|Excuse Me, But Your Fat Thighs are Ruining My Brand
By: Jeannine Wheeler
When your chairman is your worst possible PR nightmare, it’s time to reassess your leadership roster. That’s precisely what cult brand Lululemon Athletica did last week when it announced the resignation of Dennis “Chip” Wilson, who insinuated that women’s oversized thighs affected the quality of his company’s yoga pants.
And it wasn’t the first time that Wilson has caused a stir.
Wilson started Lululemon Athletica with his wife after his first yoga class in 1998. He opened his first store in 2000 and went public in 2007; the company now boasts more than 200 stores and $1bn in revenue.
The most recent Lululemon controversy began when Wilson appears to have blamed his customers for the poor quality and fit of one of its staple products — the Full-On Luon yoga pant.
In yoga classes across the country, women were inadvertently "mooning" each other when the pants stretched to sheerness, revealing more than they intended. There were also problems with excessive pilling of the fabric, which the company describes as “moisture-wicking, four-way stretch, high Lycra content, cottony-soft.” The pants were a staple for Lululemon, accounting for 17% of the company’s sales.
Following widespread consumer complaints, Wilson told Bloomberg TV: “It’s really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there over a period of time and how much they use it.
“Some women’s bodies actually just don’t work for it,” he said.
The company also issued this entreaty for its customers:
“Let’s get real about sheerness. Luon is a knit fabric — if you stretch a knit fabric far enough, it will go sheer. That’s why the right fit is key.”
Soon thereafter, the pants were removed from the inventory and Lululemon downgraded its predictions for its first fiscal quarter, warning investors that the “issue will have a significant impact on its financials.”
To stop the erosion of profits and good will, Wilson felt compelled to issue a video apology for "thigh-gate," which might go down in history as one of the worst corporate apologies ever.
Although he showed great emotion in the video, he did not say the right things to overcome the negative publicity his company was experiencing. In fact, he made it worse.
“I'm sad,” he said. “I'm really sad. I'm sad for the repercussions of my actions.”
Nowhere did he apologize to his customers for insinuating that their oversized thighs may have compromised the quality of his product. Nowhere did he say he was sorry that so many had paid so much for an inferior product. And nowhere did he say that he was sorry that his valued customers had to endure the exposure of thighs and buttocks during their yoga classes.
Instead, he apologized for the effect his comments were having on his company and its employees.
The videotaped apology only ignited the controversy further, leading to Wilson’s resignation announcement shortly thereafter.
What Wilson might have done is to apologize for implying that his customers were at fault for any lack of quality or defect in the pant.
He should have said that he was very sorry to have offended anyone and that he certainly did not mean to imply that the yoga pants were too sheer because of the size of their bottoms.
He might also have offered a promise that the company would market a better quality product that would offer coverage and comfort for all of its consumers — no matter their size.
Perhaps he could have announced an initiative that would help women to overcome negative reactions regarding their size and weight. The irony of the controversy, however, is that the pants were proving too sheer for even his small- and medium-sized customers — having very little to do with the size of the woman wearing the pant.
They simply were of poor quality and he should have apologized immediately and profusely in the first place, avoiding the issue of size altogether.
You have to wonder if there was anyone at the company to counsel him or, if there was, whether he simply refused to listen.
Probably he was just Chip being Chip, just as in 2009 when he created controversy when he explained why the company was called Lululemon.
“It was thought that a Japanese marketing firm would not try to create a North American sounding brand with the letter ‘L’ because the sound does not exist in Japanese phonetics. By including an ‘L’ in the name it was thought the Japanese consumer would find the name innately North American and authentic.
In essence, the name ‘Lululemon’ has no roots and means nothing other than it has 3 Ls in it. Nothing more and nothing less.”
Wilson has had other PR goofs as well over the years.
For some, it was simply too late for reconciliation. Alanna Kaivaly, yoga instructor, author and former Lululemon brand ambassador perhaps said it best when she wrote:
“Chip Wilson can kiss my fat ass.”
Jeannine Wheeler is a PR Director who has worked in three countries, including Russia, the US and the UK. She is currently Sr. Vice President of Pure Energy PR, a full-service boutique communications firm with a focus on the energy, healthcare, technology, construction, real estate & land development, tourism & hospitality and food & beverage industries. Jeannine is in the firm's Austin, Texas office.