A few weeks back I wrote a post about Trader Joe’s, arguing that the cult following of the brand was not just a lucky accident of capitalism, but rather was the result of a calculated marketing strategy deployed by a company intimately connected to its ideal consumer. I tend to think that this kind cult ideology in marketing is the most effective strategy to use in the current economic climate, and that the brands that figure out how they can use it might be among the last standing once the hard times of the Great Recession are behind us. Like Trader Joe’s, Lululemon Athletica is brand that has achieved outstanding success and the devotion of its customers in a relatively short period of time and with little to no mass advertising campaigns. Also like Trader Joe’s, they have done this by creating and promoting a cult around their brand, only to fit into this particular cult, you must wear — you guessed it — $98 stretch pants.
- Crib The Brainwashing Techniques Of Cult Leaders Who Have Come Before You
Now before you object to the use of the term “cult” here, let me assure you that I have taken into account all of the possible implications of that word and decided to use it anyway. You see, Lululemon Athletica was founded by Chip Wilson, a Canadian-born entrepreneur who had recently undergone a spiritual awakening as the result of attending the (Scientology-linked) Landmark Forum seminar. He took what he learned there, mixed it with the philosophies of some motivational business speakers and The Secret (of Oprah fame) and came up with Lululemon’s “internal constitution,” which I suppose is kind of like what a business plan is to other businesses.
The Lululemon business model is this: use the tenets of self-actualization and the power of positive thinking to convert the most popular yoga teachers throughout the country (particularly in wealthy urban areas and their surrounding suburbs) to brand “ambassadors” who will, in turn, convert their students into a devoted following that continues to grow exponentially. The method in which this is achieved borrows heavily from religious movements, and Wilson has said that his purpose in starting Lululemon was not just to create an exercise clothing store, but to also help customers along the path to self-esteem and personal growth. Lululemon employees at all levels are encouraged to attend Landmark Forum seminars and are expected to listen to “The Psychology of Achievement,” an eight-hour-long series of audiotapes by the self-help guru Brian Tracy, even when they’re not on the clock, according to some former employees.
- Use the Power of Free To Promote What Is Scarce
Lululemon clothing has a value that extends beyond just the fact that it is quality workout gear. Because it is thought of as being fashionable, there are only a certain amount of items that are produced each season, and once those are sold out, that is it for that item. You might see the same basic style of pant again, but there will be a different fabric on the inseam or some other small way in which a garment is different. Because of this, there is a market for preworn Lululemon clothing on eBay, and some of the items can be sold for as much as 60% of their original retail price. Even though common sense would suggest that athletic clothing would not be a hot resale item, the illusion of scarcity created by the Lululemon brand management makes people treat it as if they are buying a pair of rare Christian Louboutins that cannot be located anywhere else.
Lululemon provides free yoga classes in various different venues throughout their retail chain. They hire yogis to come in and run the classes, and once the class is over, they offer an array of merchandise to choose from and 15% off discount coupons to course participants.
- Use subtle, but effective branding techniques.
The inspiration for this post came, as per usual, during my spinning class, where everyone pretty much is wearing clothing from Lululemon. Among other things, it occurred to me that they had branded their clothing particularly well for this target market. All of this branding kind of hit home when I saw one of the women in my spin class carrying a lululemon gym bag. The bag was attention-grabbing because of its color (magenta), but there wasn’t any immediately noticeable branding on it, until I noticed that the entire strap of the bag was embroidered with the words “lululemon athletica” only they had done it in the exact color of the bag, so that it was only readable in close-up, where you could discern texture. Similarly, her shirt was from Lululemon, a fact that I discerned because of the style of including inspirational slogans kind of scrawled across the fabric, a technique that only lululemon uses, and that is seen all over the reusable bags the give you when you buy your clothes. I could recognize it, in short, because I am a member of the cult myself.
The cleverness with which the branding is done by Lululemon should not be overlooked. When a company is new, they are dependent upon this kind of labeling to get the word out about their products — this stage in a company is most memorable to me during the mid-nineties when Abercrombie & Fitch was being reimagined as a brand and you couldn’t wade through a frat party without seeing a dozen Abercrombie & Fitch labels. In keeping with that need, Lululemon has omnipresent branding, but it is done subtly, and in a way only meaningful to people in the cult. Their logo functions like an amulet or any other religious icon does: it stands for the movement to the believers, and excites the curiosity of the uninitiated. Even where it is placed on the clothing itself is intentional; the logo on my Lululemon shirt appears three times, though each placement is no bigger than a dime. But the way they are positioned (one on the back, and one on each shoulder), ensure that people working out behind, or to each side of me will see the sign. Similarly, on Lululemon workout pants, the logo appears at the back of the leg, where somebody who is watching your steps in aerobics class is sure to notice.Even more interesting is where they don’t put the logo: on the running shorts, which are extremely short, they don’t bother with a logo, even in the traditional placement of the right front leg, because they know that nobody will be able to see it well enough on shorts that small. In that case, the distinctive cut of the short is the calling card, and they aren’t willing to misbrand an item by putting too garish of a label on it.
- Before Opening A Store, Send In a Reconaissance Team
Not only are the store locations chosen carefully, the lululemon team plans a store opening like an invasion. About a year ahead of a scheduled store opening in a new market, lululemon sends out what can only be described as missionaries to attend all yoga and exercise classes they can find in the general area. After a few weeks of attending courses, they are able to determine who among the instructors are Influencers, and those people they recruit to participate in programs affiliated with lululemon as “ambassadors,” and there they can get free or discounted gear, invites to teach courses, and other perks like a picture on the walls of their stores. Basically, the recon team tries to create a relationship with these influential instructors.
Now this might sound a little creepy, I know, but look at it this way: the instructors benefit from their relationship with lululemon not only for the swag and extra work: they usually get a lot more business from this deal, including more clients for personal training. And many of them say that they make friends out of this, become close to the lululemon scouts. As for the lululemon people, they say that their brand is all about authenticity. They try to foster this feeling through their corporate blog, a flickr photostream and a Facebook page. And if this authenticity occasionally feels manufactured — like the stores that are specially designed to appear as though they are small local boutiques, rather than chain outlets — well, sure, it’s a little Scientology and all that, but everyone’s winning, right? Right?
- Continue to gather information from target market, so as to anticipate market fluctuations.
When I buy stuff at Lululemon, they have often asked me where I work out, as well as who my favorite instructors are. This is not just idle talk — this kind of information is self-consciously gathered by Lululemon sales staff and then reported back to Lululemon HQ every two weeks. Once, I tried on a pair of running shorts after discussing with the saleschick whether they had any that didn’t ride up while you are running, because that drives me nuts. She told me that these ones might work, and when I tried them on and decided they were too short, she still wanted to know if I thought they would work that way. I have to assume this is so that she could report back to the HQ about the marketability of these types of shorts in my geographical area. The thing is, creepy or no, all of this information gathering promotes a quality product. So I guess what I’m wondering is: is it OK to give information to a cult, if they seem like an even-tempered, well-meaning, Canadian cult?