Sometimes all it takes is a new pair of yoga pants to make yourself feel better.
lululemon as the Ideal Neoliberal Brand
With over 354 stores and counting, lululemon proves itself as a leader in the high-end fitness apparel industry. Founded in 1998, the Vancouver based company’s innovative clothing designs, motivational content, and strong social media presence makes them an ideal brand in our neoliberal climate. Neoliberalism can be broadly understood “as a politically and economic approach which favours the expansion and intensification of markets, while at the same time minimize[s] government intervention” (Ayo, 2014 p.101). Lavrence and Lozanski (2014) note that this ideology works hand in hand with consumption because of it’s “consumer-driven logic” (p.79), while simultaneously promoting “changing notions of citizenship” (Szto and Gray, 2015 p.322) allowing brands like lululemon to succeed today. The responsibility of bettering oneself is now put onto the individual and the free market gives citizens the opportunity to consume products as an active solution.
Moreover, consuming lululemon and fitness apparel brands alike are no longer confined to fitness activities themselves, but instead have “become a fashionable statement in everyday wear of one’s pursuit of health” (Ayo, 2014 p.101). It doesn’t matter if you’re doing physical activity or not, one’s pursuit of health can be shown through just purchasing active wear itself as it is a symbol of health shown on the surface. People buy products that reflect their identity or rather how they would like to see themselves as (2013), so when purchasing lululemon one identifies themselves as a fit citizen who is bettering themselves with premium apparel. Brands that align themselves with social activism are another way for consumers to show their support. Simply following brands that take on these initiatives is a way to support these causes and lululemon reinforces these ideas with their #Worth100 campaign. They use social media to position themselves as an authority in our neoliberal climate in order to encourage people to become a better citizen by following them, however, their campaign is questioned as they perpetuate opposing values on a daily basis.
lululemon draws upon commodity activism by aligning their brand with social issues and then marketing products for that cause. This type of activism works well in our neoliberal climate as it has become a “preferred mode through which to demonstrate responsibility to others” (Mukherjee & Banet-Weiser, 2012 p.200). The #Worth100 campaign was initiated on International Women’s Day, March 8th, 2018 to promote the idea that any person no matter gender, race, colour or who they are, everything about them is Worth 100. They held inspirational events all across the world with honoured guests and speakers in hopes of celebrating each other’s worth and power. Apparel reading “Enough Already” and “Practice Equality” was sold during that day and all profits were donated to four organizations that support the empowerment of women. Their campaign proved successful as many consumers offered their support and excitement over this initiative through social media and participated in #Worth100 events across the country, however, the same platforms brought criticism as well. lululemon attempted to bring light to the issues surrounding gender equality, but by doing so, they masked the inequality that their company stands for.
With over a million followers on Twitter and over two million on Instagram, lululemon boasts an impressive social media presence. Their campaign was heavily promoted on all their social media channels and is how they gained support and criticism as well. Their customer service approach is “very community-oriented” and “proactive” and with such a strong following it has to be in order to stay on top (Smith, 2012 p.107).
The comments above illustrate some of the critique that came along with luluemon’s #Worth100 campaign. How can a brand promote the idea that women are worth 100% of who they are when their own products do not support 100% of all women? The lululemon branding is highly gendered as “caring for the body is specifically the responsibility of women” (Lavrence and Lozanski, 2014 p.85), so a campaign targeted toward women equality is relevant. They want their consumers to believe that we should all support women in their individual journeys and by consuming lululemon you are also nurturing these beliefs. However, their products only support sizes 0-14, which is not inclusive to all women as the average US dress size is a 14 (Wakeman, 2013). This issue has been withstanding for years now, as the former CEO Chip Wilson explained that larger sizes are not part of their “formula” (Wakeman, 2013) and that their brand plans on focusing their business strategy on design rather than increasing the size range (Bhasin, 2013). Comments like the one above were only a small percentage of the hundreds of ones in support for the campaign. In tune with their “proactive” social media presence, they regularly respond to their customer’s posts and comments. When receiving criticism for their campaign, they approached it in a civil manner, but they do nothing more than to say they will “look into it.”
Why it Works
Although there was some criticism, a majority of the comments were of support for the campaign and those that tagged friends in the posts were obviously fans and are still fans of the brand.
Foucault’s work on governmentality also comes up when approaching these issues as we are now “responsible for [our] actions” and fitness and fitness apparel brands help draw on this responsibility (Markula, 2014 p.483). We are then deemed a “good” citizen because we are an “active” one, always committing to bettering ourselves. lululemon also gave their female customers 20% off on International Women’s Day, which only further initiated their inclusivity for women by giving them an incentive to purchase and show support. It gave consumers another excuse to practice responsibility.
A reason why there was so much more support rather than criticism is because we are humans of anxiety and discipline, and lululemon’s branding strategy reflects these concerns as we are self-governed to not only be a better citizen for ourselves, but for the community as well (Lavrence and Lozanski, 2014 p.80). It is our duty to do our part for our community and this can be highlighted through social media.
Social media is a key part in drawing these supports and criticisms and leads us to see how easy it is for people to reproduce lululemon practices “in an unobtrusive and voluntary manner” (Szto and Gray, 2015 p.322), similarly, to how we passively consume and reproduce practices seen on television. By following brands like lululemon, you are supporting their values as we rarely follow people and brands we dislike. When someone initially sees lululemon posting about gender equality on their feed like the one above, if they are for the initiative, they will like or comment. By liking and commenting on the post they are also agreeing to support gender equality and consequently supporting lululemon as well. lululemon strategically draws on these anxieties of being a better citizen, whether that be through fitness or gender equality and we feel the responsibility to comply to these values when following the brand.
This works well for lululemon, as they target their followers in this campaign and address citizenship responsibilities through consumption – #Worth100 apparel and event tickets – in order for individuals to feel responsible for not only themselves, but for others in their “community” and consume products as a means of support (King, 2003 p. 297). There is an increasing amount of commodities being “sold to the public through their articulation to social causes” and lululemon draws upon this by aligning themselves with gender equality and creating products that also reproduce these beliefs (King, 2003 p.295).
It is important for the individual to showcase their support through commodities as “being able to demonstrate that one has conducted oneself responsibility and adopted an approved mindset” can only be showcased through consuming products and attending events (Brown and Baker, 2013 p.16). By buying a lululemon #Worth100, you are not only supporting the cause through proceeds, but also showing everyone else that you support gender equality as well. There is validation from purchasing these commodities, similarly, to how attending the #Worth100 event and posting it on social media is equivalent to supporting the cause itself. It is a successful way to show people you know that you are the active citizen we all hope to be.
It’s difficult to support an inclusive initiative without the brand’s values being inclusive itself. It questions the validity and by addressing the bigger issue of the size range of their products, lululemon can more appropriately support issues of gender equality. Go back to the longstanding issue that lululemon has had from the start as people need to see action rather than another Instagram customer service reply.
lululemon being a top fitness brand, along with having a strong social media following, has this authority to advocate values that they may or may not even obey to themselves. By reviewing a campaign like #Worth100, it prompts questions surrounding what brands should we be supporting and which should we not? It’s important assess and understand campaigns like #Worth100 before passively consuming. Despite the criticism, the campaign still was a success and there were still a lot of comments of support for the campaign, so it raises questions of whether changes will happen or not and does it matter to consumers? Will this campaign stop people from purchasing lululemon? Probably not, but by looking into the issues surrounding this campaign, it’s apparent that there is a lot that needs to be addressed when supporting a cause that a brand you admire is a part of. It is apparent that people value the importance of being a “active” citizen and it is as if they are immune or are able to disregard any inequalities towards brands that have neoliberal ideals.
This campaign works well to cover up the exclusive size range that lululemon has by highlighting a bigger issue of gender equality. Creating #Worth100 events and products allows for citizens to act upon their beliefs and show their support without taking much action themselves. lululemon supports people of all gender, race, color, but does not support those that are a size bigger than 14. By looking at their social media and the reactions from the campaign, it is apparent that the lululemon branding works well in our neoliberal climate in promoting the idea that one must always act as a responsible, active citizen. The “active” citizen feels the responsibility to respond to initiatives like #Worth100 and does so by interacting with lululemon or purchasing their products. Futhermore, they are a trusted authority in the fitness apparel industry, which makes them immune to any criticism and their social media works well to deter from any negative feedback they may receive. Ultimately, their campaign has proved successful even though they are promoting the idea that everyone is worth 100%, except lululemon products themselves.
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Wakeman, J. (2013, November 09). You can keep your overpriced, overhyped Lululemon yoga pants | Jessica Wakeman. Retrieved April 03, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/09/too-fat-for-lululemon-yoga-pants
Worth 100. (n.d.). Retrieved April 06, 2018, from https://info.lululemon.com/stores/ca/vancouver/kitsilano/events/worth100