Lululemon and John Galt: Is Objectivism too big a stretch for yoga apparel giant?

Yoga apparel retailer Lululemon’s latest attempt to entertain customers with quirky slogans has been generating a lot of buzz recently, and some of the bees sound angry.

An article by Simon Houpt discussing the controversy appeared in The Globe and Mail on Wednesday, accompanied by a photo of a woman holding the newest Lululemon bag,  its slogan “Who is John Galt?” boldly displayed in white print against black.*

John Galt is a famous character from  Ayn Rand’s monumental 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. He is memorable for his 100-page speech-within-the-novel, the most extreme example of the author’s didactic style. I read Rand’s best-known novels, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, many years ago and enjoyed them as novels in spite of their heavy infusion of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy.

Objectivism promotes the idea that each person should put their own happiness and success first and strive to excel in whatever area their abilities and passions lead. This sounds good, but I’ve discovered that many people are either fanatical “disciples” of Objectivist philosophy or fervent, scornful detractors of it. Why does Objectivism stir such extreme reactions?

Perhaps it’s because, as the title of Rand’s book The Virtue of Selfishness proclaims, Objectivism unapologetically celebrates the strengths and successes of individual achievement, and is against any socialistic notion that the fruits of success should be forcefully shared with people who are less talented, lucky or hard-working.

What does all this have to do with Lululemon and yoga clothing?

Houpt’s article looked for answers from Lululemon’s official blog, which explained the choice of the John Galt slogan as an attempt to encourage people to fight against mediocrity: “Our bags are visual reminds for ourselves to live a life we love and conquer the epidemic of mediocrity. We all have a John Galt inside of us, cheering us on.”

Yuck. Did you cringe at the blatant cheerleading tone?

I can see why Lululemon thought championing John Galt was a good idea. After all, according to their interpretation of Objectivism, he’s an admirable example of someone who agrees with their corporate philosophy. According to corporate definitions of success, Lululemon has gone far beyond mediocrity. Their clothing is not mediocre–or cheap.

Lululemon has become a popular and profitable business because they identified a market and gave people what they wanted. People (especially women) like Lululemon clothing because it’s outstanding in three ways:

  • It’s sexy
  • It’s comfortable
  • It’s functional

The company understands that women want clothing that looks good, yet is comfortable and versatile enough to travel from a yoga class to shopping to a coffee shop. At the same time, their clothing performs superbly in its main function as athletic wear because the company has paid attention to all the little details such as appropriate materials for all weather, small pockets for keys and other necessities, and reflective tape for safety.

They also offer a huge variety of styles and sizes. I saw one comment on a Yahoo! Finance article about the John Galt bags that read: “Lululemon clothing is just for fat lazy people.” Personally, I’m a skinny energetic person who was thrilled to discover that Lululemon actually made yoga pants in a size small enough to fit me. I love my Lululemon  pants, and frequently spend many hours of the day in them.

But the question remains: Did Lululemon make a marketing blooper in trying to connect Objectivism to Lululemon apparel? Is their marketing department way out of its depth in attempting to use Objectivist philosophy?

How can the negative reaction of some Lululemon customers to the John Galt bags be explained?

I would say it’s because Lululemon’s corporate philosophy has little to do with the “pure” philosophy of yoga even though the company sells yoga clothing.

I’m not a yoga practitioner (though I do Pilates). I’m not an expert in yoga philosophy, either, but I do know that yoga is about achieving inner peace and harmony through a body-mind connection. Yoga is not just a physical exercise but a spiritual one. Many people who embrace yoga at a serious level might have values such as a rejection of materialism and a belief in sharing and helping others in the local and global communities. These core values could be deeply at odds with Objectivist philosophy. Also, Rand wrote at a time when neither she nor the public was aware that corporate profitability often came at the expense of huge environmental and social costs. Although I agree with many of the basic tenets of Objectivism, I see this ignoring of corporate accountability as a major flaw in her philosophy.

The truth is that one doesn’t need Lululemon clothing to practice yoga. Any loose-fitting clothing would do. The company doesn’t exist to promote the deeper values or benefits of yoga (though it may pretend to) or to promote Objectivist philosophy. It exists to make a hefty profit by giving people what they want: sexy, comfortable and functional athletic and leisure wear.

The bags, with their slogans and catchy keywords, are just a marketing gimmick.

Will the John Galt bags provoke more customer anger than customer support?

Will most people not take the slogan seriously, or have no clue what “John Galt” refers to, or not care one way or the other?

Is it a good marketing strategy to use a controversial slogan to provoke discussion and attention, even if there is a significant negative reaction?

I’d love to know what you think!

* As of this posting time, Houpt’s article has generated 657 comments and 473 tweets.

*Update: November 8, 2012

I accidentally stumbled across this November 2, 2011 post on Lululemon’s blog—a post that explained the company’s decision to use John Galt bags—and it generated 657 comments, many of them negative! http://www.lululemon.com/community/blog/who-is-john-galt/comment-page-14/#comment-325542

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About nancytinarirunswrites

I used to be known as a competitive runner, but now I have a new life as a professional writer and editor. I'm even more obsessive about reading, writing, and editing than I was about running. Running has had a huge influence on my life, though, and runner's high does fuel creativity. Maybe that's why this blog evolved into being 95% about running, but through blogging I'm also learning about writing and online communication. I'm fascinated by how the Internet has changed work, learning, and relationships. I love to connect in new and random ways!
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4 Responses to Lululemon and John Galt: Is Objectivism too big a stretch for yoga apparel giant?

  1. Sadly enough, there seems to be no yoga teacher who dares instructing without his/her Lulu outfit on. They just all run around as huge billboards! Same is true for people who roll out their mat in the front row. Maybe it’s because I live in London, where Yoga is really hip and in fashion…. or at least I hope so.
    Thanks for this post!

    • nancytinarirunswrites says:

      I guess the question is whether people wear their Lulu clothes because they are really their favourite clothing for the activity, or whether they’re doing it for money or status reasons. We’ve all gotta pay the bills, though, so I don’t have any problem with a yoga instructor wearing Lululemon clothes and perhaps getting them for free, as long as they genuinely endorse the clothes and the company.
      I was a competitive runner for many years and benefited greatly from clothing sponsorships from Nike and New Balance (at different times!) However, I really liked their products and was happy to wear them. I turned down a much bigger money offer from an (unnamed) shoe company because I didn’t like their shoes and was concerned I would get injured from wearing them.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Kim says:

    Lululemon distorts Objectivism. John Galt was principled. Lululemon…lying about their fabrics being high performance (the seaweed scandal)? Refusing to refund customers they’d lied to? Unapologetic for scamming people? Hardly Galt. John Galt was who he was. If you asked him if he was in business to make all the money in the world, he would have said yes. I feel like Lululemon looks and feels like a “green” or “socially responsible” store when they are anything but. They pretend to be supportive, while secretly doing all they can to make sure double digit sizers and people over 40 don’t wear their clothing. The psychological ploys are manipulative and anything but straightforward and “Galt”.

    • nancytinarirunswrites says:

      I agree with your comments, Kim–thanks for posting. Lululemon’s “philosophy” tries to impress by aligning itself with “green” principles or deep philosophical ideas, but their treatment of these principles is very superficial and obviously done only for self-promotional reasons. They want to make people feel they are doing something good by buying their products, but let’s be honest, people buy Lululemon either because they like the clothes (look sexy, are functionally good) or because they want the status of wearing a well-known, expensive and attractive brand.

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