Mark Ritson: 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.

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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 Yahoo.com. 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.

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