I just read the article on Lululemon in the April issue of Fast Company, entitled “Om My“. From a marketing standpoint, I’ve always found the company fascinating, particularly their transition from small brand from Canada to a public company that exploded all across the U.S. in recent years. I’m all for the power of brands, and lord knows I love pants that make your ass look good, but there’s something about the lulu-obsessed fans that give me the creeps. They have that certain crazy glint in their eyes – like they’ll take you out in a fight to get those pants while shopping – I’ve seen it close up in many a yoga class. And learning about the inner ways of Lulu the company falls under the category of things that make me go hhhmmm: “It’s the first time I’ve heard of anyone almost directly using the techniques of cults and applying them to their business”, says Douglas Atkin, author of The Culting of Brands. It all just doesn’t strike me as authentic. Ironically, Lululemon seems to pride itself on its authenticity, and claims to recognize its yogic appeal: “If you want to be successful in this industry”, says Christine Day, Lulu’s CEO, “it’s about being authentic”.
Lululemon asked me to be one of their DC ambassadors back in 2006, but upon learning that I was moving to Montana (not the first WTF reaction that news produced), required me to pass the torch to my then-studio manager. Which ultimately caused me to reconnect with my first love anyhow, Athleta, who went on to become my first official sponsor. OK so Athleta just got bought out by the Gap, but at least I wasn’t one of, say, 900 ambassadors. There was a feeling of connection and authenticity there, vs. suspicion.
Someone recently asked me about the maximum number of people we could accommodate on retreat. Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely want to be able to make a profit on this retreat thing, and know it’s tough to compete in the yoga biz when everyone wants a piece of it. Whether you’re a teacher, studio owner, clothing manufacturer – you have to make $. But…I refuse to sacrifice the yoga connection that has become such a rewarding part of what I do, and that seems to be more possible on a smaller scale. It should be noted that my DC studio was never big; neither our space nor our classes were big, which means while we found other ways to be profitable besides high head counts, we weren’t like a lot of super-sized studios around. But damn it, the studio was authentic! More than 2 years after leaving DC, I still get emails from people who loved it for this reason. I can say that I knew everyone that came to my classes, I touched everyone in my classes – both physically and on other levels too. So maybe we’ll never have giant crowds filling up the flights to Montana with yoga mat in tow – and while I see the potential for business success in larger numbers, I’m not sure I want that anyhow. I want to be profitable, but I also want to know everyone’s name.
Back to Lulu – it’s a tough balance between growth and authenticity. And I’m not sure how a company that calls itself authentic can spout out a quote like this from its founder: “When we first started, we hired nothing but yogis, but it didn’t work out because they were too slow. So we started hiring runners who like yoga. They’re more on the ball, more type A”. Ouch. Lulu, you’re kind of a letdown. I once loved your clothes, but I don’t think we’ll be getting back together anytime soon.