Lululemon, Ayn Rand, & Avoiding Brand Damage

It happened again. One of those defining moments where we’re reminded why it’s important to be brand-driven. High-end yoga apparel maker Lululemon is enduring a storm of controversy from fans for selling Ayn Rand’s book, Atlas Shrugged in their retail stores with additional promotions asking ‘Who Is John Galt?’ (the book’s protagonist) on shopping bags and elsewhere.

Promoting a book? When did this become a crime? Oprah does it all of the time. First, you and your brand are not Oprah and neither is Lululemon. Few brands occupy such secure status in the hearts and minds of the public. She would have to be caught up in a puppy-kicking imbroglio to tarnish her brand. Second, for the most part, Oprah picked pretty tame books — classics, new and old. Where as Atlas Shrugged has long served as a lightning rod for the polarity that exists in our society as we struggle with individualism and capitalism vs. community and government. (That was the headiest sentence I’ve ever typed on this blog.) Right or wrong, the book is also often cited as required reading among the conservative set.

What does this have to do with yoga pants? A lot, as it turns out.

I only recently became aware of this when my wife, a registered yoga teacher and certified yoga personal trainer, was caught in a moral — yet brand-driven — conflict. As an instructor and regular yoga practioner, she needs quality apparel. Lululemon has long been a gold standard. This status was thrown into jeopardy recently when Chip Wilson, Lululemon founder and a fan of Atlas Shrugged, started this promotion. For those unfamiliar with yoga (I’m affiliated by marriage only) it is a very spiritual practice that instills a sense of community-mindedness which runs counter to the aggressive pursuit of self-interest advocated by Rand and her characters.

OK. Enough about literary criticism and high-end yoga clothes! What’s the big deal?

The big deal is the fact that many core customers are vowing in a very vocal fashion never to shop there again. (“Maybe the next Lululemon bags can sport a quote from L. Ron Hubbard and a reference to one of his ‘legendary literary characters,'” wrote one commenter on company’s blog. “I think I’ll shop elsewhere.”) And if they haven’t gone that far, they are at least struggling with a brand that used to be a luxurious, special treat to think about. Not a good position for your brand to be in.

The bigger deal, adding insult to injury, is a recent blog post from Lululemon about the Galt promotion where they assert that ‘society has us leading mediocre lives’ and the book helps us break free of that. On top of aligning with a controversial book, I’m not sure it’s the best time to remind your fans of their struggle with mediocrity. Furthermore, this ‘struggle’ doesn’t like part of a calming yoga practice.

Bigger still are the lessons we can take away from this storm to avoid potential brand damage that controversial issues can bring.

  1. Brands Should Unify, Not Polarize — If it’s controversial, you shouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole (politics, religion, issues, etc. — unless of course you represent a brand in one of those areas). But Wilson is the founder, right? He can promote whatever he wants in his stores. Sure, if he is willing to break the second take-away which is …
  2. Never Alienate Your Core Customers — Say you were looking at affiliating your brand with something controversial. If it violated only a limited segment of your customer base then you could perhaps consider it. Especially if it was an opinion or issue that could galvanize your core customers even more. However, you must never take the opposite approach and choose to alienate core customers for a few new stragglers you might pick up. Sure, Wilson is the founder but …
  3. Your Customers Own Your Brand — Sorry for the rude awakening but you are just a steward. Your brand is made of the gestalt experience your followers create based on interacting with your organization across a multitude of touchpoints. Ultimately your brand lives in the hearts and minds of the community (there’s that word again — community; seems again like this might not have been the best place to extol individualism). On top of all of this …
  4. Brands That You Wear Are Even More Personal — If people regularly wear your brand then they have chosen it not only for its surface level appeal (design, quality) but because being aligned with your brand is a way they have chosen to define themselves. This is sacred ground for a brand. Having people question if they want to continue to be a walking billboard for you when they have done so for years is not a great development to say the least.
  5. Brands Shouldn’t Flip-Flop — Making the Lululemon situation even worse, beyond the disconnect between Rand and the basic principles of yoga, there is an even greater rift between the unabashed selfishness of Atlas Shrugged and the uplifting messaging that adorns Lululemon’s brand touchpoints. Long story short, one of their shopping bags carries the quote ‘Friends are more important than money.’ Doesn’t sound like something from Rand. Running counter to their own years of messaging makes this promotion an even graver misstep.
  6. Apologize. Now. Take your licks, change course, and move on. Period. It’s not a lot of fun but moving on is often the best path forward.

As I write this, yogis far and wide — once happy brand evangelists — are wearing their high-end tops and sporty pants with a sense of un-ease. Some have jumped ship entirely while others, like my wife, are beginning to consider new apparel options they otherwise wouldn’t have. The damage may be done.

Lululemon should be a reminder to organizations far and wide — especially ones that are worn — on the dangers of brand damage. Remember, you are ultimately not the owner of your brand. Your community is. If you take a stance on a polarizing issue, politician, or work of art, you may suffer the consequences if you offend your core customers. In branding at least, it’s about more than one individual’s interest.

What do you think? Please leave a comment below on what you think of this polarizing issue. Are some customers making a mountain out of a molehill or did Lululemon get a little too caught up in individualism?

Photo via Flickr user lululemon athletica