Lululemon exercises its creative muscles

From in-house efforts to in-store events, the company champions an independent PR spirit

From in-house efforts to in-store events, the company champions an independent PR spirit

Lululemon Athletica, a retailer of high-end yoga-inspired athletic apparel, has capitalized on the mainstream yoga phenomenon that has rapidly invaded mainstream America. In 2007, the Vancouver, Canada-based company successfully went public. Just last year, after having watched merchandise fly off the shelves at its Lincoln Center store in New York, it expanded its US operation with 30 new stores. Regardless of its public status, size, and quick growth in the US, the company's communications-heavy marketing structure is almost as non-corporate as its apparel.

For example, as an April Fools' Day joke, employees at a freshly opened New York store papered the entire space and pretended to be closing “just for fun,” says Sara Henshaw, PR manager at the company. It caught the attention of fans, and generated buzz, as did an online ad of a Lululemon videographer posing on the beach in a “Mansy” – a red thong unitard (and nothing else) – claiming that the item was “available now at Lululemon.”

“We like to create conversation; everything is word of mouth,” Henshaw says. “We empower the stores to come up with really fun ideas, and that's where we get to see creativity flowing. As a result of that, PR happens.”

Though publicly traded, the company recognizes that its success relies on this de-centralized community marketing model, which necessitates purveying a certain level of independence on its stores.

She adds, “[For the expansion], we went about our regular business of grassroots marketing in that many more communities.”

As in the stores, internal communications has an entrepreneurial spirit. Employees are encouraged to address issues openly. Henshaw walks around the various departments discussing matters and asking questions.

“We're not a bureaucratic company. I work with senior leadership,” she notes, adding that CEO Christine Day, who came from Starbucks, understands the value of both internal and external communications.

There are no walls at the Vancouver office, says Henshaw, whose team works closely with the marketing arm. Lululemon tags this working arrangement as “community relations.”

The PR team also works with FD on IR, internal communications, and various consumer efforts. “[FD] helps... make sure everything is integrated,” Henshaw explains.

Henshaw's team works on IR and national consumer pitches, while strategically placed regional managers stay local. They work with store managers to plan and schedule in-store events, PR stunts, and community-building activities, as well as on local media relations.

“Of course we have checks and balances,” she says, “but our stores have room to be creative and connect with the local community based on the learning of what we know works. Our shareholders and investors... believe in the experience. The grassroots events the stores host embody this commitment.”

Lululemon has adhered to that philosophy from the start. When it went public in Canada and the US in July 2007, the company held yoga sessions inside the Nasdaq building and in Times Square.

In-store and community grassroots efforts include kids' story-time nights, yoga in neighborhood parks or on beaches, and unconventional classes such as Zumba or Salsa for new moms and babies. Stores are also free to dress their windows and have staged yoga demonstrations for passers-by, and have generated neighborhood buzz with actions like borrowing bikes from a local gym for an in-store spin class.

Liz Eustace, a New York community leader for the brand, spends much of her time building relationships with well-reputed fitness organizations and local media, largely with an end-goal of product placement on athletes. But she also works closely with the store “educators” (sales associates) and ambassadors.

“We really look to support our community,” she says. “In turn, they support an event we have, or come in the store, and that's great.”

Henshaw also works closely with a Vancouver-based online communications coordinator who has built a Lululemon presence on Facebook, as well as a Twitter page.

“It's a nice way to engage directly with people,” she says, adding that it's an effective customer relations tool to “solve things,” such as providing tips on how to get the pants hemmed. The company's Web site also highlights a consumer goals microsite, as well as news about local CSR initiatives.

At A Glance

Company: Lululemon Athletica

President and CEO: Christine Day

Headquarters: Vancouver, Canada

Key Reading Materials: The New York Times, Globe and Mail, WWD, and Veritas Communications' Touchdowns and Fumbles newsletter

Comms Budget: Undisclosed

PR Team: Sara Henshaw, PR manger; Nathalie Balfour, PR supervisor; Josie McGraw, PR coordinator

US AOR: FD

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