There are some who would argue that charging $100 for yoga pants requires at least a touch of disdain for your target market. But a new online ad from Lululemon Athletica Inc. raises the issue again: does the retailer think its core customers are full of it?
The Vancouver-based company, which built its brand selling high-end workout wear to yoga fanatics, has released a satirical video on YouTube mocking the yoga practitioners that are the chain's bread and butter.
The video, called Sh*t Yogis Say, is just one of a cavalcade of online videos riffing on the Web comedy hit Sh*t Girls Say – a short series featuring a man in drag saying uncomfortably familiar phrases such as "Could you do me a huge favour?" and "Get these chips away from me!"
In the Lululemon version, a smug "yogi" hugging a branded mat proselytizes about carrot sticks being "nature's candy," and for some of us, conjures the ghosts of hippie roommates past with the declaration, "It feels like a full moon."
It's a strong departure from Lululemon's typical brand image. While the company is far from humourless – it sells a bra named the "Ta-ta Tamer" – its overall messaging is almost oppressively earnest. Its earth-friendly shopping bags are covered in adages on how to live life better. Its YouTube channel is more known for videos with bouncy titles such as "Let's Talk Pants," than for comedy.
But the risky move of poking fun at the same people it courts as customers seems to have paid off: The video has ricocheted around social media this past week and will almost certainly have reached one million views on YouTube by the time you read this. In the marketing world, one million is the benchmark for viral success. Only 4 per cent of those who rated the video on YouTube clicked "dislike" – it has racked up more than 4,000 "likes."
"There's a good chance this video will far surpass [1 million views] That's when it will be important for marketers to look at, for ROI [return on investment]" said Simon Davies, president of Toronto-based firm MThirty, which specializes in social media marketing. "It's a pretty brave manoeuvre … I kind of like it when a brand pokes fun like that, at their consumers."
Lululemon is not the only brand to brave the waters of gentle mockery – the online space has opened up possibilities for this kind of humour in other cases. In 2010, Toyota Motor Corp. scored a viral hit with its "Swagger Wagon" campaign, which featured a yuppie couple rapping about their slick ride (a minivan) and displaying a discernible lack of street cred.
"The whole campaign, we had to be very careful about making sure the humour got close to the line but didn't cross," said Bob Zeinstra, national manager of advertising and strategic planning with Toyota in the U.S. The campaign was designed to use humour to re-position the minivan from a product parents need, to something they might actually want.
"It did great things for Toyota, too, in showing we're a contemporary, energetic, progressive company. We're not afraid to have some fun."
Like Lululemon, Toyota picked up on an existing discussion bouncing around social media – in that case, the chatter on Facebook and Twitter around its 30-second TV spot. That ad featured the same couple (minus the beat-dropping), in which the female actress casually joked that her husband called their Sienna minivan the "swagger wagon."
"People kept using the term," Mr. Zeinstra said. "We decided to then leverage that, and we went back and created a new production. … What it taught us, is you have to be ready to drop whatever you think is important, and jump on something that has a lot of energy within the social space."
Lululemon capitalized on the attention that the "Girls" videos have received – they've spawned countless imitators. (The video is itself a take on the popular Twitter account that eventually led to the mediocre William Shatner sitcom, Bleep My Dad Says.)
This kind of marketing is akin to a "franchise strategy," said Detlev Zwick, a professor of marketing at York University's Schulich School of Business.
"You have Spiderman 1, and you get 2 and 3 because it's already worked – in this case, they've hooked on to what has already been a popular theme," he said. "That's an interesting and useful strategy, because it increases the odds when you're tapping into something that's already been established as a cultural trend."
But the original video has also attracted its share of criticism from those who think it insults women. Normally, to avoid such negative sentiment, campaigns reserve any insults for competitors – and in some cases, consumers foolish enough to buy a rival product. Rogers Communications Inc. has arguably beaten this trope to death with countless online and TV ads featuring a dumpy customer of an inferior cellphone network. The slow-witted office worker repeatedly fails to learn his lesson even as he watches a stranger impress his boss, win $10,000, impress the ladies and generally live life better, seemingly all because he is a Rogers customer. (No word on whether switching phones would get him the dimples and the jawline.)
And recently Samsung joined the fray with a TV spot mocking Apple customers as mindless conformists willing to stand in nine-hour lineups simply for the cachet, while Samsung customers recognize that "the next big thing is already here." But ads poking fun at a company's own customers are rarer, for obvious reasons.
Lululemon seems to be in a position to take risks: This week, the company hinted at just how happy the holidays were, when it upped its forecasts for its fourth-quarter results. It now projects that it will report revenues roughly $30-million higher than previously predicted – a total of $358-million to $363-million for the three months ending Jan. 29. That should leave executives feeling as calm and self-satisfied as the woman sipping Kombucha tea in its video. Declining to comment on the strategy behind the online campaign, an external representative for the company said in an e-mail, "We are notoriously close-mouthed when it comes to marketing."
But risky messaging has recently backfired for the brand; in October, new shopping bags with a phrase from the novel Atlas Shrugged chafed some customers who felt Ayn Rand's philosophy of self-interest clashed with the teachings of yoga.
The "Yogis" video seems to be going over better.
"It's risky, no doubt about it. But that's part of the reason it works," said Scott Stratten, the Oakville, Ont.-based author of a book about viral and social marketing, UnMarketing. "So many brands try to make videos that are funny, and they just fall flat. This one went viral because it's actually funny … I originally had no idea it was done by them."
"I actually found myself far more interested in them as a brand, because it was playful and fun, and it completely made me want to say, 'You guys know. You get it,'" said Nicole Forbes, a devoted yoga practitioner in Austin, Tex., who commented on the video on YouTube and passed it around to friends. She said she recognized herself in a few of the jokes, as well as the growing "hipster quotient" at yoga classes who take themselves a bit too seriously.
Ms. Forbes says she will continue to shop at the Lululemon near her office. But while it made her laugh, there's one thing the video can't do: convince her to pay retail for basic black stretch pants. She's sticking with the sales rack.