Sheer Brilliance or Cheeky Cover-up?

Lululemon has gotten good marks for handling the crisis over its skimpy-in-the-bum yoga pants, but critics question whether the apparel company is addressing the underlying problem of declining product quality.PR Daily last week praised Lululemon's "sheer brilliance" in managing the flap over its see-through yoga pants. However, comments responding to its story hinted that the controversy and the company's troubles aren't over yet.

The British Columbia-based athletic apparel company recalled a batch of its black luon pants in March after complaints that the fabric was too sheer and revealing when women bent over. The company endured a lot of cheeky humor, unfavorable media attention and lower stock prices. But PR Daily proclaimed Lululemon handled the crisis in textbook fashion.

Elissa Freeman posted on March 26 that Lululemon owned the peaking bum problem once it became aware of it, kept the media informed, stayed in contact with its brand ambassadors (yoga instructors and personal trainers) and even managed to laugh at itself. Her post featured a picture of the front window of a Lululemon store in Toronto with its models displaying their rears and a sign that read, "We want to be transparent with you."

The same story quoted Jason Inglis, a Toronto personal trainer and Lululemon brand ambassador, as saying, "This issue will only make Lululemon that much stronger because they will pay even more attention to detail. This company strives on separating themselves from not just being good, but being great."

Kevin Allen, writing for PR Daily last week, sustained the upbeat theme as Lululemon announced the return of its yoga pants with more boffo in the bottom. Allen cited a Lululemon blog post that talked about how it looked "at every aspect of this fabric" and even asked university scientists to develop a "sheer-o-metre" to measure how much light perforates different fabrics.

Allen concluded, "There you have it, ladies — your $92 now gets you more fabric across the bum. Good news for you; terrible news for creepy yoga trolls."

That all sounded pretty good until you read some of the comments posted to Allen's piece.

Saddened wrote: "Sheerness has been an issue for well over a year and has fallen on deaf ears until this month. There have also been numerous other quality issues, including color bleeding, which Lululemon initially blamed on their customers... Bottom line, if you pay $100 for a pair of yoga pants and the lack of coverage makes you uncomfortable, you should get your money back." 

Not Laughing chimed in: "It's terrible. The article isn't telling the truth and all the facts. The problem with sheer pants started long before March 1. Sheerness has been a common complaint for at least a year. Just check the reviews online. The overall quality has been declining for just as long."

Countering the kudos from Inglis, Foolulemons wrote: "As a former ambassador who brought thousands of dollars to this brand, I can tell you that the notion they are reaching out to ambassadors for feedback is garbage. The only feedback they are reaching out for is positive feedback. As several others have noted here, Lululemon's quality has been in steep decline for over a year — so much so that as an ambassador I seriously questioned my affiliation with the company. As part of my ambassadorship, I was required to post product reviews online, and I watched as negative reviews I submitted were deleted. When I was specifically asked for feedback and presented not only my feedback, but the feedback of the largest lulu groups on Facebook (which were negative and asked the company to please return to the quality standard it was known for), my reward was to have my second ambassador term ended prematurely."

Foolulemons added, "Eventually the truth is coming out and no amount of cheeky, cutesy spin can cover it up."

These comments track other criticism. Cristina Chalmers, in a blog called Lulumum, wrote the day of the recall, "I'm really not sure what is going on with this new shenanigan of a press release, but I'm not buying it. Nor is the manufacturer accepting the blame for something they say Lululemon has mandated and signed off on. Is this merely a convenient scapegoat for lackluster sales caused by a long endured lack of quality?"

Another blog, Lulu Addict, struck a similar chord. "It's very odd that lulu chose to pull pants now when they've been having sheerness issues for well over a year, in many different fabrics besides luon and in colors other than black. I have to assume these pants were really crappy. It's also weird they would do a recall right before their quarterly conference call." 

Following the textbook on crisis management doesn't give you a "get-out-of-jail-free" card on coming to grips with the cause of the crisis. Freeman lauded Lululemon CEO Christine Day for being "upfront and judiciously available to the media." Day's critics called her a "money-hungry liar who is running the company into the ground." 

The issue for Lululemon isn't how it handled its yoga pants crisis; it is how it will handle serious consumer complaints about the drooping quality of its products.

There isn't enough cheeky humor to cover that up. 

 

Lululemon CEO Chrisine Day announced today (June 10, 2013) she will step down, saying, "It is the right time" for a change at the top. Stock in Lululemon shares dropped 9 percent in after-market trading on the news of her pending departure.