Lululemon learned very valuable lessons in the marketplace that had a significant impact on their brand and brand connection with their customer. TPG Brand Strategy works with clients to bring as many elements of brand contact with the consumer into a more closely aligned brand statement, but the lesson learned here is that when something impacts the brand message in a negative way we need to get out in front of it as quickly as possible and communicate to our customers that we are doing something NOW that will more align with their values, and the characteristics that they want to gain from their brand connections.
On Monday, Lululemon cut its revenue and earnings guidance sharply, sending its shares tumbling more than 15%, to a two-year low. This is the outcome of a pretty awful 2013 for Lulu, which included a product recall and comments from founder and chairman Chip Wilson that were, shall we say, a bit insensitive. (In December, Mr. Wilson announced that he was stepping down as chairman in June of this year.)
Lulu’s struggles offer us all an opportunity to brush up on some key brand lessons. From where I sit, the four most important lessons are these:
Great brands start with great products.
Sometimes “brand” is misunderstood as this magical pixie-dust that just makes everything “feel” better. Certainly, the best brands resonate emotionally, often dominantly so. But let’s not forget that truly great brands stand on superior products and services.
For a brand like Lululemon, which sought to stand for “top quality” (with the price points that accompany it), quality issues are damn near a worst-case scenario. Consumers complained that Lulu’s popular Luon yoga pants were too sheer, prompting a recall in March 2013. A recall always raises other specters; consumers reasonably ask, “If this is the quality of a core product, what else are they skimping on?”
Yes, your brand must resonate emotionally. But that’s not enough. Truly strong brands work on multiple levels, and that begins with getting the offering right, every time.
The CEO = The CBO
That is to say, the Chief Brand Officer. Too many CEOs still don’t realize that the brand is one of their top priorities. Others, like Chip Wilson, don’t consider the impact of their words and deeds on the brand.
Remember that consumers have jobs too. They’ve worked for CEOs. They know that that person sets the agenda and the culture for the entire organization. If the CEO acts in a manner that’s out of line with either corporate or consumer values, confusion and disappointment will result. And confusion and disappointment are never good brand strategies.
Sure, Mr. Wilson announced his resignation last month. But the damage had already been done. Many once-loyal Lulunistas have already moved on. And they have plenty of options. Which leads us to our next lesson…
Your competitors will respond. Plan accordingly.
Too many fast-growth companies fail to adequately plan for competitive response. Nike, Under Armour and Gap’s Athleta concept are among those now encroaching on Lululemon’s turf. Should this surprise anyone?
Lulu sells premium-priced products in a narrow niche. They have always been vulnerable. Swift competitive response should have been expected. Lululemon now sounds like a company very much in a reactive, defensive stance. And that’s not the stance of bold strategy and sustained growth.
If you really want to change the conversation, change the experience.
According to AdAge, Lululemon CFO John Currie told investors and analysts: “It’s incumbent upon us to turn the conversation around to be more positive again.” I don’t want to parse Mr. Currie’s semantics too finely, but if he thinks the issue here is “the conversation,” he’s searching for clues in the wrong dumpster.
What should be apparent to everyone at Lulu – and especially its leadership – is that the experience matters most. Your brand is everything you do. A product recall indicates quality control issues. A thoughtless CEO suggests cultural issues. That’s not about any “conversation.” That’s about doing the day-to-day, hard work that makes a brand great. Anything less, to parrot another of Chip Wilson’s famous quotes, will resign your brand to a “state of mediocrity.”