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What does Lululemon's bag controversy mean for its brand?

Lululemon moves away from its peace and tranquility yoga roots in favour of Ayn Rand's dog-eat-downward-dog Objectivism. But will customers think the company has gone loco?

(Photo: Richard Lam/CP)

Where once the phrase “friends are more important than money” was cheerfully displayed on Lululemon’s red shopping bags, there’s now a new slogan on black: Who is John Galt?

The question is taken from objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand’s iconic book, Atlas Shrugged and anyone who has read it (and many who’ve never read it at all) will know that for John Galt the character, money and self-interest were definitely more important than friends.

But from the Lululemon’s explanation, it’s obvious they see the question as an on-brand call to action for their customers:

“Many of us choose mediocrity without even realizing it. Why do we do this? Because our society encourages mediocrity. It is easier to be mediocre than to be great. Our bags are visual reminders for ourselves to live a life we love and conquer the epidemic of mediocrity. We all have a John Galt inside of us, cheering us on.

While this interpretation of the book isn’t quite correct, the quibbles over philosophy might be left aside for a moment to address a bigger question: What is Lululemon doing with their brand?

The company is certainly no stranger to controversy (from cult accusations, to questionable materials, Lulu has been through it all), and it undoubtedly knew that printing a reference to Rand’s polarizing views on its bags would push some customers away. It has even dealt with backlash over messages on its bags before. But it is strange that a marketing mishap of this nature should come under the leadership of CEO Christine Day. It seemed these kooky stunts (which appear to stem from company founder Chip Wilson) were over when Day came to Lululemon in June of 2008 after two decades at Starbucks, where she most recently led the fast-growing Asia Pacific Group.

Equally perplexing is why the team at Lululemon decided it was time for an Objectivist boost only a few months after the release of the Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 movie. The low-budget flick flopped in theatres and failed to win over critics, and it’s unlikely it did much to endear the story to new Randroids. As Roger Ebert said in the Chicago Sun-Times, “Let’s say you know the novel, you agree with Ayn Rand, you’re an objectivist or a libertarian, and you’ve been waiting eagerly for this movie. Man, are you going to get a letdown.”

This brings us back to the question Canadian Business asked of Lululemon’s marketing efforts back in April of this year: Is it possible that $98 stretch pants are the path not only to a cuter bum but also a spiritual awakening? At Lululemon, the answer has been yes with it’s connection to yoga. But sun salutations as a stylish pursuit won’t last forever, and the company seems to be searching for the next idea movement on which to hang it’s hoodies. 

The beauty of yoga is that it is all accepting. Through yoga, Lulu tells consumers that they don’t have to settle for mediocrity—that anyone can do greater things with their lives, and it’s easy to make the first step by taking a deep breath and putting on your pricey workout clothes.

But in the eyes of consumers, buying into a holistic kind of self-improvement is different than standing up for blatant egoism. 

Rand’s message isn’t about finding your inner strength and willpower, it’s about dodging your inner weakness:

“Money will not purchase happiness for the man who has no concept of what he wants: money will not give him a code of values, if he’s evaded the knowledge of what to value, and it will not provide him with a purpose, if he’s evaded the choice of what to seek. Money will not buy intelligence for the fool, or admiration for the coward, or respect for the incompetent.”

Replace “money” with “Lululemon” and we’re far from the cozy and comforting roots of this brand. If the company hopes to continue its aggressive growth plan that’s focused on selling expensive workout wear to consumers worldwide, it might want to avoid telling customers those outfits they think they need contribute to weakness, rather than inner strength and peace.