Oswald Letter

If you don’t have anything nice to say . . .

shut upby Dan Oswald

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
—Abraham Lincoln

As a child, whenever my mouth started running in the wrong direction, my mother would say, “If you don’t have anything nice to say about someone, don’t say anything at all.” It’s not a difficult concept to understand, but some executives obviously didn’t learn that as I did. Maybe their mothers weren’t as vigilant as mine was.

Take, for instance, the founder of high-end yoga clothing retailer Lululemon. Chip Wilson found himself in the middle of a media firestorm after customers complained that his company’s products were susceptible to pilling—the small balls of fiber that form on fabric from wear and tear. In response to the complaints, he said, “Frankly, some women’s bodies just don’t actually work [for the yoga pants]. It’s more really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there over a period of time, how much they use it.”

You can imagine the backlash Wilson and his company received. An online petition is calling him out and asking him to stop blaming his company’s quality issues on women’s bodies. The petition is titled “Lululemon founder Chip Wilson: Stop shaming women’s bodies. Apologize and make clothes for women of all sizes!” and it already has thousands of signatures.

The company’s share price dropped about five percent the day after Wilson made his comments. All of this comes less than nine months after Lululemon was questioned by customers about the “sheerness” of its yoga pants, which in some cases were nearly see-through. In that case, Wilson said that the pants, which sell for about $100 per pair, become see-through when women buy sizes that are too small for them. That one cost the company a 17 percent drop in share price.

Wilson doesn’t have a corner on stupid comments. Another clothing retailer’s CEO did his company equal harm when he made similarly insensitive remarks. Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Michael Jeffries had made comments in a 2006 interview that resurfaced on the Internet about six months ago. In the interview, he said he doesn’t want “fat” or “not so cool” kids wearing his company’s clothes. And then there’s the runaway mouth of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. That guy can’t seem to shut up and get out of his own way.

Hey guys, here’s some advice: Think before you speak. How arrogant do you have to be not to understand that you can’t blame your products’ problems on your customers? How dumb do you have to be to go on record saying you don’t want “not so cool” kids wearing your company’s clothes? And the Toronto mayor? Well, he needs to just go away.

My advice? Remember what my mother used to tell me? That’s it. C’mon guys—you can do better than this. Think before you speak. If you have product problems, apologize, take responsibility, and then fix them. If you’re worried about brand image, don’t make disparaging comments about members of your customer group. Blaming others and making derogatory comments about your customers aren’t ways to build brand value and endear yourself to your key constituents.

If in doubt, zip it!