Lust for Lululemon

by Gabriela Socarras

As I made my way through the crowd on Black Friday, my mom and I decided to make a
stop at Lululemon. At a glance, what first caught my eye was the simplistic array of clothing options. Yet, through closer examination, I realized that much of the clothing was similar varying merely in color. It soon became apparent that Lululemon’s image was not about simplicity, rather uniformity. The posters displayed on their walls each portrayed tall, toned, and tan models endorsing Lululemon. Even their mannequins were chiseled, muscled figurines with slim waists. I, an athlete and fitness advocate, felt out of place. My mother, with a size 8 waist who exercises regularly, did not even think about purchasing anything for herself. This brought me to question how two fitness conscious people could feel this way in an athletic apparel store. The intention behind these marketing motives is clear: Lululemon attempts to target consumers with their false notion that skinny is healthy. This in turn discriminates people based on their size, known as sizeism, and excludes the company from a profitable plus-sized consumer market.

The Canadian company was founded in 1998 by Chip Wilson with the intention of
creating a yoga-inspired athletic apparel company that’s core values encompassed quality, product, integrity, balance, entrepreneurship, greatness, and fun (“History”). As the company gained popularity, it quickly expanded into a modern athletic apparel power house catering to males and females for all their yoga, cycling, running, and training necessities (“History”). The company’s mission statement, to “create a community hub where people could learn and discuss the physical aspects of healthy living, mindfulness, and living a life of possibility”, appealed to many by providing a sense of self-motivation (“History”). Thus, the loyal, sometimes described as cult-like, following of Lululemon was born.

Despite claiming to be a company that caters to all athletic types, Lululemon took a hit after a public statement in 2015 by Wilson that forced him to resign for the company’s sake. In an interview on the Business News Channel, while talking about how one fifth of Lululemon pants were recalled that year for being too sheer, Wilson went off on a tangent and spoke of how “some women’s bodies just don’t work for [their pants]” (Wilson qtd. in McCauley). This statement outraged women across the country and clearly opposed Lululemon’s mission statement supporting a community of physical health. Since when has the width of one’s thighs determined one’s level of fitness? This mishap caused Lululemon’s 2015 profits to take a slight dip as people boycotted the brand for fat-shaming women. Yet since then, they have recovered and their projected gross profit for 2017 stands at 1.2 billion (“Lululemon Revenue”).

How is it possible that after such a blunt fat-shaming comment from the founder of an athletic company they can maintain such prominence? The answer lies in their brand image and exclusive marketing techniques that have created a devoted customer following.

The purpose of a brand image is to establish a company’s position and set it apart from
the competition (Park). There are two types of branding strategies: active and passive. Active branding is a company’s direct use of funds to advertise their product (Park). For instance, Lululemon has more recently participated in active branding through posters and online ad campaigns. Lululemon advertisements, like the one below, tend to depict an athlete performing a physically demanding task with a mantra as the focal point. People view these advertisements portraying yogis in head stands and it results in one of two things: a person is either more intrigued in the brand because they are inspired by what’s depicted or they are turned away because they believe the brand image is not fitting to their personal image. Lululemon’s focus on athletic lifestyle targets an athletic consumer market that fits their “skinny is healthy” image while discouraging those who do not. My mom, although she is physically fit, would not picture herself doing a handstand, thus she is turned away from consuming their product.

Fig. 1. “New P.R. (Position Record).” 2015. Photograph. Newport. Web. 19 Oct. 2017.

On the other hand, passive branding is a consumer’s purchase of a product that leads to
the advertisement of the company (Park). Chip Wilson describes Lululemon’s athletic wear as not only practical for physical activity, but also “streetnic- technical, stretch, street…[it’s] athletic wear that’s made technical and just because [it] works so well technically, people wear it onto the street” (Wilson qtd. in Schlossberg). Therefore, when celebrities are photographed wearing Lululemon apparel or post Instagram photos with their product, they are unintentionally endorsing Lululemon’s brand image. Celebrities are often pressured by their industry to follow strict diet and workout regimens to maintain slim figures. So, when they are portrayed wearing Lululemon apparel, they are further supporting their false image of “skinny as healthy”. When regular customers who fit their desired image wear their product, it serves as an alternative form of passive branding. It helps targets the type of person that matches Lululemon’s desired image
on a local level. Passive branding, like active branding, targets a consumer market that fits their thin figured brand image while perpetually excluding and discouraging plus-sized women from consuming their product. Therefore, again it can be seen that although Lululemon claims to advocate for a community of fitness, the standards of this group membership are exclusive and discriminate plus-sized women.

Endorsers play a pivotal role in the creation of a brand image. A celebrity endorser’s
personal attributes lead to a stronger brand image belief (Batra). The endorsers reputability is reflected in the brand adding credibility to the company and further targeting a specific market.

Lululemon tends to stray away from celebrity endorsers and instead they have developed a system of athletic ambassadors to promote their brand. Instead of hosting celebrity photoshoots, they offer products to the most sought-after yoga instructors, triathletes, and runners around the world that fit their thin figured image. Every athlete may not be necessarily well-known, but they are respected by their fellow “sport communities” (“Ambassadors”). Thus, when each of these athletes are portrayed in advertisements, it creates an entire new sublevel of exclusivity because the majority are not aware of these athlete’s achievements. While yogis might flock to Lululemon stores after seeing an advertisement of Kerri Kelly, a renown New York City yoga instructor and Lululemon ambassador, a person who is disinterested in yoga but athletically inclined may be turned away from the brand. Therefore, not only is the use of athletic ambassadors directly dismissing a larger-sized population, but it also demonstrates the risk of turning away other consumer markets as well. This is part of the risk of creating an exclusive brand image.

A brand concept is derived from consumer needs whether they be functional, symbolic,
or experiential. Specifically, Lululemon’s brand image caters to consumer’s symbolic needs meaning it focuses on the “desire for products that fulfill internally generated needs for self-enhancement, role position, group membership, or ego-identification” (Park). Symbolic brand images create consumers who strongly associate themselves with a group or a certain self-image, much like Lululemon’s. Lululemon consumers have been referred to as cult-like as they strive to fit the company’s yoga inspired “skinny is healthy” image. At my local yoga studio, I can see the clear distinction between those belonging to the Lululemon cult-like culture as every instructor and thin female attendee wears lululemon sports bras and leggings while those who are elder and of larger size tend to wear an average t-shirt and other brand leggings. This is ironic because every person is partaking in the same athletic activity, yet because Lululemon does not cater to larger sizes, it is not common to see these women wearing their apparel to class. Thus, I can see
how Lululemon’s exclusive image affects my community personally and how their brand
concept has directly affected who wear what.

This sense of group membership is so exclusive that it dismisses a substantial portion of the consumer population: plus-sizes. As British fashion journalist, Kate Abnett, states in her article, “the fashion industry is changing, though not at the same rate as our waistlines”. The average American dress size for women is a fourteen and 70% of the US population is overweight and obese (Abnett). This means that Lululemon’s image is catering to a minority and limiting themselves from the profits of a larger pool of consumers (Bhasin). An integral facet of Lululemon’s company strategy is “exiling of larger clothing…to market its brand as the look of choice for the stylishly fitness-conscious”, but this method implicitly encourages shoppers that do not fit this image to “shop only at select retailers that welcome [their] body type” (Bhasin). Others argue that plus size consumers would not shop at Lululemon to begin with, and although it is one of the company’s attributes, the “cult-like nature of the brand” is what drives them away (McCauley).

Lululemon uses a method known as “market shielding” in which consumption by non-targeted consumers is purposefully made more difficult (Park). The company is notorious for increasing their prices in turn making it more difficult for consumers with a lower budget to purchase their product. Although they do raise their prices due to “improving fabrics, functionality, technicality, and fit”, it is no coincidence higher prices can be noted as a method of discriminating plus sizes as it has been proven that “female obesity is correlated with low income” (Schlossberg, Lee et al.). Therefore, not only are they limiting plus size consumers from purchasing their product but also those of lower economic standing.

Lululemon is also known for “rarely restock[ing] their largest sizes – the 10s and the 12s – …[and putting them in a ] separate area at the back of the store, left clumped and unfolded under a table” (Bhasin). Therefore, because these sizes are out of sight, employees have “[grown] accustomed to seeing plus-size shoppers enter [the store] and quickly leave, having deduced that [it] was not their place” (“The Plight”). The exclusivity of the brand makes it simultaneously desirable for those who fit the image and unattainable for those who do not.

It is argued that on average, through the implementation of a brand image, seller profits
increase (Beuhler, Halbheer). When consumers value a brand image, they are more likely to consume, and “the price of the product and the level of advertising increases” (Buehler, Halbheer). “No consumer buys solely because of the brand image, and a distaste for the brand image does not discourage consumers with the highest valuation of quality from buying”, but regardless it affects a consumer’s purchasing decision. However, when a brand image becomes too exclusive, like that of Lululemon, it runs the risk of limiting a substantial portion of their potential consumer market.

Lululemon “has had a loyal following that has helped the company fend off the pressures of growing competition, but that loyalty has begun to erode” (Peterson). The company has brought about controversy amongst its consumers “…for the cult like intensity of its followers” and its alienation according to body size. Customers and employees alike began noticing that “there was sort of a grumpy response to people who weren’t familiar with the brand” whenever they walked in that discouraged customers from ever returning (Bhasin). Many plus-sized women began complaining that they “had trouble finding desirable clothing styles” (“The Plight”).

Although Lululemon’s mission statement encourages people to take a simple step to self-enhancement, their image that caters to thin customers only “shuns those who don’t fit into that mold” causing them to reject the mere people they claim the advocate for (“The Plight”). They are failing to embrace plus-size customers which not only creates a negative reputation for them in the plus-size market, but it also withholds the company from tapping into a profitable market (Davis). By limiting the sizes available in stores and turning away larger customers, Lululemon is choosing “to ignore the $14 billion plus-size apparel industry” to protect its brand (Bhasin). Their competition, such as Athleta and ModCloth, have expanded to offer extended sizes and they have noted that “new plus-size customers spend 25% more per order, [and] buy 17% more items per order than regular-sized shoppers” (Marks). Another example of a plus-sized success story is Navabi, a dedicated plus-size e-tailor that “has tripled its revenues every year, built a 150-strong team and now trades in 30 countries” (Abnett).

Therefore, if the plus-size consumer market has been proven to be beneficial repeatedly, why has Lululemon not taken the initiative? It appears that the company is more concerned about their brand appearance than they are about their profit and who they exclude. The women’s athletic fashion industry is a lucrative one and expanding it to include plus-size customers would provide for a profitable expansion of the market. Imagine the possibilities if Lululemon were able to advocate fitness for all sizes. Their already substantial fan base would provide the ideal opportunity for Lululemon to cater to all body sizes, strengthening their community of healthy living while simultaneously creating new avenues for profit. Instead of being different for excluding a population they could be different for being inclusive. Lululemon has the potential to be the company that sets a standard of equality in the athletic fashion industry, if only they would stop hiding the size eight leggings.

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