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Is It Possible Lulumon’s CEO Was Right?

This past week, Chip Wilson, the CEO of athletic apparel company Lulumom seemed to have stuck his foot in his mouth twice.  That is; after he had to make  amends for a quality issue not too long ago that left customers wearing the product a little more exposed than they had intended while stretching and bending during exercise.

Now, it seems fairly self-evident that if your company is in the athletic apparel business, that customers are going to be contorting, leaning, bending, stretching, and otherwise testing the ability of the garment to perform under conditions vastly different than they are exposed to while hanging on the rack in a store.  The “hub-bub” that occurred during that shameful episode seemed to have been on the decline when the CEO consented to be interviewed on a business show appearing on Bloomberg TV.

The Flaming of the Controversy

When asked about the incident, Mr. Wilson commented that the pilling the fabric and failure to provide adequate “coverage” during the use of the product was not the “fault” of the pants themselves.  Rather, he commented:

  • The product is not meant for every woman’s shape
  • The “rubbing together” of certain women’s thighs during wearing the product was responsible for the pilling and product “failure.”

Response was immediate – and not at all sympathetic to the company’s “plight” at being pilloried in public for their manufacturing quality shortcoming.  But, what was even more enraging to many, was the CEO’s seemingly flippant comment that was seen as insulting, offensive to many, and at the very least – tone-deaf to the interests of their customers and/or future customers.

Chip Wilson stuck foot in mouth twice this past weel.

Chip Wilson stuck foot in mouth twice this past week.

Gets Worse

Then, as the issue escalated against the company, Mr. Wilson released an apology.  However, where most people expected the apology to be for those offended – the customer – the apology was directed at employees who were having to deal with the vitriol of those that were misguided and vilifying the company inappropriately.  Perhaps it is no surprise; the apology was not seen by the market as sincere, appropriate, or indicative that the company (and the CEO) understood how they had bungled the handling of the issue.

But Wait

As outraged as people are about the CEO’s comments, is it possible he is not wrong?

Lulemon makes products for a segment of the population that tend to be fit, interested in physical activity, and perhaps even fall within a particular body shape and size.  Whether anyone thinks that is a good strategic or public relations decision to make products that are specific to a particular segment of the population is really not the issue.  The company can choose what products to produce and what population to serve.

However, the promise of the brand is called into question when the intended audience (the fit and exercising) feels their needs are not being met.  So, the sheer fabric issue was a mistake that warranted an apology, and more importantly – should have been corrected (which it apparently as been).

Claiming that women’s thighs are at fault for the product’s failure or that those women whose thighs rub are not suitable customers for the product is not good public relations, brand management, or smart strategy to communicate.  However, he MAY not be wrong in his assessment of the issue.  He is definitely wrong for appearing to blame the customer though.

Further, he owed his employees an apology for putting them into a very difficult situation because of his lack of awareness of how his words would be interpreted by the very people he wanted and needed to attract – customers!  But, in addition to that apology, he could have helped himself by apologizing to the people who may be considering supporting the brand by making a purchase.  Instead, his flubbing of the apology created a larger problem than the original comment by further alienating the public.

Mr. Wilson, in the court of public opinion, you have been found about as guilty as a CEO can be for not understanding your customer, your public persona, and how to maintain loyalty to the brand.  You get to choose who you target with your products.  You don’t get to blame them for your failures.

David Zahn