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lululemon Case Study: A Community Approach to Marketing

Written by: Christina Papadatos-Dupont

How it began

From its humble beginnings in 1998, lululemon has never relied on traditional methods of marketing to build interest and loyalty around its brand. When Founder Chip Wilson opened lululemon’s first store, he could only afford a space on the second floor of a busy street in Vancouver already filled with athletic apparel stores. That small, second-floor unit did not even act as a full-time store initially. Instead, the business combined with yoga teachers to host classes early in the mornings and late at night in order to bring women into the store and be exposed to the racks of clothing. Eventually, word-of-mouth in the yoga community led to the growth in popularity of lululemon in Vancouver. When lululemon was opening stores in Toronto and Santa Monica a few years later in 2003, the company was still not investing any money into marketing and using word-of-mouth as the sole method to gain brand awareness. Their tactic was to imitate how their flagship store gained traction in Vancouver. They would first set up on a side street or back alley as a pop-up, and then invite yoga instructors to come see them. This created conversations around lululemon’s technical quality of clothing for yoga-lovers in new cities before officially opening doors to a brick and mortar retail location. As we can see from looking at the brand’s early days, lululemon was did not rely on conventional advertising. Instead, they opted to create personalized relationships between the brand and its early adopters, successfully setting the base for how lululemon continues to interact with their consumers today.

The core of the lululemon community

To understand the lululemon community today, we must first look at its foundation. Lululemon essentially created a market by foreshadowing the popularity of yoga in the late 90s: professional women aged 22-35, stylish, athletic, and well-traveled. The brand’s initial designs were primarily focused on functionality, and then fashion followed. This approach emphasized technical excellence in material and design, It was meant to provide practical solutions for those leading busy, metropolitan lifestyles, and who value their physical well-being. These are key attributes the brand was built on, and still remains at the core of lululemon’s success today.

Setting itself apart from most athletic wear companies who heavily invest in sponsorships as a major marketing tool, the lululemon model is centered around community. The benefit to this approach is it creates a more intimate relationship between the brand and consumer, as well as increased brand loyalty. A consumer who purchases lululemon apparel not only walks away with a new article of clothing they can wear on their next run, but they also leave the store with a subtle psychological sense of belonging that accompanies the brand. The consumer now feels they are a part of a much larger social community of individuals who value personal growth, health, and mindfulness as an integral part of their lifestyle.

How does lululemon continue to create a community around their brand?

Each lululemon location has a certain degree of freedom to choose how they engage with their market based on which city it operates in. Rather than having a generic message come from the company’s corporate office and then force-fit into all regions, giving each location some leniency allows them to adapt as necessary in order to serve their market in a more effective and precise way. Just by looking at a few of the brand’s multiple Instagram accounts at a glance, we can note a consistency in the style and delivery of messages on each account that is clearly lululemon, but there are also acute discrepancies in the general aesthetics of each account that are representational of the cultural differences between cities. For example, the lululemon Toronto account recently made a post introducing their new Featherweight Dry Shampoo designed to keep hair fresh after a workout and will be available at all the Toronto locations. It comes as no surprise this “on-the-go” product was launched in the lively city of Toronto; it is specifically geared towards the busy, metropolitan lifestyle of the consumers who live there. In contrast, the lululemon Calgary shared their recent ambassador retreat to Instagram. The trip was two days in a rural, forest environment to spend time outdoors and give lululemon ambassadors a chance to self-explore and learn. This speaks directly to the demographic in this region who are familiar with the notion of escaping the city and are located close in proximity to the Rocky Mountains. Calgarians are commonly going on weekend getaways to be connected with the outdoors. Lululemon San Francisco posted of their new location right in the heart of Napa’s downtown. Recognizing the importance of local wine to the Napa community, lululemon is opening this location with a wine fridge, featuring selections from local wineries. Despite the idea of wine in a lululemon store seeming out of character for the brand, this completely aligns with the company’s overarching community-centered approach to marketing. As evidenced by the diversity in these examples, lululemon’s marketing differentiates itself by specifically tailoring its communications to each geographical region to build a personalized relationship within each community.

Another component driving lululemon’s community-centered marketing is their use of events. Having consumers attend events linked to the brand significantly increases their loyalty to that brand. As part of their ‘Sweat With Us’ program, lululemon has established running clubs in numerous Canadian cities, offering guided complimentary runs on a regular basis. Similarly, at some locations, lululemon retail spaces are converted into temporary studios to offer complimentary yoga classes, or even HITT workouts depending on the store. For individuals activiley involved in these events, the lululemon brand now carries much more significance. Suddenly, the brand represents a gateway to an entire social network of people to share experiences with. Lululemon loyalists all over the country also have the option of attending the company’s largest annual event, the SeaWheeze Half Marathon hosted in the brand’s homeland of Vancouver. SeaWheeze hosts 10,000 runners and gives attendees a full two-day “lululemon experience”. Apart from the run, the event includes yoga, a “pre-party”, group meditation, and ends in a large-scale outdoor concert at their Sunset Festival to close the weekend on a fun note. By including more light-hearted aspects, it is reflective of the brand’s emphasis on overall wellness. It is through these non-traditional methods of connecting with their audience that elevates lululemon past more than a simple athletic apparel company.

Activation strategies as an effective marketing tool

Lululemon serves as a great example of a company that has managed to create a community of followers around their brand. I believe it will be crucial for companies to engage in activation strategies in order to be effective in their marketing efforts. Consumers are increasingly overwhelmed with messages, and in turn, it is becoming more and more challenging for organizations to “break through the clutter”. Building a relationship with consumers and engaging in personalized interactions through the use of events is a phenomenal way to create more impactful, lasting impressions.

School of Retailing has created a Careers on Purpose video series to spotlight our favourite leaders in retail. Check out rapid-fire questions with Kaitlin McIntrye, store manager at Lululemon Athletica, West Edmonton Mall.

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