Learn from Lululemon: Market Research Isn’t Foolproof!

“Wide right, no goal.” Those were the words that sunk Lululemon’s chance at making a great first impression with the Buffalo, NY, community, when the high-end yoga retailer opened its store in a local mall. The phrases, which were incorporated into a large mosaic design at the entrance to the store, refer to two of the biggest failures in the region’s sporting history — and were carefully selected to create “unity” between Lululemon and the Buffalonians.

“Our intention was never to mock Buffalo. It was meant as a rally cry,” said store manager Pamela Palmieri — adding that the company conducted more than two years of research into the culture of the Buffalo market and studying how people identified with the region before landing on the idea for the mosaic.

What should have been a sign of solidarity actually became a tsunami of horrible press over social media.

Though Palmieri’s heart was in the right place, and the research did support the phrases being symbolic of Buffalo’s sporting spirit and passion, Lululemon failed to see that a key part of that spirit was LIVING through those experiences from the inside, as opposed to LEVERAGING them from the outside. Twitter user @allysebian sums it up nicely in her response to the design: “We can make fun of ourselves. You cannot.”

Yes the market research was leading Lululemon to believe “Wide right, no goal” would resonate with the audience — but whereas the target audience might be willing to get flexible on the mat, they were not willing to be flexible with the interpretation of their sporting history.

So what’s a marketer to do? How did this promotion go so wrong after such thorough research? The answer: Market research is not the only factor that needs to be considered when it comes to learning about your target audiences and understanding how messages will resonate with them.

Research is only part of truly hearing the “voice of customer.” The other part is thoughtful interpretation of data, and that isn’t something that can always be done by simply looking at numbers on spreadsheets or reading through transcripts of in-person interviews.

Here are three tips to keep in mind when you’re using market research to connect with your target audience:

1. Gut check everything.
If you’re going to play off something that’s very specific to a certain region (history, stereotypes, accents, cultural vernacular, etc.), make sure you get a good sense of how it could play out with different audiences. Ask for feedback from representatives of the target audience, and people who have not been involved in the project who can look at the work with fresh eyes.

2. Consider the messenger.
Remember that advertising — no matter how good it is — can easily be seen as invasive, insensitive or rude when it appears that a brand is attempting to leverage a particular situation or experience for its own gain. Lululemon’s mistake was believing they could be part of a conversation as an “insider,” when they’re actually an outsider.

3. Be prepared for blowback.
Even with good research, gut checking and considering the messenger, you may wind up with a PR mess to clean up. Lululemon’s response provided a fast, honest explanation for the “misunderstanding,” and they’re currently making changes to the mosaic based on feedback from the Buffalo community.

By Lisa Dolbear, Account Planner


[Image from Twitter user @arkandove.]