Why Lululemon's "CEO Wanted" Ad Is Bad For The Brand

Know your audience. Know your platforms. Know when to joke about tequila shots and when not to. Inside the ongoing unraveling of a once powerful retailing juggernaut.

Recently, Lululemon’s home page featured—in big block letters that took up my entire computer screen—a message that read: "CEO Wanted."

My first thought was that someone had hacked into their site as a prank. It turns out that this really was the company’s official website.

Lululemon is known for being irreverent and I’m all for it. I've written about their playful brand voice and their brilliant YouTube video called "Sh*t Yogis Say." It's hard to be confident, sophisticated, and tongue-in-cheek at the same time—yet Lululemon does it well.

So why was this home page message so jarring?

The page has since been taken down, but this unexpectedly off-brand moment for Lululemon is an opportunity for marketers to re-evaluate their own messaging.

Here are 7 important lessons from Lululemon’s blunder.

1. Customers go to your website to shop online, not read about financial news.

The average Lululemon customer is not thinking about the company’s stock prices, hiring decisions, or quarterly financial results.

According to a 2012 study from PwC on online shopping behavior, 73% of U.S. consumers search online for information about clothes (and other goods) before buying in stores. So when a customer goes to Lululemon.com, she probably wants to check out merchandise or explore relevant content, such as upcoming marathons, yoga classes, or events.

The key word here is relevant.

The fact that the company’s CEO is quitting is not relevant. Unless it means that, as a customer, I should stock up on yoga pants because Lululemon is about to go out of business now that their leadership team is jumping ship.

2. One size doesn’t fit all: The message should fit the channel.

A company website is great for disseminating information in a one-directional flow, but some messages—like this one—thrive on dialogue and should be hosted primarily on a social media channel.

That’s why the "CEO Wanted" message was so successful on Facebook.

Lululemon asked, "Any ideas?" to encourage fans to share their thoughts. Hundreds of customers commented, with suggestions ranging from focusing on product quality to recognizing that customers have different body types.

So far, the image has received about 2,000 "likes," which is by far the highest engagement rate of recent Lululemon posts.

3. Remember who your target audience is.

In their own words, this is how Lululemon describes their target customer in a 10-K annual report:

Our primary target customer is a sophisticated and educated woman who understands the importance of an active, healthy lifestyle. She is increasingly tasked with the dual responsibilities of career and family and is constantly challenged to balance her work, life and health. We believe she pursues exercise to achieve physical fitness and inner peace.
The typical Lululemon customer would agree that running a company isn't a joke. After all, she’s a well-educated, upper-middle class, white collar working professional.

And she can afford $92 yoga pants. It’s not absurd to think that someone with such discretionary income might be in a leadership role herself, so a campaign that ridicules business managers could be off-putting.

The ad also goes overboard with pop culture references—such as Napoleon Dynamite’s "Vote for Pedro"—that are more suitable for a retailer with a younger customer base, like Urban Outfitters.

Either way, the image of a CEO throwing back a shot of Patron does not elicit a sense of sophistication, nor does it align with how a Lululemon customer sees herself.

4. There's a fine line between cheeky and spiteful.

Humor is hard to pull off because it’s so personal—what’s clever to one person is obnoxious to another.

Brands have to be especially careful because of existing customer expectations. Wouldn’t it be strange if Cheerios suddenly sounded aggressive?

Lululemon has some leeway here because their brand is rooted in a grassroots approach and an irreverent voice. Still, the "CEO Wanted" message tried to be sarcastic in a lighthearted way, but it came across as disdainful.

Why is that? Because there are many nuances to consider to ensure that what you mean is what the customer hears. This includes content, imagery, timing, tone, word choice, word order, context, marketing channel, and more. What are the sensitivities involved? Are there any unintentional ways that someone could interpret your message?

Here are a few examples of wit that strikes a good balance of bold yet friendly:

  • Chipotle: "This napkin is made from 90% post-consumer recycled unbleached paper. It could have been an electricity bill or a parking ticket in its past life. Forgive & forget."
  • Google Chrome: The error page says "Aw, snap!"
  • Crunch Fitness: The window signs say "Get your ass to class."

Humor takes a little more diligence than other types of messaging. When done right, the results are worth it: Brands who can make fun of themselves seem authentic, and that’s refreshing for customers.

5. Timing and context are important, because marketing doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

"Sh*t Yogis Say" was part of a greater meme of dozens of "Sh*t [Blank] Say" videos that poked fun at specific demographics. Few, if any, groups were spared.

So Lululemon’s video making fun of yogis coincided with dozens of other snarky videos, which increased the likelihood that customers would understand the joke.

What was the context of the "CEO Wanted" homepage message? The company is currently going through a rough period. There was a massive product recall a few months ago that cost an estimated $67 million, and last week, the CEO announced her plan to resign without explaining why.

Perhaps Lululemon wanted to address this head-on by saying, "Look, we’ve got nothing to hide. We trust our customers enough to discuss tough topics."

It’s good to be transparent. But communicating the idea via an over-the-top CEO job description seems bitter and defensive. It sounds like the CEO herself is saying that it’s impossible to find a perfect "unicorn" candidate who can solve all of the company’s problems, because there are that many problems.

When a recent divorcee makes fun of relationships, it’s more awkward than funny. When a company says that their CEO is quitting, and makes a joke of it, you’re not sure whether to laugh or be concerned.

6. You can be snarkier on Twitter than on your official homepage.

You might share bachelor party photos on Facebook, but you’d keep those away from LinkedIn. Similarly, customers have different expectations for a brand’s paid, owned, and earned media.

In social media, customers are accustomed to off-the-cuff status posts. Tweets show up in a newsfeed and are soon forgotten—or at least pushed down the page by more recent posts.

For example, Audi’s tweet took a jab at Mercedes-Benz during the Super Bowl blackout. This post would have been too aggressive on Audi’s website, but by being feisty on the right medium, Audi showed their brand personality and generated over 9,000 retweets.

The casual and ephemeral nature of Twitter means that brands can experiment with messaging that’s a little beyond what you would normally put on a website, so Lululemon’s message would work here.

7. Subtle changes in word choice can impact consumer psychology.

Recent studies by the Stanford Graduate School of Business suggest that even subtle changes in pronouns (saying "we" instead of "I"), or asking hypothetical questions, can make a big impact on consumer attitudes toward brands.

In terms of word choice and execution, Lululemon’s successful "Sh*t Yogis Say" video had a clever script and good editing. The payoff is that the high-quality video reinforced the brand’s positioning as a prestige retailer.

On the other hand, the copy for the "CEO Wanted" job description sounds like a nonchalant intern wrote it as a first draft—while intoxicated.

An excerpt:

- You report to no one, you are the CEO (duh).
- You are passionate about doing chief executive officer type stuff like making decisions, having a vision and being the head boss person.
- You communicate powerfully, often through Sanskrit.
- You actively live and breathe the Lululemon culture – on Friday afternoons you hit up wheatgrass and tequila shots (it’s called work/life balance)

Colloquial phrases such as "duh," "stuff," and "hit up" can come across as rude in writing. "Chief executive officer type stuff" and "head boss person" sound juvenile and jeering. You communicate in Sanskrit, not through Sanskrit.

Sloppy writing and grammatical mistakes hint that the brand wasn't as deliberate with this ad as they usually are. Even if a customer isn’t scrutinizing every word, you risk having her doubt whether this uncontentious attitude applies to other parts of the business.

Good brand messaging is hard, and Lululemon usually gets it right. But this "CEO Wanted" campaign fell flat and turned bad news into an even more negative story.

The takeaway is that it’s important for brands to have a clear purpose for messaging. Knowing your objective will help you decide what to say, and how to say it in a way that reflects your brand personality. When you strike a good balance with content, tone, timing, and channel distribution, you can confidently deliver brand messaging that resonates with your customer.

Winnie Kao is a marketer, writer, Brazilian jiu-jitsu grappler, tech enthusiast, and former fashion junkie. She currently leads marketing communications at Flite, an ad tech startup funded by Sequoia Capital. Follow her on Twitter at @winniekao or read her blog.

[Image: Flickr user Lululemon]

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11 Comments

  • TheForumCorporation

    A change in executive leadership at a corporation is typically a fragile period, often cloaked in secrecy. Lululemon's use of social media was creative and succeeded in fostering transparency and dulling the negative publicity around their leadership crisis. The Forum Corp. recently discussed this topic in a post on our blog http://www.forum.com/blog/maki... We'd love to get your thoughts.

  • T-bunny

    Lululemon is a terrible company to work for, and when I saw the "CEO Wanted" thing I simply assumed that even the Head Yogi in Charge couldn't continue working at a place that devalues their employees. And since I made no effort to click on it to find out more about what was supposed to be clever, it's not exactly a brilliant marketing tactic. This is strategy is simply a modern-day focus group. Seen it.

  • Bianca

    I am wondering if Jeff, Jack or John shop at Lulemon. 
    I am guessing Winnie does as does "A fellow marketer"
    It doesn't matter how fresh and clever Fast Company commenters think it is, if it turns off the demo of the company itself. 

  • Jack

    I go down there a couple of times a month to do drop-in yoga, although I admit I might not fit their target demographic (just because I'm male). Still, I've had plenty of their target market (and fellow marketing professionals) sharing their glee for the "CEO wanted" message on my LinkedIn and Facebook, for what that's worth.

  • John

    Winnie, you missed the point. They changed the conversation from "why did Lululemon's CEO choose to leave the company" to "look what Lululemon is doing." If you Google "Lululemon CEO," stories about the help wanted ad have successfully buried the articles questioning the company's financial future.  

  • A fellow marketer

    Contrary to the comments thus far, I actually agree with Winnie (I'm a marketer who's worked in social media, PR and online advertising, for what it's worth). The point about "when a recent divorcee makes jokes about relationships, it's more awkward than funny" summed up my reaction to encountering the campaign both online and in person. I was aware of the recent product recall due to fabric quality issues but not that the CEO had unexpectedly resigned, so seeing these signs plastered over my local Lululemon store just seemed like a confusing (and rather flippant) recruitment campaign. I think effectiveness level and interpretation depend largely on how much knowledge you have about the company's recent issues. If you know more of the story, you are more likely to get the joke, but as Winnie points out, the average Lululemon customer probably doesn't know all the details.

  • Guest

    I also agree with previous comments. The campaign was and still is (we're currently talking about it aren't we?) very successful. 

  • Guest

    Agreed with all three commenters. This was a brilliant marketing campaign. The writing was not sloppy either, in my opinion (I'm a reporter). It was very witty and carried across the fresh tone for which Lululemon is known. I thoroughly enjoyed the ad, and I think it was successful in taking the pressure off the company during what could be a tough time. 

  • Jeff

    You have missed the point entirely. This was brilliant brand marketing and sacrificing precious ecommerce real estate (in this case a home page banner) for a quick chance to speak your customers and fans humorously shows confidence and control of your overall strategy. Also, why do something on the social media channels people 'expect' a certain type of messaging? What made social media cool in the first place was its unexpected, fresh tone. The whole point is to be down to earth and get people to laugh (that worked for me) as well as get the blogs talking about it (that worked for you). I'd say mission accomplished here.

  • Jack

    In Vancouver, about 6 blocks from their global head office, at their Kitsilano retail location in the very heart of yogaville, their entire storefront remains splattered with "CEO wanted" messaging. Your interpretation is ridiculously sensitive, I do not believe that customers have been "turned off" by the message at all.

  • Stephen Abbott

    So... the message was admittedly "successful on facebook." Did someone hand this idea off to Winnie Kao and say "here, be outraged about this," or was did Winnie approach FastCompany with the idea? Because I'm sorry, but this doesn't seem that outrageous or offensive. Although the outrage at the company for letting quality slip is a far more serious issue, and I suspect the company, and the outgoing CEO, got the message.