Wholesome Marketing Ideas, Bite Size

Wholesome marketing ideas, bite size

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mixing business and beliefs

Lululemon, the Starbucks and Whole Foods of the yoga market, has stretched too far according to some of its customers.
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The company’s shopping bags carry a cryptic “Who is John Galt?” line taken from Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s objectivist opus. This has created a bit of a storm in the media teacup.

Should businesses trying to sell stuff mix business with beliefs?

One the one hand, you could argue that it is bold of Chip Wilson, Lululemon’s founder and Ayn Rand devotee, to put his beliefs out there for people to see and critique. Unlike many business leaders who shy away from voicing their personal opinions, he seems to have the courage of his convictions, and is even willing to spark controversy by putting them on the company’s shopping bags – even if it affects business. I suppose you could even see it as a form of Corporate Social Responsibility, in that the company is propagating a message that it believes will benefit society.

But there are problems with this approach. First, Lululemon is promoting Chip Wilson’s beliefs. Lululemon is a publicly traded company that belongs to its shareholders. These shareholders may or may not want the company to engage in debate on political opinions, particularly if it harms business; they may prefer to focus on selling yoga apparel. I assume they have not been consulted, but they may yet voice their opinion.

Secondly, as a business leader Chip Wilson surely recognizes that the customers Lululemon serves come to its stores for the quality of its products, its fashionable designs, presentation, and service – but that they may have a variety of political beliefs. Do you really want to upset some who do not share your beliefs? Why? To what end?

If it is to spark debate and focus attention on the objectivist message, then the company should be prepared to engage in debate. But so far, the company has shied away from comment or opportunities to explain, aside from a rather na├»ve blog post by an employee explaining the relevance of Ayn Rand’s message to the mediocre masses.

By not opening the door to debate, the company disregards the voice of the customer, leaving little choice to those who disagree: they express their displeasure by not buying. Would it make more sense to allow room for nuance if you’re going to put a controversial opinion out there? Would it be too much trouble to create a space for dialog and debate in which the company can engage in a conversation with its customers?

But then, the fact that we’re even talking about this, and that the Globe and Mail, Slate, NPR*, and others are all devoting space to it, may itself be vindication of the company’s stance. When was the last time you got that many free column-inches of prime news space for your brand? Any publicity is good publicity?

More generally, do you think founders or CEOs should push their personal beliefs through company channels? In this case Chip Wilson happens to be a fan of a mildly quirky right-wing pop philosopher. But what if the founder is a little more wacko -- say a Scientologist (Who is L. Ron Hubbard?) or a Holocaust denier (Who is  H. E. Barnes?)? Where do we draw the line? Who draws the line? The customer or the company's board?

* update: The New York Times has a nice piece on this as well, and it quotes this blog post.


Anonymous said...

People been mixing business and beliefs for decades. Previous clothiers have produced lines both glamorizing and ridiculing beliefs and political figures including Che, Mao, MLK and Malcolm X. Is it so different to put the name and words of a non-liberal on something?

The market will decide if the message sells and I highly suspect a business mixing with beliefs distasteful, or worse, to many will sell about as fast as ice-makers at the South Pole.

Jay Lebo, MBA said...

Wilson's job is to create shareholder value. Unless he has a rational hypothesis for how his John Galt bags will help do that, this is bad business at best. At worst, it's an irresponsible and flagrant misuse of shareholder funds to push a personal agenda.

Ayn Rand was a pure laissez-faire capitalist. Her 'objectivism' philosophy advocated selfishness and the relentless pursuit of self-interest.

Is that the direction Wilson intends to take the Lululemon brand? Or is this just a distracting self indulgence?

Either way, it's bad news.

Niraj Dawar said...

I agree, Jay. Perhaps not as monumental a self-indulgence as Balsillie's pursuit of an NHL team acquisition, but distracting nevertheless.

Cocco said...

Wilson has had a long history of questionable business practices, including "encouraging" his employees to attend Landmark Education trainings.

Other questionable bag slogans include things like: "Children are the orgasm of life. Just like you did not know what an orgasm was before you had one, nature does not let you know how great children are until you actually have them.”


Really, that he's a Ayn Rand fan comes as no surprise.

Jim Vinoski said...

Milton Friedman was absolutely correct in his devastating critique of what we now laud as "corporate social responsibility." So in an ideal world, I'd agree with the argument that Mr. Wilson is misusing his shareholders' money.

But that debate is long since lost, and we're now constantly pummeled by foolish and destructive left-wing activism from almost all sizable corporations. It's deeply disingenuous at this point to accuse Wilson of establishing some negative new precedent.

Or is it? Because I suspect that the reason this particular bit of corporate activism is raising such hackles is that CSR is perfectly acceptable to those doing the complaining now -- just so long as it adheres to the already-established precedent that it ALWAYS serves the destructive progressive agenda. Mr. Wilson's touting of a message that instead supports free markets and individualism threatens to crack the current rigid ideological uniformity of the CSR racket, which is why you hear so much screeching about this one tiny instance of independent thought and action.