed corporate remedy: Exercise classes on stationary bikes.
The fitness brand is hardly the outlier. In a global monopoly system lacking any ideological counterpart, companies battle one another for market share by converting competitors’ customers into followers. It isn’t enough to sell a good product: Companies must sell meaning in a world devoid of substance following the great ideological contests that characterized the 20th century.
Although corporatism has replaced religion, populations on a whole are skeptical of marketing tactics. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, only 48% of Americans trust corporate messaging. It is very difficult for centralized companies to cultivate loyal followings selling authentic experiences and meaning, partly because the underlying motive is profit.
Companies looking to boost their following should deploy the Web3 playbook: Turn consumers into individual stakeholders and make them feel part of larger social movements. Doing so may even recalibrate corporate incentive structures and promote a culture in which everyone has something to contribute based on their skills and merits.
Web3 loves community … and free money
Web3 startups understand the importance of community. They grow followings united in a common vision via Telegram and Discord, offering “community members” – a different framing from customers or consumers – benefits like presale tokens and airdrops to incentivize regular engagement. While traditional startup founders hoard company equity like paranoid ghouls even from senior leadership, Web3 organizations rain virtual monopoly money on anyone who exhibits a fraction of loyalty.
A yearning for community and free money is at the heart of human nature.
Legacy brands can’t operate in a legal gray zone and risk breaking securities laws over some comically named cryptocurrency, but they can incentivize spending and offer loyalty rewards. Airlines and hotels already do this with different points systems, forming "Disneyfied" infrastructures with strategic partnerships in which points can be transferred and used for more experiences. Corporations funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into marketing and elaborate PR campaigns, but they rarely give pre-existing members no-strings-attached gifts and experiences.
Rather than treating customer acquisition like some Darwinistic contest that assumes human beings are either gullible idiots goaded into buying prepackaged services or evolved hunters safeguarding their resources by rejecting these attempts, companies should de facto emphasize community and regularly engage with members and reward them directly for being a part of it.
Memes drive advertising and iconography
The poet Allen Ginsburg famously wrote that whoever controls “the images, controls the culture.”
Successful Web3 startups understand the importance of bite-sized media invoking humor around key reference points that often conceal the real purpose of driving forward key company narratives. If brands have replaced religions as new secular mass movements, then memes are the modern day vehicles for recruiting followers and reinforcing narratives and ideology.
What is the Vatican but a collection of the world’s most iconic memes?
Within each Web3 ideological camp, certain customs are particular to each group, whether it's Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin's followers abstaining from seed oils or Bitcoin maximalists photoshopping laser eyes on their social media avatars. Memes reinforce these rituals while creating mythology around company founders. Unlike traditional corporate demographics, Web3 communities boast sycophantic, deranged followers willing to bet their entire financial well-being on whether a crypto lives or dies.
Founded in 2006, SoulCycle convinced affluent, young professionals lacking spiritual meaning to buy into a fitness lifestyle with ads reading “Find Your Soul.” Founded three years later in 2009, Bitcoin developers convinced entire countries to buy into a new global monetary system following Reddit memes of Morpheus in the Matrix hailing its greatness.
Mess is good
Perfectionists limit themselves from uncovering new ideas and creation methods. Traditional companies are likewise kneecapped by corporate hierarchies, office politics and bureaucratic red tape from innovating.
Web3 startups don’t have these inhibitors and can quickly adapt to the tailwinds of an emerging asset class evolving in hyper-speed over the internet. Getting messy and experimenting with memes and incentive structures allows founders to figure out better ways to scale their businesses and engage with their communities.
Whether it succeeds or fails, there is something more honest about colorful ideas deployed off-the-cuff than heavily market-tested corporate promotions.
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