Yoga pants fury shows one brand doesn’t fit all

The latest big branding crisis has erupted in the US and this time the culprit is a surprising one. Yoga brand Lululemon might seem an unlikely target for criticisms of body fascism but that’s exactly what happened last week when co-founder Chip Wilson appeared on Bloomberg TV’s Street Smart programme with wife and fellow co-founder Shannon.

Mark Ritson

Wilson was quizzed about Lululemon’s recent quality issues with its best-selling yoga pants. Wilson admitted to design flaws but also pointed to a consumer issue too: “Quite frankly, some women’s bodies just don’t work for [our product],” he explained. “It’s about the rubbing through the thighs,” and “how much pressure is there.”

Despite backtracking later in the interview and suggesting the brand could be worn by all women, the comments caused an immediate sensation. “Lululemon founder Chip Wilson blames women’s bodies for yoga pant problems”, claimed Good Morning America’s website the next day. “Lululemon founder blames yoga pant problems on customers’ thighs”, announced Wilson was branded “clueless”, “sexist” and a “body fascist” on Twitter.

To make matters worse Lululemon was already in hot water for making its yoga pants only up to an American size 12 (UK size 16), thereby actively excluding most American women, whose average dress size is 14 (UK size 18). The brand has made no secret of its policy, claiming that “larger sizes are not part of its formula”. Even its size 10 and 12 pants are often relegated to the back of the store.

The approach has garnered plenty of criticism. In 2012, a national petition was launched to pressure the company into offering plus-size options. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if Lululemon took an active stand in showing women of all sizes being athletic?” the petition stated, calling for the company’s support for “fitness at any size”.

Thus far, Lululemon has ignored the appeal and, from a marketing perspective, you can see why. Brands cannot be for everyone. One of the most established principles of our discipline is that mass-marketing does not work, while targeting a specific segment of the market exclusively usually does. If you want a perfect example of that principle just look at M&S and its clothing line. The reason for nine consecutive quarters of decline is entirely related to a marketing department intent on appealing to every adult woman in the UK. Their latest Christmas campaign is, for the first time, far more targeted.

Is Lululemon really guilty of anything other than having a clear target segment and designing for that specific group? Is it any different from a brand like Marketing Week that aims at marketing professionals and eschews a broader professional readership?

It’s tricky because, of course, the answer depends on how you segment your market. Do it by profession, postcode or income and you still fall within the bounds of political correctness. Use body size, age or physical attractiveness and you cross over into very choppy waters, especially in America.

That’s not to say we aren’t increasingly sensitive to clear targeting in this country too. In the cavalcade of criticism of Guinness’s ill-fated RoundUpYourMates campaign last month, most reviews cited piss-poor execution or ridiculous strategic thinking. But a significant number also cited the exclusive male focus of the campaign as sexist and inappropriate. Is that really fair on Diageo when more than 90 per cent of the brand’s sales in the UK are from men?

Do marketers really have a responsibility to cater to each and every possible customer? Should founders of brands like Lululemon eschew targeting and open up their offer to everyone even if, paradoxically, it results in diminished sales? It might make sense politically but from a strategic standpoint the results of clear target marketing remain inarguable.

Like it or not, the only crime Chip Wilson committed last week was the sin of honesty. The lesson for marketers is that while we must continue to segment appropriately and target exclusively, we must do so while keeping our lips closed. In public, infer that everyone is potentially welcome to patronise your brand. In private, ensure clear positioning and consistent execution of the four Ps will delight the consumers you want and exclude the ones you don’t.

I’ll leave you to decide who is who.

Readers' comments (14)

  • this will be really interesting to see how they handle this. whilst conventional risk management decrees they need to hose down any negative comments, it'd be fascinating if lululemon took the view that their brand stands for what it stands for and if this pisses off some then so be it. i reckon there is a role for brands to play in having the balls to be honest

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  • In 1974 I had a Burton suit made to measure from Harris Tweed. The trousers wore out within weeks due to chaffing between my rugby thighs! #Lululemon

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  • Mark -- thanks for saying exactly what I was thinking. We shouldn't criticize companies for doing what great brands do -- being clear about who you're for and who you're not for. -- denise lee yohn

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  • Trouble is that with weight being an aspirational issue, it's very difficult to position a brand for the more nutritionally experienced. There is a societal risk of reinforcing stereotypes, not the brand's problem, but a problem nevertheless.

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  • "Segment appropriately and target exclusively." Word. In my experience segmenting on profession, postcode, income, body size or age are all too limited. Attitude and behaviour have consistently yielded the sophistication required to be most effective. I think they are less politically sensitive too.

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  • Are we really taking this seriously? Yoga pants are a privilege, not a right. You want to wear this brand? Lose weight. Right now I'm too fat to shop in some the trendier stores, but I'm working to fix it.

    This constant stooping to shrill, professional victim groups needs to end.

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  • Surely this a missed opportunity to sell more to the same target market (woman doing yoga)? They could even create sub brands to cope with different physiques if they want to get prissy about brand image and develop niches. But just adding a few more larger sizes (which in the US is a definite growing market - pardon the pun) does not constitute targeting a different segment in my view. As far as the "rubbing through the thighs" goes, this could be an opportunity to launch a padded variety (at probably a higher margin even) for XL women. A common message lost on some companies is never insult your customer - which Gerald Ratner found to his chagrin!

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  • Our company focuses solely on older people and we exclude any young people in our marketing. This is because we know our target audience from past experience and we have a limited marketing budget so can't afford any wastage. Who think's this is wrong?

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  • While I agree with a business targeting its marketing for monetary and productivity purposes, in this case, Wilson and as an extension, Lululemon, has offended women of all sizes. Thin women's thighs rub together, too!

    This, from Day One, would be a different story if they were marketed explicitly to thin, very fit women (even though women of all sizes often have the rubbing challenge).

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  • It sounds like there is an underlying quality issue. It would be like Lego putting out a weak product and then blaming the children for breaking it. Excercise wear is supposed to be hard wearing, regardless of size.
    PS - over a recent glass of wine, 6 women present, with a combined annual income of £500,000, were a size 16 and unable to burn their cash in stores such as Reiss. It is a false economy to exclude those who can afford your clothes.

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