Can Lululemon Be Saved From a PR Crisis in China?

The Canadian athletic apparel company Lululemon issued a statement on Weibo today to distance the brand from a T-shirt promoted by a former employee that has caused outrage on social media. 

On Sunday, Trevor Fleming, Lululemon’s former global art director, promoted a link on Instagram of a white, long-sleeved T-shirt bearing an image of a Chinese takeout box with bat wings that read “No Thank You” across it. The T-shirt’s creator, artist Jess Sluder, dubbed the T-shirt “bat fried rice” and wrote: “Where did #covid19 come from? Nothing is certain but we know a bat is involved.” The image triggered anger among Asian Americans on social media, and many netizens accused Fleming of stirring up anti-Chinese sentiment and racism. Screenshots of angry posts quickly made it onto Chinese social media and were widely circulated.  

“The person involved is not an employee of Lululemon,” said the firm in a Chinese statement on Weibo. “This piece of offensive clothing is not designed or produced by Lululemon.” While the statement isn’t clear about whether or not the person previously worked at the company, some Weibo users found a brand reply on Instagram stating that the staffer “is no longer an employee,” which suggests that he was fired after the image was posted.  

Lululemon’s statement in Chinese. Photo: Weibo

A Lululemon employee in China said to Jing Daily that they’re not concerned about the incident having an effect on future sales in China. “We reached out to our community members immediately after the news came out and have since received a lot of support,” said the employee. “Those who know little about us might be easily incited by news stories that only cover part of the full picture.” Since entering China around 2014, Lululemon has been rigorous with their local community building strategies, which include offering regular fitness classes and building WeChat groups.

Lululemon’s stock price on the Nasdaq dropped $8.9, or 4.09 percent, to $209.65 early this afternoon. 

Jing Take:

While there’s never a good time to have a PR crisis, Lululemon’s T-shirt controversy came at a bad time with a rise of anti-Chinese sentiment in the West and a rise in Chinese patriotism. By firing the staffer and clarifying the incident to communities, Lululemon did its best under time-sensitive circumstances. 

However, many netizens won’t care to distinguish the former designer’s personal behavior from the brand. By noon on Tuesday in New York, the hashtags #LululemonInsultsChina and #LululemonDiscriminateChinese had been viewed over 45 million times on Weibo, and many netizens were threatening to never buy Lululemon products again. Yet some commenters on the brand’s official statement were understanding and went further in explaining the context beyond the brand’s statement. But can Lululemon rely on more level-headed netizens and its loyal Chinese community to vouch for it? 

The Jing Take reports on a leading piece of news while presenting our editorial team’s analysis of its key implications for the luxury industry. In this recurring column, we analyze everything from product drops and mergers to heated debates that sprout up on Chinese social media.

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