Would you like a free dose of right-wing philosophy with your $98 yoga pants?
Lululemon Atheletica (LULU) built its brand by selling pricey workout clothes to affluent women who may view yoga more as trendy exercise than meditative experience. This week, the Vancouver-based company came under fire for holiday tote bags that promote a Tea Party-esque message taken from Ayn Rand's controversial novel "Atlas Shrugged."
The bags, which read "Who is John Galt?" -- a phrase from "Atlas Shrugged" -- offended those who disagree with Rand's theories on unregulated capitalism and selfishness as a virtue. "This is really disturbing," a commentator named Sarah wrote on Lululemon's blog. "I'm fairly shocked to hear that lululemon and Ron Paul draw their inspiration from the same author."
Others were less than surprised -- Lululemon is a large, publicly-traded company, after all, not an ashram in the Himalayas. "It’s not a very yogic message," Alex Johnson, a teacher at the nonprofit Dirt Cheap Yoga in Dallas, told The Huffington Post. "But there's a lot of non yogic stuff that goes on in the yoga community. Who needs to spend $90 on a pair of pants?"
A Lululemon spokesperson told The Huffington Post that it had chosen to "include these statements [on tote bags] to create conversation among our guests."
"You might be wondering why a company that makes yoga clothing has chosen a legendary literary character's name to adorn the side of our bags," Lululemon’s blog explains. The book is a favorite of founder Chip Wilson, and had a "great impact on his quest to elevate the world from mediocrity to greatness [emphasis theirs]."
For every negative comment on the Lululemon blog, there are at least two fans commending the company. "AMAZING post!" wrote Anil Singh. "Lulu - you make me feel like I can do anything (and I actually can!). THANK YOU!"
Meanwhile, the company's bottom line is growing as fast as a yoga-quitter's rear. Founded in 1998 in Vancouver, Canada, the company raised $327.6 million in its 2007 Initial Public Offering. In Q2 of 2011, it earned $212.32 million in revenue, up from $152.21 million in the same period in 2010. It also opened 21 new stores that year, bringing the number of locations up to 151 nationwide.
Free (Market) Yoga
Like Forever 21 -- which prints the phrase "John 3:16," a biblical verse, on the bottom of every shopping bag -- Lululemon has put quirky phrases on its tote bags before, supposedly as a way to communicate company values. Previous messages included "Nature wants us to be mediocre," "The conscious mind can only hold one thought at a time," and "Children are the orgasm of life."
"They put shocking statements on their bags so people pay attention and buy their products," said Johnson, the yoga instructor. "So far, it has worked for them very well."
Some think that this time the company has gone too far in aligning itself with a message that is not only attention-grabbing, but alienating.
"This polarizes people," explained Donna Sturgess, president of Buyology Inc., a branding consultancy firm. "[Who is John Galt?] is a sophisticated question. A lot of people don’t know what it means or haven’t read Ayn Rand since college."
Some of those who actually do get the reference are often turned off by it, whether they agree or disagree. "If you do yoga for calming and peace this is an agitating question," she said.
Indeed, the quote may be so un-zen that some customers will no longer patronize stores.
"Maybe the next Lululemon bags can sport a quote from L. Ron Hubbard and a reference to one of his 'legendary literary characters,'" wrote Susie. "I think I'll shop elsewhere."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article mistakenly said Lululemon is based in Toronto. It is based in Vancouver.