As we are fond of saying, we humans are meaning-seeking creatures. We project meaning onto everything we can, from star patterns in the sky, to ink blots on a piece of paper, to the sight of a pram tumbling down a set of stairs in Eisenstein’s 1925 film classic, “The Battleship Potemkin.”
When we project meaning onto an inanimate object, that object becomes a “totem” i.e. totemic. Hence totem poles in the American Northwest. They’re objects that represent a certain collective meaning to the people that crafted them.
This is why it’s not enough for us to stream the John Coltrane album, but we MUST own the original vinyl. This is why copies of famous statues are only worth a tiny, tiny fraction of the original. And why some paintings can sell for tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars. These objects all have totemic value.
This phenomenon would explain the latest promotion from everyone’s favorite fitness apparel brand, Lululemon.
Lululemon makes lovely.. expensive apparel. So, as with many luxury items, savvy suppliers have made a “dupe” version. Thanks to a combination of inflation, supply chain challenges, and powerful social media, these “dupes” have taken TikTok by storm, capturing the hearts of eager shoppers seeking top-notch quality at a fraction of the cost.
Of course, anytime you have a luxury brand get really successful you’ll have a tsunami of counterfeits flooding the market. This isn’t new. (Though to be fair, dupes make no claim to be the original, just of the same high quality at a much lower price point).
So Lululemon made a very clever bet that once you tried the real thing, you’d never want to go back to dupes again. They started a dupe exchange program, saying that if you had already bought a certain dupe legging, they’d gladly trade it with you, free of charge, for the real deal.
Instead of denying that there was a problem, Lululemon owned it, in a fun, clever, and creative way. It may not cut down on the number of dupes, but it certainly telegraphs what the marketing nerds call “brand confidence,” an essential part of brand building.
All else being equal, given the choice between the real thing and a fake, most people choose the former. Lululemon knows this, and they also know what totemic power a strong brand can give a mere object, including athletic apparel. Once a product connects with people on a totemic level, there’s no turning back.
Is your product or service totemic?