Serena Williams for Nike, Gisele Bündchen for Under Armour, Kylie Jenner for Puma, Gigi Hadid for Reebok: these are just a few examples of the types of world-famous — and in these cases, female-targeted — spokespersons employed by major athletic apparel retailers today. Partnerships with these companies are a rite of passage for athletes, of course, and now models, too. Which is why it's notable that Lululemon, the Canadian brand that clocked $2.1 billion in sales in 2015, has taken a very different approach since its founding in 1998. Instead of paying for traditional endorsements, the yoga-focused brand has built an ambassador program of local influencers, elite athletes and outstanding yoga instructors who create community, provide feedback on product and partner with Lululemon on social impact programs.
The goal is to foster more flexible and authentic relationships. "We're very focused on our grassroot model," CEO Laurent Potdevin told CNBC in July, when asked if Lululemon would make more moves to put itself in front of large-scale audiences. (It designed uniforms for Canada's Olympic beach volleyball team for Rio.) "We think it's incredibly powerful. We love it. So don't expect to see us endorse big teams around the world anytime soon," he said.
Lululemon's ambassador program is also an extension of the company's unique goal-oriented corporate culture that encourages autonomy and personal growth to better serve both "educators" (store employees) and "guests" (consumers). This mindset was cultivated by founder Chip Wilson and his close ties to the Landmark Forum, a controversial self-help program, even though he parted ways with Lululemon almost two years ago. Much has changed under Potdevin's leadership, but a core feeling has remained: many people who work at Lululemon feel united in a familial way, and that their shared sense of world-changing purpose sets the company apart. Financial analysts don't get that, unsurprisingly, or don't care. "It's so much more than apparel, it's about people," explained Potdevin on "Mad Money" in September. "And so when you think about Lululemon and its history, it's an investment in people, giving them their best life, personal development and creating incredible product that allows them to live their life."
And the ambassador program is a key way in which Lululemon invests in people. So what is that relationship actually like? There's no cookie-cutter answer, by design, but there are some through-lines. Three categories of relationships exist: global yoga ambassadors (a total of eight experienced instructors with different types of practices), elite ambassadors (over 75 professional athletes from soccer, cycling and more) and store ambassadors (over 1,500 local influencers in personal training, yoga, running and more active pursuits). A rep for the brand wrote via email that ambassadors are chosen because they "reflect our culture and share our core values, harnessing lululemon’s passion to elevate the world to greatness. [Ed. note: Company employees do not capitalize the brand name.]"
Vancouver's Ryan Leier is a global yoga ambassador who started as a Lululemon Lab store ambassador six years ago. "The reason why I'm so loyal to them is because they are so supportive in giving to projects that are either super fun or super needed," he said at a media and ambassador retreat hosted by Lululemon in Whistler, Canada in October. "I know they have a bottom line and the pants are fucking expensive, but it's not all that," he said. Leier admits he wasn't very keen on the brand at first, but came around (and started wearing it) as he got to know the people who work there — whom he now calls some of his closest friends. "It's formally informal," he said, describing the nature of the partnership. "Then the deeper I got into it, as a global yogi, then they asked for a few more commitments and they gave me a lot more."
The global yoga ambassadors are Lululemon's newest group, each with their own philanthropic passion projects and "deep connections to the current yoga landscape," according to a rep for the brand. They are also the only group that is actually compensated. In addition to a salary, Leier said Lululemon supports him in a wide range of ways: the brand sends him around the world to Lululemon events, provides mats for his Vancouver studio, gives him a monthly gift card so he can give product to others and, most importantly for Leier, supports his non-profit, Vinyasa Yoga For Youth. The organization aims to bring yoga to as many kids as possible, with a focus on underserved communities in both Canada and the U.S. It is a beneficiary of Here To Be, Lululemon's yoga and meditation-focused community social impact program that just launched in September with a five-year, $25 million financial commitment.
"Now I even say 'we' when I talk about Lululemon. I catch myself slipping," he said, adding that it felt strange to be so explicitly promoting the brand in our conversation. "I don't feel like I'm selling you. I know they really care about me as a person and not as a commodity," said Leier. "It's so weird to feel loyalty to a brand, you know. I've never had that."
Kevin Pearce is another unlikely Lululemon ambassador. The former professional snowboarder suffered a traumatic brain injury while training back in 2009 for the 2010 Winter Olympics. His fall and inspirational recovery are the subject of the HBO documentary "The Crash Reel."
"I never did yoga before when I was a snowboarder,” said Pearce, who has found the practice to be an essential part of his recovery and subsequently founded a nonprofit called Love Your Brain to bring yoga to people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries. He's been an Elite ambassador for over two years and his organization is another beneficiary of Lululemon's new social impact program.
The brand also supports Pearce in his awareness and fundraising efforts by hosting events for Love Your Brain at its stores and helping with more practical skills. "I went from pro-snowboarder to public speaker. Public speaking is an art form," said Pearce, who is often traveling for speaking engagements. "They set up two or three days with [Potdevin’s] speaking coach to dive deep into what I need to do when I get up on stage."
Much like Leier and Pearce, store ambassador Tyrone Beverly is also committed to making yoga and health education accessible for underserved communities — specifically all ethnicities and income levels in Denver, CO. More than three years ago, store associates took part in one of his free yoga classes at the Denver Art Museum. They asked him to lead a class for the Lululemon team and then, to be an ambassador. "I didn't really know what they had in store for me," said Beverly. "For me, it's about representing a brand that has a really strong emphasis on improving its community and that’s something that resonated with me early on." Lululemon supports his organization, Im'Unique, through that new Here to Be program, a Metta Movement grant (funds awarded by stores) and by showing up to his events in large numbers. "Some of [the support is] financial, some of it product, and a lot of it is relationships."
Lululemon in Denver has also hosted Beverly's Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers events, in which yoga is followed by a conversation about difficult topics. He remembered an event about mindfulness and race relations held at the store right after the Charleston church shooting in 2015. "It was powerful to be in the space and have this conversation with people who were very uncomfortable with the topic," said Beverly. "It was a very hostile environment for a lot of the people who showed up, a lot of tears, a lot of pain, a lot of healing, a lot of hugs, a lot of 'I want to hear about your story'... At the end they found a place of healing at the store." Not every apparel brand would be willing to host such a conversation.
Beverly summed up his, Leier's and Pearce's experiences as Lululemon ambassadors when he said, "Their agenda is to support your agenda." In exchange, the brand enlists ambassadors to be active — and public — members of its community on both local and global levels. Take, for example, the media retreat at which I met these and other top ambassadors. It could have been contrived or cheesy for the otherwise busy ambassadors, but Lululemon makes sure they don't have to force enthusiasm. "You know if you get that call you're going to get to go have three or four awesome days," said Pearce. "We all do cool shit here, everybody that came, and to take this time means that [Lululemon has] a reputation that they do things right." If the brand's approximately 1,600 ambassadors feel the same, it's a powerful way to send a message to consumers.
Disclosure: Lululemon paid for my travel and accommodations to visit the brand's "Immersion Summit" in Whistler, Canada.