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Brand spotlight: Why lululemon, with its new running shoes, should resist the pressures of mass appeal

Brand spotlight: Why lululemon, with its new running shoes, should resist the pressures of mass appeal

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Lululemon made headlines last month when it launched its first-ever running shoe, Blissfeel, for women in select stores across Mainland China, North America, and the UK. Blissfeel is also available online and three additional styles - Chargefeel, Strongfeel, and Restfeel - will be introduced in the coming months.

According to CNN, lululemon analysed the foot scans of more than a million women to create a shoe specifically designed for the female foot. Lululemon's chief product officer, Sun Choe, explained previously that the brand intentionally started with women first because it saw an opportunity to solve for the fact that, more often than not, performance shoes are designed for men and then adapted for women and this did not sit well with lululemon.

Meanwhile, CEO Calvin McDonald said in early March that footwear is "the natural next step" for the brand to expand and apply its long history of innovation in fit, feel and performance. The Blissfeels were officially launched on 22 March and seven days later during its financial earnings call for the fourth quarter of 2021, McDonald said the initial guest response to its latest footwear "has dramatically exceeded [lululemon's] expectations". It also received "incredible reviews from a number of publications and guests, he shared. 

The athletic apparel retailer said the Blissfeels are running shoes "engineered with an upper that supports movement and an energy-filled underfoot foam cushioning technology", making running effortless. Overall, reviews about Blissfeel have been pretty positive, with several netizens raving about its comfort. Lululemon declined to comment on MARKETING-INTERACTIVE's queries.

A natural progression for the brand

Founded in 1998, lululemon is mainly known for its athletic apparel and the athleisure boom as a result of the pandemic has solidified its name among consumers. The brand witnessed steady growth throughout 2020. Revenue for the first quarter of 2020 was US$652.0 million, a 17% dip compared to the same period in 2019. However, by the end of 2021, its revenue ballooned to US$2.1 billion. Having built a cult following, lululemon's foray into the footwear scene can potentially give traditional athletic footwear brands such as Nike, adidas, and Under Armour a run for their money. 

Jessalynn Chen, managing director at Labbrand Singapore told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that Blissfeel is "a natural progression" for lululemon to expand beyond its current product line because shoes will complete the overall look. "Brands such as Nike, Under Armour, and adidas adopt typical conventions of highlighting performance, function and design elements in their product naming," she said, adding:

Using an emotive product name such as ‘Blissfeel’ is a clever move by Lululemon to hit the hearts of female consumers.  

When brands pivot to athleisure, they should generally expect competition to toughen up within the space, Chen said. As such, every brand needs to closely look into its brand ethos, and ensure that its innovation, marketing and product creations reflect the brand values and all follow in the same growth direction.  "Lululemon is not a competitor to belittle; it has a crazy cult-like culture standing strong behind the brand. In fact, it is a top-of-mind sports-category brand that has successfully used lifestyle marketing to create a strong brand community," she said.

Lululemon said in its 2020 annual report that women accounted for 69% of its net revenue. Meanwhile, a report by SEO agency Linchpin SEO titled "Trends Shaping The Athletic Apparel Industry Outlook For 2022" said the athletic apparel market splits into approximately 60% women versus 40% men. 

Based on these factors, Chen said that lululemon’s strategy to introduce shoes that have been made with women in mind is an attractive angle and a nice plus for the brand – riding on the notion that health and wellness is the new luxury for women. "Like it or not, the trend of athleisure is not going away. In fact, it is and will continue to grow. Designs and sizes are also changing and improving to embrace diversity so that more wearers have the opportunity to look good," she said.


Similarly, Samir Dixit, managing director of Brand Finance Asia Pacific said while the shoe can be seen as a natural extension of lululemon, which is known for its "ultra-high-end and luxurious designer athleisure wear", it cannot just be just any shoe. It must complement what the brand stands for and that's where the customer scrutiny would take place. Aside from brand fit, the next aspect to bear in mind would be audience adoption of the extension.

"A good indication for audience adoption of a new product or an extension is an early sell-out, and that’s already happening as some of the designs for Blissfeel are already sold out," Dixit said, adding:

In fact, lululemon would be more of a threat to the high-end designer shoe producers such as Aldo, although the latter may disagree and claim that its customers do not overlap with lululemon's.

At the same time, he explained that what makes any product a hit is a gap in the market, which is perhaps the case for lululemon. "Shoes are an important aspect of the athleisure ensemble and lululemon customers perhaps always felt that gap, which has now been filled," he said.

That said, this doesn't mean that major brands such as Nike, adidas, and Under Armour need to view lululemon as a threat. "As a brand, lululemon operates in a reasonably different segment than the Nikes and adidas of the world. They all have their own distinct and unique brand image and audience. So there is no reason for the traditional brands to feel threatened. They are more mass than lululemon should ever be," he said.

Resisting the pressure of mass appeal

On the topic of brand extensions, Ambrish Chaudhry, Superunion's managing strategy director, Singapore and Asia said there is often a preconception in marketing that a brand can only stand for one thing. "Toss it in the bin! A customer base with greater awareness and direct contact with brands they care for is the perfect recipe to build community," he said, adding that this is where lululemon has excelled.

"All over its stores, you see lululemon employees and customers who have bought into the brand’s philosophy and feel a sense of community in its suggested lifestyle. No surprises then that they would extend into multiple lines and allow more ways to enter the community," he said. While this is not too different from Nike and adidas which started with sneakers before expanding into apparel and accessories, Chaudhry explained that there is still an underlying undercurrent of masculinity in their makeup. This still exists as much as these brands have targeted women.

Citing American track and field athlete Allyson Felix as an example, Nike refused to guarantee her a similar level of endorsement a few years back if her performance dipped around the months surrounding childbirth. In 2021, however, Felix won her 11th Olympic medal in Tokyo wearing her own brand of sports shoes, Saysh, designed and created especially for women.

Products and brands specifically targeting women are having their moment in the sun.

"Be it personal finances, fitness or buy now pay later shopping, by-women-for-women brands are emerging and talking directly to a largely underlooked despite being a highly lucrative segment for the financially independent women," he said.  

Clearly, lululemon's formula has hit the right tone with its consumers standing out from other athletic brands. Brand Finance's Dixit said lululemon needs to stick to its core audience and its imagery and not get sucked into the pressure of mass appeal and selling in mass numbers. More importantly, it needs to stay firm on who its competitors are as the brand is "definitely not the Nikes of the world" - which isn't a bad thing. 

"If lululemon operates in an aspirational athleisure performance wear world versus the Nikes and adidas that operate in a more functional athletic performance wear world, then lululemon needs to keep that under check at all times as its very easy to get distracted by market forces," he said.

Blissfeel is just the first step in lululemon's foray into the footwear scene as the brand plans to launch a men's footwear collection next year, along with special edition and seasonal collections. From an experience standpoint, with COVID-fatigue and comeback spending, lululemon should continue to explore unique retail formats through experiential spaces for customers to interact with the brand and try products freely, as well as experience the technology in personalisation or customisation, Chen added.

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Nike sues lululemon for patent infringement, lululemon remains undeterred
Lululemon and Peloton in legal feud over 'copycat' products 

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