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Lulu-Lama? Partnership between yoga-wear maker, Dalai Lama sparks outcry

October 27, 2014

The Globe and Mail, October 23, 2014 - Controversy-prone Lululemon Athletica Inc. is at the centre of another storm, this one involving no less than the Dalai Lama.

The Vancouver-based yoga wear retailer, which has been hit by a costly product recall and other setbacks over the past 18 months, unveiled this week that it is teaming up with the Dalai Lama Center for Peace + Education. As part of the initiative, Lululemon will contribute $750,000 over the next three years to support the centre’s work, including researching the connection between mind, body and heart and sharing the work globally.

Consumers quickly took to Lululemon’s blog and social media to criticize the chain for the partnership.

They cited the disconnect between a luxury retailer that sells pricey fashions such as $100 yoga pants and the Dalai Lama who preaches a modest life and advocates for the poor. Others said they were offended that “politics” play a part in Lululemon’s marketing, and several said they would stop shopping at the chain.

Still others raised questions about the humble Dalai Lama seemingly shilling for commercial concerns.

“There’s a lot of disappointment,” Jennilyn Carson, founder of blogging site YogaDork.com in New York, said in an interview.

“Some people are disgusted by it; some people think it’s really bizarre ... Lululemon has had some interesting and questionable marketing tactics in the past years,” Ms. Carson said.

The latest Lululemon kerfuffle comes as the fast-growing retailer is showing early signs of recovering from its string of stumbles under new leadership. Now it needs to avoid distractions and stay focused on improving operations as it launches the next leg of its international expansion.

Just last week Lululemon had to apologize to sports fans in Buffalo, N.Y., after its store in that city spelled out “Wide Right” and “No Goal,” on the store’s floor. Wide right is a reminder of kicker Scott Norwood’s missed field goal attempt that sealed the Buffalo Bills’ 1991 Super Bowl loss to the Giants. And no goal harkens back to the Dallas Stars’ 1999 Stanley Cup win over the Buffalo Sabres on a questionable Brett Hull goal. The retailer said it would remove the words.

In the summer, it patched up a boardroom brawl with with founder Chip Wilson. It ended with him selling half his stake in the company to private equity firm Advent International Corp. Months earlier, Mr. Wilson had offended some customers by seeming to suggest that some women may be too big for the retailer’s svelte styles.

Now Lululemon faces some criticism of its teaming up with the Dalai Lama Center, which followed an address by the exiled leader of Tibet and Nobel Peace Prize winner at the Heart-Mind Summit in Vancouver.

In an e-mailed statement, Lululemon said it is partnering with the centre “to elevate the organizations’ shared mission to develop the next generation of compassionate leaders in the world and create and empower healthy communities through mindfulness. ... In addition to receiving some questions on why we are supporting the work of the Dalai Lama Center, we’ve also received tremendous support which has been very exciting as we work towards our goals together.”

The centre’s spokeswoman, Natalia Angheli-Zaicenco, said it is “just beginning to explore the possibilities and details of all facets of this partnership.”

Still, some consumers questioned the relationship.

“This is very bizarre,” said one blogger on Lululemon’s website. “Merchandising the Dalai Lama? Just improve the quality of your clothes. They have changed and this is the final straw.”

Retail consultant Paul McElhone said the twinning of Lululemon and the centre can appear “murky” to some consumers because of the perceived tension between a company peddling luxury products and an advocate for the fight against poverty. “The optics are confusing.”

Mr. McElhone, former executive director of the University of Alberta’s School of Retailing, said Lululemon may have sent a clearer message by teaming up with a group that, for example, uses yoga as an inspiration to help people suffering from cancer or a stroke. “There are other alliances that would have made more sense.”

But in many ways Lululemon and the Dalai Lama are on the same wavelength, seeking best-in-class standards and a “Zen nature” in each of their cultures, he added.

Other industry observers said the partnership isn’t so strange. Luke Sklar, founder of consultancy Sklar Wilton & Associates, called the controversy “a total red herring.” Acknowledging the partnership is “provocative” due to the Dalai Lama’s strained ties with China, he said the Dalai Lama embodies “the goodness of yoga and a balanced, helpful life. What’s not to love? I applaud the move.”

 

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