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It’s hard to believe Lululemon has been around for nearly 20 years without a stitch of advertising. Since the yoga-inspired athletic apparel company was started by now-ousted founder and ex-CEO Chip Wilson in 1998, it hasn’t really needed to.
Instead, Lululemon has relied on its die-hard fans and a robust network of fabulously toned, handstand-savvy brand ambassadors to spread a gospel of mountain scaling, mindfulness, and $100 leggings.
Its plan has worked remarkably well, making Lululemon the quintessential example of a brand boasting a cult following. The grassroots marketing effort has resulted in exponential growth; revenues soared from $40.7 million in 2004 to $1.59 billion in 2014. Lululemon’s army of fans — women and men alike — are willing to shell out hundreds of dollars for fitness apparel (sometimes even after it’s already been worn).
It’s near impossible to go to a spin or yoga studio and not spot the brand’s logo, but times are changing. In the nearly two decades since Lululemon launched, it feels like every other brand in the universe has launched leggings. So in search of a new customer, the company’s dipping its toes into advertising.
Lululemon’s “This is Yoga” campaign debuts today and stars seven personalities, including Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings. Created in partnership with Vice’s global content agency, Virtue Worldwide, it’s probably not what you’d guess. Though it’s titled “This is Yoga,” there is no yoga. Instead, Instagram-famous Australian artist CJ Hendry is drawing, Capoeira instructor Jian Pablico is sparring with a friend, and professional surfer Maddie Peterson is slicing through the ocean.
The photos are accompanied by text sharing yoga principles like “nonviolence, trust, self-discovery, and self-discipline.” Some of the imagery, like with Walsh Jennings and Peterson, looks on brand, while the others would never be identified with the Lululemon brand.
Duke Stump, Lululemon’s executive vice president of community and brand, tells Racked this is very much on purpose.
“The intention is to show how yoga can take place off the mat and to celebrate the unexpected ways the practice empowers people around the globe to live a life of purpose,” he says. “Yoga has no bias, and our goal is to make the practice both aspirational and inclusive by showing inspiring stories and alternative expressions of what ‘yoga’ really means to a diverse group of people.”
Regarding Lululemon’s foray into advertising, Stump says Lululemon “felt it was time to amplify our voice and demonstrate to the world what Lululemon stands for as a brand, especially as our presence expands globally.”
Sure, but the company’s success has also lead to some weakness. While Lululemon still remains one of the strongest athletic apparel companies (bringing in $2.06 billion in 2016), it’s spawned an entire category of competition, from niche yoga lifestyle brands to beasts like Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour, all of which have jumped into the fitness apparel market. Now it wades in an extremely crowded and competitive market that’s resulted in it reporting weak sales growth for two consecutive quarters.
“I think [the campaign is] largely in response to a slowdown in the market and much tougher competition,” says Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. “Since the start of this year, consumer interest in athleisure has been waning and growth has slowed significantly. Given that there are now far more players in this space, Lululemon knows it must work harder to keep itself on the radar.”
Saunders adds that while “the campaign has a chance of success, for it to work, Lululemon really needs to draw in some new customers.” That explains the lack of yoga in the campaign as well as the partnership with Vice, which is the best example of anti-yoga imagery. Musicians and athletes going about their business and doing everything but yoga (in head-to-toe Lululemon, of course) represents the brand’s desired shift from yoga as practice to yoga as lifestyle. The brand hopes everyone can get behind the message — and, of course, the apparel.