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Lululemon and the Delicate Art of Repairing a Brand’s Reputation

Lululemon_Athletica,_Westport,_CT,_06880,_USA_-_Mar_2013

Lululemon will land on many year-end “naughty” lists thanks to a string of controversies amplified by a tone-deaf co-founder and his near-total inability to say the right thing at the right time. The company has a new CEO, but will the change be enough to keep the horrible headlines stuck in 2013?

We recently had a chance to speak with Carreen Winters, acclaimed blogger and executive VP of MWW’s corporate communications and reputation management practice, about the challenges facing brands like Lululemon and the art of reputation repair.

Let’s review what Lulu did wrong and how the brand might recover in the new year.

THE BAD:

First: Lululemon had a problem with product quality and addressed it in the worst possible way:

“…you can’t blame the customer for a problem with your product. Adding insult to injury, they issued an apology that was more an ‘I’m sorry I got caught’ than ‘I’m sorry for what I said.’”

Second: The company missed a golden opportunity to clean up its own mess by digging the hole deeper with co-founder Chip Wilson’s “some women’s bodies” remark:

“The opportunity was not just to say ‘we’re sorry’ but then to do something to embrace customers of all sizes and tell them ‘Shop at Lululemon.’ Theirs was not a new strategy: For a long time, Barney’s said they’d never carry anything over a size 8. But to say that out loud in this day and age, when there’s a recognition that discrimination…can be about all kinds of things (including body size) was ill-timed and poorly conceived.”

Third: The company failed to offer a genuine apology:

“I believe that the American consumer is extremely forgiving. Plenty of brands have stumbled, apologized, and recovered. But forgiveness is predicated on an authentic apology. In Lululemon’s case the apology did not ring true and seemed to be made under stress.”

Fourth: The company did not take steps to make affected customers feel welcome:

“[Around the same time], H&M made an announcement on selling plus-size apparel and using a plus-size model. Had Lululemon done something to demonstrate that they did not actually discriminate against customers based on body size, then perhaps the apology would have been received differently.”

THE GOOD:

The company has a brand new face:

“They do have a new CEO in Laurent Potdevin, and one of his first comments was about broadening the brand’s appeal. The opportunity is to make a break from the past and put the baggage of the prior regime behind them. If you look at his background with TOMS shoes, TOMS is a very egalitarian brand rooted in social responsibility, which can do significant things for a company’s reputation.”

Lululemon didn’t pull the gender equivalent of “greenwashing” by insisting on appointing a female CEO:

“I agree that perhaps it would have been easier with a female CEO…but that’s a slippery slope to go down. And there are definitely “haters” at this point, or people who will find something to hate on regardless of what choices the company makes or who they put in the top position.

The challenge is to review candidates’ past experiences and take the best offered, bringing his or her experience to bear in a way that’s accretive to the company’s reputation.”

THE CORPORATE MAKEOVER:

“Social media [and related content] allows people to feel like they have a 1-to-1 relationship with the leader of a brand they love. The first of Potdevin‘s videos is a short introduction…”

“The second has no dialogue at all, and it’s shot in a very cinematic, artsy way. He takes off his shoes in order to convince you that he’s moving on to this next thing.

In terms of messages like these, the channel is less important than the fact that the message is oriented around authentic dialogue that goes two ways, with the brand not just pushing content but participating…and consistency is very important as well.”

“These videos were a good start: you know what [Potdevin] looks like, you know that he has a French accent, etc.

At MWW, we have an approach for rolling out a new CEO internally and externally by establishing their [personalities and] platforms for thought leadership and reputation within the first few days.

[For Lululemon], there’s an opportunity to engage the consumer base by talking about where the new CEO wants to take the company.”

THE FUTURE:

“There are a number of things Lululemon could do: talk about adding larger sizes to the line; use spokesmodels who are not necessarily pencil-thin; sponsor yoga programs for people of all different fitness levels by partnering with a fitness brand or program that caters to all.

There’s a trend around acceptance for retail brands; that’s why the Dove ‘Real Beauty’ campaign worked so well.

I think we’ll have to wait and see [whether Lululemon catches on], but people will be watching.”

(Image via Wikipedia)

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