Lululemon has a big PR problem on its hands and it’s not just see-through yoga pants.
Chip Wilson, founder of the Vancouver-based company, ignited a social media maelstrom last week after telling Bloomberg TV “some women’s bodies just actually don’t work” for Lululemon pants, which have been criticized for being too sheer and pilling easily. “It’s really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure there is over a period of time, how much they use it,” he said.
Numerous media outlets picked up the story and Twitter erupted with responses to Wilson’s “fat-shaming” comments. Rebecca Hains, a media studies professor at Salem State University in Massachusetts, started a petition at Change.org urging Wilson to stop shaming women’s bodies and “desegregate” its stores, as the retailer has also been accused of relegating larger sizes to the back of the store.
“It’s a mess,” Deborah Weinstein, president at Toronto PR firm Strategic Objectives, told Marketing. “[Wilson suggested] it’s not an inferior product or inferior quality; it’s actually the fault of women with their fat thighs that the pants are pilling between the legs and are too sheer.”
That is “a weird and stupid argument,” added Weinstein, since Lululemon previously admitted to product inferiority. Back in March, the company pulled its black Luon yoga pants from store shelves because of complaints they were too sheer. The company said the sheerness fell short of its “very high” standards and that it was working with its supplier to replace the fabric.
“[Wilson] did two things at once: he disowned responsibility and he disparaged the wrong audience at the same time, which must have given heart palpitations to Lululemon’s PR people,” said Jeff Swystun, president and chief marketing officer at Swystun Communications.
Perhaps the whole fiasco would have blown over had Wilson apologized and said Lululemon embraces women of all shapes and sizes, a message even a PR intern could craft. But Wilson dug himself a deeper hole after an apology video was posted on Lululemon’s Facebook page with the headline “We hear you.” In the video, a teary-eyed Wilson talks about how sad he is for his employees and makes no mention of women, Lululemon customers or thighs.
“I’m sad for the repercussions of my actions,” he said. “I’m sad for the people of Lululemon who I care so much about, who have really had to face the brunt of my actions… I’m sorry to have put you all through this.”
The “apology” incited even more outraged and incredulous comments on social media channels, including Lululemon’s own Facebook page, where the video post now has more than 700 comments.
“An apology has to be sincere in every aspect. And a half-hearted apology is not necessarily better than no apology,” said Weinstein. “He’s being criticized for not dealing with the issue, which was about the women of the world he insulted, rather than just his employees. I think that’s a real problem.”
So, what can Lululemon do to get out of this mess? Swystun said the company needs to “re-instill the spirit of what made them a great company to begin with.” That starts with getting its leadership house in order: it’s been without a CEO since Christine Day left the company in June.
On the branding and communications front, Swystun said if he was in charge, “because they’ve gone from the youthful, energetic new company to something that is looking a little more stodgy and corporate, I would go through an exercise with them, which is: what new things do we need to instill in our brand, what is still good that we can leverage and what do we need to transform? And that’s a nice way of saying what the hell do we need to get rid of in our culture and our brand?”