STUDY: Lululemon’s Success Lies in Making Its Customers Feel Bad


Why can’t you do this?!

Speaking of “unapologetic” Barbie, observers have long argued that apparel and beauty brands play on their consumers’ own insecurities to move products—and research now confirms that it’s all true (surprise surprise).

The study in question, performed by the Canadian Review of Sociology, concluded that Lululemon and other “aspirational” brands succeed on the psychological level by “promoting a philosophy that blames people if their lives aren’t fabulous”—a philosophy that reaches directly into your wallet.

While the researchers admit to admiring the homegrown brand, they question its philosophy of “neoliberal hyperindividualism and broader self-help discourses that define health and wellness as a personal and moral achievement”. To simplify: the brand’s main selling point, based on both its customer-facing themes and its employee goal-setting initiatives, is less “celebrate yourself” than “shouldn’t you be doing more?”

As if to confirm this point, Lululemon summed up its mission in a 2011 blog post responding to light controversy over a bag that quoted the queen of godless self-improvement, Ayn Rand:

“Our bags are visual reminders for ourselves to live a life we love and conquer the epidemic of mediocrity”

That’s blunt, but it fits quite well with founder Chip Wilson’s assertion that “some women” will never be able to wear Lululemon and that they should just get over it (never mind all those contradictory self-improvement mantras). Remember that this comment came after he claimed that the company doesn’t stock larger sizes because they’re more expensive to produce.

The study’s findings support a point made back in December by the always-excellent Heidi Moore of The Guardian, who argued in this piece that the brand has succeeded via what researchers call “retail therapy”: forming a “tribe” that “defines itself by exclusion” while avoiding the outright snobbery of high fashion and beauty labels by wrapping the message in a vaguely new age “we should all push ourselves to do better” shell.

Can a brand be socially responsible while promoting a certain passive aggressive “don’t be mediocre” form of self-improvement? All Lululemon signs point to “yes.”

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.