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CEO Christine Day joined Lululemon a year ago. She has already attended Landmark Forum. | Photograph by Annie Marie Musselman

Lululemon’s Cult of Selling

Lululemon has created a cult following for its yoga gear. Its secret? The Secret, as well as other controversial self-help classics.

I'm balancing on my head, and I don't think I've ever been more relaxed. I am one of about 30 women who have assumed similarly vertical positions early on a Sunday morning in a yoga studio on New York's Upper East Side. Tibetan chants and dimmed lights block out the city's chaos just beyond the door. Motivational quotes painted on the walls — jealousy works the opposite way you want it to! — seep into my consciousness.

Seconds after our petite Indian yogi leads us through our final "ommm," piercing lights flicker on. People roll in tables of merchandise like stagehands between acts of a play, converting our urban ashram into a retail temple. The women gathered at Lululemon Athletica — the Mecca of yoga lifestyle gear — know the drill. The free class is over, and they lunge toward the register to retrieve their 15% off coupons, still catching their breath from their last downward dog. One woman already has three $52 Alluring tank tops in hand. "If you want to be successful in this industry," says Christine Day, Lululemon's CEO, "it's about being authentic."

A cult following is the most coveted accessory in retail, and Lululemon's is even more lustworthy than its Velocity Gym Bag. It wasn't built on the work of some Jobs-ian swami, however, but on the sources of Lulu founder and chairman Chip Wilson's own spiritual awakening. Wilson has mixed a heady self-actualizing cocktail from equal parts Landmark Forum (seminars based on the philosophy of Werner Erhard), the books of motivational business guru Brian Tracy, and Oprah-endorsed best seller The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne. He is now hard at work formalizing them in a Lululemon "internal constitution."

"It's the first time I've heard of anyone almost directly using the techniques of cults and applying them to their business," says Douglas Atkin, author of The Culting of Brands. Drawing on those techniques, and with virtually zero advertising, Lululemon has converted the most popular yoga teachers from Beverly Hills to Boston (and their students) into a devoted — and self-propagating — clientele. In a little more than 10 years, Lululemon has grown from a single storefront on the surf side of Vancouver, British Columbia, to a public company with more than 100 outlets and $340 million in annual revenue. "I have not been able to find any company that compares with what they do," says Suzanne Price, a retail analyst with ThinkEquity, who points to Lululemon stores ringing up $1,800 in sales per square foot, compared with only $600 for retailers such as J.Crew and Abercrombie & Fitch.

Wilson claims he didn't start Lululemon merely to sell $90 leggings, but also to help his customers limber up for their journey to self-esteem and empowerment. As he writes in the "Chip's Musings" section of the company Web site, "The law of attraction" — the central tenet of The Secret, that visualizing goals is the key to attaining them — "is the fundamental law that Lululemon was built on from its 1998 inception." He goes on to explain the company's meta-mission: "Our vision is 'to elevate the world from mediocrity to greatness,' and we are growing so we can train more people and spread the word of The Secret — which to us at Lululemon is not so secret."

In the early days, Wilson learned quickly that a meditative bent can be a liability on the sales floor. "When we first started, we hired nothing but yogis," he tells me. "But it didn't work because they were too slow. So we started hiring runners who like yoga. They're more on the ball, more type A." Lululemon now arms its employees, or "educators," with a "learning library" that includes Steven Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Tracy's The Phoenix Seminar on the Psychology of Achievement. To celebrate their first anniversary on staff, educators are rewarded with Landmark Forum seminars. "We feel like Landmark is a tool," says Day, a 20-year Starbucks veteran who has attended Landmark training. "It's created a culture of accountability."

On its Web site, Lululemon says the training program has been "such a success that the Lululemon people have created a life for themselves that most people could only dream of." That would certainly apply to Wilson, whose net worth is reportedly close to $370 million. His inner voice urged him to dump almost 7 million shares when Lululemon held its U.S. IPO in the summer of 2007, earning him more than $100 million [Editor's Note: He is still the largest shareholder, with 35%.]

Not everyone has enjoyed the same rewards, financial or spiritual. "I didn't see it as eye-opening at all," says Andrew Kumar, of the training program. Kumar quit his $10-an-hour educator job in January and says the company required him to listen to four Brian Tracy audiobooks during his free time and post his personal, professional, and health goals on his store wall for public view. "They are so methodical and wanted to know so much about me," he says.

The occasional skeptic hasn't blunted Lululemon's own self-actualization skills, which are highly effective indeed. As much as a year before it opens in a new market (the company rolled out in Boston, Philadelphia, and East Hampton, New York, in 2008), it sends missionaries to attend every yoga and exercise class they can find, sniffing out and befriending the most influential instructors. "Equinox [the gym] was a big reconnaissance mission for us," says Liz Eustace, Lululemon's northeast regional community manager. "It's a little bit like a relationship. You go on a couple of dates and then decide if you want to actually commit." Before the 2006 New York debut, educators filtered through more than 500 classes to find the chosen yogis. They then invited them to an unmarked walk-up in the Garment District — accessed with a password and a secret knock — where they could buy the latest Sanctuary Hoodies and Flow Y sports bras.

Once a store opens, Lululemon formalizes the relationship with its yoga-instructor "ambassadors," now about 900 strong. The ambassadors get free swag plus a billboard-size portrait in their local Lululemon, which helps them expand their clientele. They then complete the karmic exchange by driving clients back to the retailer. "Not only has it helped me build my business," says Leila Cunningham, a Pilates instructor in Hermosa Beach, California, who was courted by Lulu staffers, "but we started becoming friends, hanging out, going to parties. They've become part of the community." Ambassadors hold free weekly classes in the stores, which are meticulously designed to feel like homespun local boutiques, not cookie-cutter outlets from a public company competing against Nike. ("It's designed to be a little bit messy," Day says of the stores' calculated nonchalance.) Comments from customers — who can monitor progress toward their life goals through a Lulu micro Web site — are scribbled on chalkboards outside the dressing rooms, then funneled back to HQ every two weeks.

Lululemon's own goals, meanwhile, include expansion — to swimming, triathlons, and running. Running and swimming may not have yoga's built-in guru network, but Lululemon knows how to woo the unconverted. "When I went to Beijing last summer," says Tim Crowley, an Olympic triathlon trainer and now a Lululemon ambassador, "it outfitted me with stuff. It was phenomenal." Chalk up another victory for the law of attraction. "Your job is pretty easy when you are authentic with people," says Eric Petersen, Lululemon's community director. "They realize you don't have some sneaky agenda."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the originating principles of the Landmark Forum, which is based on the philosophy of Werner Erhard.

CEO Christine Day joined Lululemon a year ago. She has already attended Landmark Forum. | Photograph by Annie Marie Musselman

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20 Comments

  • ceceliajernegan

    "Your job is pretty easy when you are authentic with people," says Eric Petersen, Lululemon's community director. "They realize you don't have some sneaky agenda." Great quote. I am going to remember. Keep up the great work. Sorry about the chairman. In today's world one MUST be careful not to offend anyone with a slip of the tongue. (or on the internet, text, video...whatever!)

  • Rachel X

    I just quit my job as a lululemon educator. While this article may rely on a bit of insinuation, I've got to say the author is most definitely on to something. I listened to the damn CDs, I posted my goals for the world, I suffered through the completely insensitive and ill-advised "John Galt Bag Debacle." Then I was "gifted" the Landmark Experience: the biggest load of crap pyramid scheme I've ever been made to sit through (I walked out during the final day). No company is going to instill integrity in me - it was there long before I interviewed for this position.  My personal integrity is the reason I'm quitting a job working for a company I can't stand behind, tough job market be damned. What bothers me the most is lululemon's perpetual talk of authenticity. What a massive load of shite. While I completely credit them with introducing me to yoga (which I've embraced whole-heartedly), I'm disgusted by their exploitation of it. lululemon's practices are in no way in line with yoga and its principles. That's a complete sham.   This company, its culture and practices get downright creepy the longer you're in the thick of it. You either fall for it or jump off while you still have your integrity and authenticity. Good riddens. 

  • ceceliajernegan

    I am like you. I am not INTO any cult like atmosphere. Good luck to you.

  • Alyssa Zulueta

    Sorry, but don't MOST companies these days force employees to go to seminars and "trust-"building" weekends?
    I buy Lululemon because the clothes don't fall apart in the washing machine, because, as a fitness instructor, I get a nice discount, and,yes, the pants make my butt look GREAT.
    If you have a quality product, eventually people will find you. Take in all the other stuff if you like, or just enjoy the flattering, well-made clothes.

  • M. P.

    FROM THE ARTICLE: >> "It's the first time I've heard of anyone almost directly using the techniques of cults and applying them to their business," says Douglas Atkin []. <<

    While I don't know if Atkins addresses this in his book, I cannot help but reply, "Why about Amway?" to his assertion that Lululemon is the first user of cult tactics. Amway and the other MLMs that follow their lead nearly all use cult tactics, and many of them stretch that into actual evangelism (about faith not products).

    I advise Lululemon and the other legit businesses that employ cult tactics to know that the line between "strong brand" and "cult" is a line that exists; they need to work to keep their people and their customers in the "strong brand" zone for the sake of propriety and sanity.

  • M. P.

    FROM THE ARTICLE: >> "It's the first time I've heard of anyone almost directly using the techniques of cults and applying them to their business," says Douglas Atkin []. <<

    While I don't know if Atkins addresses this in his book, I cannot help but reply, "Why about Amway?" to his assertion that Lululemon is the first user of cult tactics. Amway and the other MLMs that follow their lead nearly all use cult tactics, and many of them stretch that into actual evangelism (about faith not products).

    I advise Lululemon and the other legit businesses that employ cult tactics to know that the line between "strong brand" and "cult" is a line that exists; they need to work to keep their people and their customers in the "strong brand" zone for the sake of propriety and sanity.

  • M. P.

    FROM THE ARTICLE: >> "It's the first time I've heard of anyone almost directly using the techniques of cults and applying them to their business," says Douglas Atkin []. <<

    While I don't know if Atkins addresses this in his book, I cannot help but reply, "Why about Amway?" to his assertion that Lululemon is the first user of cult tactics. Amway and the other MLMs that follow their lead nearly all use cult tactics, and many of them stretch that into actual evangelism (about faith not products).

    I advise Lululemon and the other legit businesses that employ cult tactics to know that the line between "strong brand" and "cult" is a line that exists; they need to work to keep their people and their customers in the "strong brand" zone for the sake of propriety and sanity.

  • brian wark

    I call bs to a culty trend, bs to harvard biz review, and bs to the landmark blah blah blah,
    have any of you biz minded chuckle-heads ever consider they are so successful because lululemon clothing makes girls bums look so good!
    period.

  • Polina Grinbaum

    One thing that your article didn't mention is that these clothes are far What seems to be missing form this article is that lululemon's clothing is superior to other lines. I too found the whole feeling of the store to be a little tooo much, until I owned one pair of their pants. I would have never dropped this much cash on clothing you sweat in- or really any clothing. But lululemon's stuff have been worth every penny. I am not a skinny girl, and it is harder than it should be to find good workout clothes. They fit perfectly, they never dig in the waist, never slip around, are long enough- how rare- and last but not least they are flattering. But really most importantly, they last, I have three pairs washed and worn them almost constantly for 4 years, I have worn them hiking and camping, to yoga, for running, dancing, biking, even kayaking and they have never ripped, never pilled, never shrunk, they are still going strong.

    Most of this stuff craps out after a year or two. Their attention to detail is unbeatable, little things like a key pocket in the right places, no tags, fabrics that are feel great but wear even better. I have bought similar clothing but always come back to them. Whatever they use to motivate their sales staff is not important to me. I tend to go in and get out, quickly. But what I am super impressed with is their thoughfulness in design and fabric selection, the design team are the ones who really should have an article written about them. I am not a "gladfly" "predisposed to magical thinking", just someone who appreciates a good product that works.

  • Artoo45

    No connection to $cientology? Erhard was a $cientologist at one time by his own admission. My Landmark Forum™ leader told chilling tales of a $cientology conspiracy to destroy Erhard. He said it was because Rosenberg (Erhard) squirreled "tech" from Hubbard that he fled the country after being "fair gamed" by the cult. I know, I know, I can hear it now, "why are you making Landmark™ WRONG?" (This statement is nearly always uttered with a tragic, victim-y whine while the offended Landmarker makes uncomfortably unbreakable eye-contact with you. I actually LOVED the Forum™. It changed my life. After the Forum™ I rejected the childish New Age crap that had actually driven me to the Forum™ in the first place. I became an atheist, rejected all forms of magical-thinking and lost my fear of death. I'm not being facetious either. I also discovered how manipulative and hypocritical Landmark™ is . . . because of what I learned at Landmark™. As Bugs Bunny would say "ironic, ain't it?" Is Lulu Lemon's success repeatable in other markets? I would caution other businesses in thrall to Landmark™ to be careful before publicly linking themselves to this organization. Yoga has a cult/guru mindset to begin with. Much of the yoga crowd is predisposed to magical thinking and tend to be spiritual samplers with "open minds" (I used to be one of these gadflys). I think any business that has a heavily reality-based clientele would want to steer clear of this association no matter how good Lulu Lemon's books look.

  • grantsformation

    I cannot believe that Fast Company would write an article on a business doing THREE TIMES the sales of other stores in its class and NOT investigate a program that is clearly at least part of the source for that astounding result. This is a link to Landmark Education's MANY independent studies by the Talent Foundation, Harvard Business School, and others regarding the amazing, unprecedented results of The Landmark Forum: http://www.landmarkeducation.c... Simple clicking on LE's website would have brought you here had your agenda NOT been to dismiss this powerful program.

    I am disappointed and dismayed that FC tossed aside the many references to this effective worldwide educational program and explained it away (falsely) as the work of Scientologists (I'll be they LOVED that!) or a "cult". This is NOT the level of reporting or investigation I have come to expect from FC. As well over a million people worldwide have participated in Landmark's program's, I'm sure mine is not the only correction you will get. At the very least, you owe Landmark Education a formal correction and apology for shoddy fact-checking, and you owe the Lululemon people more respect for their obviously successful methods.

  • Danielle Sacks

    Al, our intention was to take readers behind the scenes of an extremely
    successful retailer——a rarity in today's economic climate. What has made
    them distinctive? While our article does acknowledge Lululemon's critics (as all good journalism seeks to), we also stress that "in a little more than 10 years, Lululemon has grown from a single storefront...to a public company with ... $340 million in annual revenue." We hope at least some readers will find lessons in our article for their business.

  • Angelen

    Hey Danielle, it is very clear that this is war is a battle on perspective as many flaming war on the net revolves around. I have not yet seen any corporation ran successfully without the suppose 'cult-like' system. People associate the word cult with the past bad examples but people seem to forget culture is a socially accepted cult practice. A country has its way of life style as a result unites the citizens within its geographic boundaries and linguistic boundary to form a sense of national pride. Without cult practice, no religion would form, and no society could form, and involving in A culture of any sort is just what every sane normal human being need to function properly. For example, 9~5pm is the popular assumption of best work hours, 40 hours a week is the better amount of hours people should put into working and mediocre alcohol on a controlled basis is a great form of connecting with your communityl; these are all repetition of habits under a certain believe which wouldn't suit EVERY SINGLE human on this planet. However, it is widely accepted because we are used to it. The perspective here that Lululemon has a few company policies to connect its employee exclusively to things that the company does is just forming an internal culture to make its employee feel belonged. once again, not everyone is born into a culture but formed into a culture by family and friends, in this case, by employers.

    From some of the comments, it feels that there are a lot of instructors who can't handle the fact that they are not making enough income but are required to be spending money back into the company. In which I believe reinvestment into your own business is like a form of giving back. Those who don't are simply selfish. I know i am selfish because I definitely wouldn't give back to my employer if i barely have enough to buy my house, but I understand the logic behind it. Perhaps that's why i'm still currently not wealthy because the successful individuals do give back. I, like those who failed to understand this simple fact, will continue our endless low-end dwelling in self-persuasion of internal happiness. But our difference would be, I already understand why i am here now and abide to my life style instead of blaming my employer for trying to brain washing me to becoming more dedicated to my job.

  • ceceliajernegan

    Danielle I did read thru the lines. I love to hear success stories. I thought your article was right on and a desire to inspire others to achieve their dreams. Keep up the great work.

  • Max Spiker

    Enron looked good too and made millions and millions. Shit, so did Ponzi. Money means nothing other than money (Landmark teaches you that ;)

  • John Bishop

    I have been Fast Company subscriber for quite a while. I think it is important to clarify incorrect information in articles. Landmark Education was not developed by an ex-Scientologist. Landmark Education has nothing to do with Scientology. The foundation of Landmark Education training is Integrity and Authenticity. My experience with Fast Company is that you are a company of Integrity and Authenticity. I believe this information needs to be corrected in your next issue.

  • Al Snyder

    I'm frankly surprised that Fast Company is running a piece that relies on insinuation to disparage a company. The story almost seems to imply that a company that has its employees listen to motivational books on tape or offer them free training seminars must be up to no good! I've read Fast Company for a long time, and really enjoy reading about what's new, cutting edge and effective - It seems sort of odd and sad that hatchet jobs are now part of the Fast Company repertoire.

  • Andrew Kumar

    lululemon was a great company to work for while I was there. Maybe some revisions in training and culture would help.