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Vancouver-based yoga brand Lululemon was criticized in 2013 for selling a batch of trendy stretch pants that many customers complained were uncomfortably sheer. (Xaume Olleros/Bloomberg)
Vancouver-based yoga brand Lululemon was criticized in 2013 for selling a batch of trendy stretch pants that many customers complained were uncomfortably sheer. (Xaume Olleros/Bloomberg)

BUSINESS SCHOOL RESEARCH

How Lululemon botched its sheer-pants controversy Add to ...

The Globe’s monthly roundup of research from business schools.

Lululemon is certainly not the first retail company to experience a very public relations stumble. (See also Urban Outfitters and its blood-stained retro college hoodies.)

Then again, few companies have fallen so far, so fast as did the Vancouver-based yoga brand when, in 2013, it was criticized for selling a batch of trendy stretch pants that many customers complained were uncomfortably sheer.

Faced with plummeting sales and a costly recall of the product, the company turned to social media to try repairing its broken image. But instead of putting out the fire, the resulting series of carefully worded corporate blogs and online messaging only managed to further fan the flames of public outrage.

Their big mistake?

“They didn’t apologize – that really stood out,” says Valerie Creelman, associate professor of business communications at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

Dr. Creelman uses the Lululemon incident, which cost the company an estimated $67-million in sales, as a case study in a chapter she wrote exploring communication in the digital age for the 2015 Digital Business Discourse.

Dr. Creelman argues that while the conversational nature of Facebook and Twitter allows for a more authentic conversation between consumer and brand, it’s also proven to be dangerous in times of conflict.

“In the face of customer dissatisfaction, businesses are now thrust into the awkward social situation of publicly responding to negative feedback, where their response to an individual customer is weighed and scrutinized, not only by the immediate correspondent but also by a community of consumers and potential respondents,” she writes.

Technically, Dr. Creelman says, Lululemon did all the right things in terms of how it approached the sheer-pants problem, noting, in particular, the company’s efforts to address customer concerns directly through posts and comments.

“And, yet, the message wasn’t effective,” she says. “When you read comments that customers made in response, you have a clear sense that they didn’t buy the distancing strategy that Lululemon used. They really felt they should have owned the problem. I really think the solution was simple.”

By focusing on Lululemon, Dr. Creelman says companies across industries have the opportunity to avoid similar public relations missteps.

“At least in the digital world, the real winners will be those who have the strongest conversations with customers online,” she says of the take-away. “Word of mouth just has such an important impact on customers and where they spend their dollars.”

Women in the workplace seek fair process, more than fair outcomes

In an era when the Prime Minister proudly declares himself to be a feminist, Canadians might be tempted to believe the fight for gender equity in the workplace has been won. That’s not the case.

Not even someone of Justin Trudeau’s clout has been able to rid the office of its most-stubborn systemic problems.

“It’s clear that women aren’t being promoted at the same rates [as their male peers], they are not making the same amount of money, and they are not able to participate often in some of the important decisions that affect the organization and affect others in the organization, including themselves,” says Chris Bell, associate professor of organization studies at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto.

Still, Dr. Bell believes there are better ways to communicate with female employees, and those who get it right stand to retain valued workers in place longer.

Dr. Bell is an expert in procedural justice, particularly under conditions of uncertainty. His most recent study, published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, looks at what’s happening in the workplace to address gender issues, and the differences between men and women on how those processes are perceived.

Critically, the study finds that women care deeply about achieving workplace equality, but, after enduring years, even decades of unfair outcomes, they put more emphasis on the fairness of the processes employed to achieve that goal. (Cited as important by female respondents was whether the process employed was ethical, consistently applied across staff, and whether employees are able to have a voice in the process or launch an appeal.)

The finding challenges a long-standing belief in the realm of workplace fairness research that suggests men care about procedural justice – that is, a concern over one’s fate and the ability to have control over those outcomes. Women, meanwhile, were said to be affected by relationships – or having a sense of belonging or identification within an organization.

That thinking is based on stereotypes and lay theories – “something that suggests that there is something that is innate within gender,” says Dr. Bell.

Instead, the researchers took as their starting point the assumption that women may be confident in their own abilities, but may also be aware of the widespread inequities in workplace outcomes, and so may have concerns that their outcomes can be controlled by others.

“Procedural fairness directly addresses these kinds of concerns,” he says.

Dr. Bell conducted the research with Careen Khoury, a PhD student with the social psychology department at York. The researchers recruited female and male participants in surveys of workplace attitudes by distributing flyers at Toronto subway exits.

The persuasiveness of website design

For technology users, the promise of the digital age is in the ease and efficiency with which we can perform so many routine tasks in our lives – from hailing a ride home via Uber to secretly Snapchatting with our BFF at 2 a.m. without mom or dad noticing.

But there is another side to the digital revolution, as professor Dianne Cyr of Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business in Vancouver, points out in her new study, The Art of Online Persuasion through Design.

The research underscores the powerful effect those on the other side of the IT divide – from programmers to page designers – can have on a user’s ability to make a decision, often without even knowing he or she is being influenced.

“Digital environments are increasingly structured with the purpose of convincing individuals or groups to undertake a course of action not normally pursued,” Dr. Cyr writes in the study, which was co-authored by Milena Head of McMaster University in Hamilton, Eric Lim of the University of South Wales and Agnis Stibe of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

Dr. Cyr’s research around design has previously focused in the e-commerce domain, where retailers might create a Web environment to prompt consumers to purchase certain products.

But she also sees a role for political, health, charitable or environmental organizations to use website design to influence user behaviours and opinions.

In her most recent study, Dr. Cyr studied the website for the Keystone XL pipeline project, and, based on a survey of respondents, narrowed down key design elements that have the most influence on a subject.

In particular, she looked at the site’s image appeal, ease of page navigation, and the ability of users to connect via online chat boards or a comments section.

The results indicate that users who were less informed about the pipeline were more likely to have their opinion of the subject matter swayed by the design.

Users who had pre-existing knowledge of the subject, meanwhile, were less affected by the design, but could still be influenced by arguments made on the site.

Dr. Cyr said the study represents “early days” in her continuing examination of website design, but should be seen as a “signal to other researchers and designers that [design] plays an important role” in public persuasion.

The study has been submitted for publication. It won the “best paper” award in the category of human-computer interaction at the 2015 International Conference on Information Systems.

Story ideas related to business school research in Canada can be sent to darahhansen@yahoo.ca.

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