Lululemon and the no-sell mentality

Helping your customers can be just as effective as advertising

“We never try to sell anything,” says Eric Peterson, senior vice-president of global brand at Lululemon, which in Canada is on its way to becoming a $500 million company.

That’s a staggering number from a brand that says it ignores the bottom line and instead focuses heavily on employees and the communities in which it operates. It’s the build-it-and-they-will-come mentality and one deeply rooted in the brand’s ethos. Obviously, it’s working.

“We just want to educate. It’s a huge fundamental thing… We want to educate people about yoga, about vision and goals we feel are important and when you do that you’re never selling anybody,” Peterson told a packed audience at The Gathering conference in Banff Wednesday afternoon.

Sometimes, educating the consumer means sending them across the street to a competitor, and Peterson is more than okay with that. He used the example of a soccer mom looking for a weather-appropriate jacket for those rainy days standing on the sidelines. A better option for her might be North Face.

“Our job is not to sell something we have that’s water repellent that would kind of work so we can make money, but it’s educating those guys on knowing where they need to go,” he said.

Also working in its favour are the invaluable insights it can glean from its ambassadors – local and international athletes who have insights on what’s new in their respective communities and are paying attention to the brand’s competitors.

“What’s so important is to talk to the ambassadors… We don’t want them to tell us what they like about us. We want them to tell us what they like about our competitors or someone else and then our job is to make something that’s better,” he said.

Eschewing traditional advertising and relying on word of mouth has proven successful for building the Lululemon brand. It is, however, branching out and dipping its toe in the digital waters. Peterson understands this is where the industry is headed, but wants to ensure the brand isn’t chasing people around the internet.

“We’re trying some of that stuff, but it’s how you do it in a tasteful manner and if you’re putting it in front of me it better be worth my time,” he said of online ads.

And, when you grow as quickly as Lululemon has, you’re bound to make mistakes. Last week, for instance, it sent out its weekly e-newsletter with the word “butt” in the header and the racy “AF” acronym in the body copy.

“It’s not how our [core customer] talks,” he said. “But, the person who was writing it didn’t know that. I’d rather us go fast and make a mistake than have a vanilla message that didn’t work.”

One of the brand’s “biggest wins” last year in earning unsolicited media attention, was its partnership with Stanley Park Brewing to create a co-branded beer called Curiosity Lager, which was available in 400 liquor stores across B.C. and Alberta with a run of 80,000 cans.

“I didn’t go to our strategy guys, we were just making beer with our friends,” he said. “We got like 500 million impressions over this beer that was a total mistake. We were just doing what’s fun.”

“So many of the best things we’ve ever done… are us just sitting around thinking what would be funny… We trust our gut”

The Gathering conference continues Thursday with presentations from Molson Coors Canada, Converse, The Movember Foundation and Big Rock Brewery.

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