Lululemon, "Bat Fried Rice", and Protecting Brand Image Amidst Controversy
Updated: Jun 23
With blurred lines between home-life and work-life during the COVID-19 quarantines, brands are placing new expectations on employees to moderate their communications in relation to their workplaces. I expect more brands will follow Lululemon's lead and impose new guidelines and restrictions based on what they view as acceptable social media behavior.
Lululemon Athletica, recently fired an employee over sharing an Instagram post with racially charged messaging. Trevor Flemming, an art director with the brand, shared a T-Shirt design on his Instagram depicting a Chinese takeout box with bat wings with the hashtag "Bat Fried Rice". The incident quickly caught the attention of Chinese netizens and started an uproar on Chinese social media platform Weibo. Facing a potential boycott in one of its fastest-growing markets, Lululemon prompted fired the employee and issued a formal apology.
Lululemon is not the only Western brand to step on the cultural landmine in China. But all things considered, Lululemon seemed to have learned critical lessons from the past.
First, they offered an immediate and sincere apology publicly before they lost control of the situation. Lululemon has struggled with their own instances of racism in the past, so it’s good to see they are taking these issues more seriously now.
Second, they erred on the side of caution by doubling down on their apology with a decision to fire the employee who demonstrated poor judgment. Although Fleming did not reshare the design at the office, he still reflects the company even when he’s working outside of the office. This is especially true when the lines between work and home life are blurred during the coronavirus quarantines. What’s to say he didn’t reshare the post on company time?
Finally, Lululemon safeguarded its reputation by disassociating their brand from this employee. Now more than ever brands are pushing their employees to the front line to act as brand ambassadors. Such strategies are effective but also come with potential risks. So, it’s important to have policies and guidelines in place to mitigate such risk.
Lululemon’s swift action might seem drastic to some but we feel it's totally justified. Usually, there’s only a small window of time for the brands to act before things start to get out of control. To avoid some of these situations entirely, it's time for global brands to provide cultural sensitivity training to employees. With social media breaking down borders, almost every crisis can be global.