Lululemon Shrugs Off Ayn Rand Criticism

Discussion
Nov 30, 2011
George Anderson

Retailers engaged in political matters can run into trouble when they are seen as supporting positions that run contrary to the views held by large numbers of customers. Consider, for example, the uproar caused last year when Target threw its support behind a candidate for governor in Minnesota who was seen as hostile to gay causes.

Recently, Lululemon Athletica, a seller of high-priced yoga gear, has been drawing attention to shopping bags that include a catch phrase ("Who is John Galt?") from the Ayn Rand novel Atlas Shrugged. The book, popular among those who put individual economic self-interest above societal concerns, is a favorite of the chain’s founder Chip Wilson. It is also seen by some as being out-of-step with liberal Democratic leanings of many of the chain’s customers.

A company blog explained that the reference on its shopping bags was part of its quest "to elevate the world from mediocrity to greatness (it is not coincidental that this is lululemon’s company vision)."

Posts on the company’s blog showed customers who were both angry and delighted at the Rand reference. Ultimately, however, the question becomes whether a known political philosophy is good or bad for business.

Niraj Dawar, a professor of marketing at Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, told The New York Times that Lululemon’s action suggests it did not calculate the potential downside before acting.

"Chip Wilson’s philosophy may not be shared by customers, and there’s little room for these customers to engage in debate, so some of them will express their opinions by walking away," Prof. Dawar told the Times.

Discussion Questions: Do Lululemon’s John Galt bags suggest any disconnect with the chain’s shoppers? Do retailers typically benefit from or get hurt by public displays of political and philosophical leanings?

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18 Comments on "Lululemon Shrugs Off Ayn Rand Criticism"


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Ryan Mathews
Guest
9 years 5 months ago
I guess that depends on how literate they really are and their general reading comprehension skills. I’ve met plenty of “progressives” who embraced Rand in the same way that some of them think Ron Paul has swell ideas. I also don’t want to be guilty of assuming that every yoga practitioner is, in fact, a left-leaning, tree-hugging, Rand-hating registered Democrat. I think it’s critical that we not confuse a person’s choice of spiritual expression and/or exercise program with their political preferences. Since my undergraduate and graduate work was done in philosophy I’m intrigued by the idea that philosophical positions could become marketing programs. It opens up whole new universes of absurdity. Imagine a line of luggage bearing Spinoza’s picture and the phrase, “Go Monads!” Or the Black Eyed Peas could all start wearing Descartes tee shirts with “…Ergo Sum” (I am) emblazoned on their chests. The possibilities are endless. The movement could spread to packaged goods. Campbell could release a “Cream of Consciousness” soup. Frito could come out with a new snack line — “Existential… Read more »
Max Goldberg
Guest
9 years 5 months ago

Retailers are in the business of selling merchandise, not making political statements, and they enter the political fray at their own risk. What was Chip Wilson thinking? He should issue an apology and pull the bags.

David Biernbaum
Guest
9 years 5 months ago

Retailers and manufacturers should avoid public displays of politics at all cost. In most cases, taking a public posture on a political issue, candidate, or cause, is a direct conflict of your greater goal which is to run and operate a very popular profitable business.

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
9 years 5 months ago

Expressing an opinion, political or otherwise, can be risky. In our current climate, however, the reactions are generally positive in terms of standing out from the crowd. Abercrombie & Fitch has made this an art form. Recently we discussed Benetton’s ad showing world leaders kissing. John Mackey get a lot of attention with his comments on health care.

None of this seems to have affected the underlying business performance. In a market share environment, it would appear the more controversial, the better.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
Guest
9 years 5 months ago

Some consumers will not notice; some will not get it; some will like it; some will be upset. The ultimate fallout is how many consumers get it and are very upset by it. Meantime, it is generating some nice publicity.

Dan Berthiaume
Guest
Dan Berthiaume
9 years 5 months ago

Ayn Rand is a pretty polarizing figure and a risky person to make the focal point of a retail campaign. Universally admired (or near-universally admired) figures and philosophies are a safer bet. The exception would be retailers like American Apparel, who cultivate an edgy, rebellious brand image and would actually damage that image by playing it too “safe” in their advertising.

Charles P. Walsh
Guest
Charles P. Walsh
9 years 5 months ago
The beauty of living in a democracy that is built around capitalism is that every individual and company is free to express their views as they see fit. If it is important to Lululemon that they share their core beliefs in their product offerings, then let them do so. Why must one issue an apology and a retraction for a comment or view that may be found offensive by another individual or group? If the position of a retailer like Lululemmon is found distasteful by a customer than that customer can express their dissatisfaction with their wallets. I believe that it is quite common for retailers to express political and philosophical leanings, take Chick-fil-A for example. They don’t operate their stores on Sundays for religious reasons. Walmart and many chains position as a leader in sustainability stewardship. A&F is politically and philosophically libertarian in lifestyle advocation. In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter to the majority of customers as they go about seeking the products that meet their needs from whomever does the best… Read more »
Warren Thayer
Guest
9 years 5 months ago

No doubt there’s a disconnect with some shoppers, but most won’t get it. Those who do get it, and don’t like it, are at risk, so… is the ego feeding worth it? Only Chip Wilson (Flip Wilson?) knows. Okay, so I can’t resist….

Rene Descartes walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Hi, Rene, what’ll it be today? Your usual Scotch?”

“I think not,” Descartes replies, and instantly disappears.

David Slavick
Guest
David Slavick
9 years 5 months ago

Is it a statement by Chip Wilson? Or, will it portend a series of “questions” that encourages consumers to learn and be informed? The way you learn is to understand both sides of an argument or issue. For those who object to capitalism and rather work hard to be socially responsible, the way you combat your “foe” is to turn their positions into your strengths. Capture the shoppers attention as you walk the mall — that’s what bag art is all about. In this case, it has stopping power and causes people to think, “Gee what a novel thought!”

lori johnson
Guest
lori johnson
9 years 5 months ago

Bad jokes never sell. Two words, Ryan: pet rocks.

Tina Lahti
Guest
Tina Lahti
9 years 5 months ago

High priced Yoga gear is as ubiquitous as it is incongruent with the practice of Yoga. I will certainly forward this article to all of my Lululemon wearing friends. Some will no doubt feel betrayed and embarrassed to be caught having had a big swig of the Lululemon-aide. Others will shrug it off because for them it’s about the apparel. The real tragedy here is how many hours will be wasted by people who, in trying to find out what all the fuss is about, pick up a copy of Atlas Shrugged and try to get through it. In my opinion it’s just a terribly dull and tedious read.

Roger Saunders
Guest
9 years 5 months ago

It’s a shopping bag, right? It uses a line from a novel, “Who is John Galt?” A good number of Lululemon’s shoppers have likely read Ayn Rand’s work, and an even greater number have likely not read, or perhaps even heard of Ms. Rand.

No disconnect here, and Lululemon certainly should NOT pull the bags. At least not until I have a chance to do some of my December Christmas shopping for my wife and daughter — they love the clothing lines. I appreciate Ayn Rand and her message from 50 years ago.

Retailers live in a world of working with politicians. No need to bury their heads in the sand on positions that they feel are important to their business or constituents.

James Tenser
Guest
9 years 5 months ago

Lululemon has every right to alienate one group of its shoppers and to pander to another, if it so chooses. I personally found Atlas Shrugged to be both odious and in the end tedious, but at least Ayn Rand’s adherents are reading something. Something, that is, longer than a quotation on a shopping bag.

Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
9 years 5 months ago

It won’t hurt them one bit! The people who complain about stuff like this don’t buy anything anyway. Lululemon knows their customers and for those familiar with John Galt, it could make them purchase more. However, most of them have no idea who either John Galt or Ayn Rand is!

Ellen Ratchye-Foster
Guest
Ellen Ratchye-Foster
9 years 5 months ago

As I see it, Chip Wilson and his company have one job and one job only — supporting me in my yoga practice. If that practice must now include considering my distaste for his book choices, his political views and his clunky, yoga-free response to the brouhaha, so be it. They make good stuff that works. This would however be a great time for another maker of high quality yoga wear to catch my eye and interest….

Jonathan Marek
Guest
9 years 5 months ago

The bags are symbolic of the ideas he has employed to build a great company. Atlas Shrugged is not primarily about “political philosophy.” It is primarily about the importance of the rationality and productiveness of individuals as the root of well-being, material and spiritual. Wilson wants to express how these values enabled him to build his company, not just with the bags but with his blog explanation. Perhaps some customers will read Atlas Shrugged and form their own judgements about it without regard to what Wilson, or the left, or the right, or anyone else thinks about the book. Perhaps that’s of more value to Wilson than any small positive or negative impact on sales.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
9 years 5 months ago

To me this is an etiquette issue: whatever the marketing advantages of involving your customers in your personal philosophies may be, it’s just plain rude.

Mark Price
Guest
Mark Price
9 years 5 months ago

Adding a political agenda to any business effort is bound to have repercussions, unless the business is tightly aligned psychographically to the agenda. For example, the “get America to work” effort by Starbucks fits the greater part of their target market, and shows the company to be compassionate, aware of the world around it, and willing to help take action. Even then, not perfect.

But if your audience is diverse or sitting on the other side of the aisle from your agenda, the effects can be disastrous, especially in this tense, antagonistic political environment. Proceed at your own risk.

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