Dennis “Chip” Wilson is out as chairman of Lululemon Athletica, the highly successful entrepreneurial venture he founded. And it’s all because he said something stupid. Brian Hutchison of The National Post argues that he “isn’t dead yet … he’s just resting.” A funny choice of words when you consider they were originally used to describe a parrot that was, in fact, stone dead. But I digress.
“Quite frankly, some women’s bodies just actually don’t work for it. It’s about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there over a period of time and how much they use it.” – Lululemon Athletica Chairman Chip Wilson
Does Wilson actually harbor the contempt for a certain customer segment that his quote could suggest? Who knows? Maybe he was taken out of context. Maybe he actually deserves to be the fat-shaming pariah that he has now become. Either way, it doesn’t matter. What matters is personal brands, particularly for people who lead multi-billion dollar consumer brands. Lululemon Athletica has honed its brand brilliantly, yet that of Chip Wilson was never focused.
The company Wilson started is primarily devoted to making products for women that fulfill the needs of fashion, health, athletics, and fashionable athletics. Lululemon has plans to expand its market share among male consumers, but its brand identity is female. It represents a product that is as much a status symbol among the pumpkin-spice latte crowd as it is trusted equipment for the most prolific female athletes, and a lifestyle staple for the health-conscious. While one might surmise that being a male entrepreneur who invested a company in creating female athletic apparel for a healthy lifestyle might buy Wilson a little insulation from a bad quote, but his personal brand was so divergent from the company’s that it made him a liability.
If we have learned anything from Chick-Fil-A in the 21st century, it is that there is no upside to making personal, political, or social inclinations a factor in the success of your business strategy. Yet Wilson has made his non-professional life the center-of-attention through ill-conceived PR stunts for charity (i.e. the coffin benefit … for a children’s hospital), pontificating his outspoken libertarian views, commissioning a publicly-visible graffiti art project at his beachfront mansion, and penning a widely criticized blog post on how the market for his product evolved (hint: he starts by attributing the pill to the early 1970’s despite it being first approved for use by the FDA in 1957).
The result of this latest (arguably) offensive quote from Chip Wilson was just too much for him to survive (Time even compiled a list of offensive things he’s said). Lululemon will continue, and it will likely continue to be a success. Cauterization is the most extreme of crisis strategies, but Wilson’s divergent and weakened brand left little choice. Brand management of Wilson’s persona could have made him a strong enough figure to survive a bad quote taken out of context – at one time he was well positioned to be a champion of the female-driven consumer market – but that ship has sailed. As a result, his downfall was inevitable regardless of how this crisis unfolded.