Coping and Profiting from Criticism

Lululemon co-founder Chip Wilson and Toms Shoe founder Blake Mycoskie demonstrated disparate ways to handle criticism, with very different impacts on their brand reputations.Founders of Toms Shoes and Lululemon demonstrated contrasting styles of responding to criticism. One said critics had a point; the other said some potential customers are too broad in the beam. Guess which style worked out best?

Toms founder and CEO Blake Mycoskie told the Huffington Post he was initially hurt by criticism that his "buy one give one" business model provided people with shoes, but not jobs. Critics called his shoe donations tied to shoe sales a gimmick that was ineffective, patronizing and hypocritical.

"If you really are serious about poverty alleviation, our critics said, then you need to create jobs," said Mycoskie. "At first I took that personally, but then I realized that they were right... using our model to create jobs is the next level."

Mycoskie pledged by the end of 2015, Toms will produce one-third of its shoes in countries where it donates footwear. It already has a shoe factory in Kenya with locally hired workers, he says, and will expand the same model to Ethiopia and Haiti. 

"There really is a lot you can learn from critics," Mycoskie told the Huffington Post. "You can either try to debate them and fight them or you embrace them, and that's what we're trying to do."

Lululemon's critics were less harsh, but no less determined in exposing what they believed to be quality downgrades in the company's yoga pants. When complaints about sheer fabric in the bum first surfaced earlier this year, Lululemon blamed customers with an overly large bottom line. Eventually it got around to reinforcing the fabric after consulting university experts and their "sheer-o-metre." 

Despite receiving praise at the time for being forthcoming, Lululemon apparently has continued to be pummeled with customer complaints. Co-founder Chip Wilson apparently had enough and told Bloomberg News "some women's bodies just don't actually work" for Lululemon yoga pants.

That ignited a media firestorm, prompting a stern-faced Wilson to post a YouTube apology: “I’m sad. I’m really sad. I’m sad for the repercussions of my actions."

The company issued a statement to emphasizing Lululemon's commitment to quality and inviting any dissatisfied customer to visit their local store "so we can make it right." 

The very disparate responses to criticism reflect what appears to be a radically different mindset by the two popular and successful apparel makers. Mycoskie's approach to "embrace" criticism opens a door to enhance his brand's reputation. Wilson's untimely, thoughtless reprise of customer suitability for Lululemon yoga pants is destined to stain his company's reputation.

Mycoskie ironically faced an arguably harder challenge — to source his shoes from countries such as Haiti, where there is no shoe manufacturing industry and previously trained workforce.

Wilson's task is to work with women of different shapes to design variations of its pants that do the job for anyone who wants to wear their brand. That doesn't seem like rocket science — or a bad business proposition.

Critics abound and have more virtual soapboxes than ever to hurl their invective. Learning how to cope with criticism and turn it into brand-building opportunity is a skill worth learning.