Harvard Business School Professor Rohit Deshpandé often asks his marketing students a show-stopping question: Is everything brandable—and should everything be brandable?
So when he read a November 2010 New York Times piece on the tensions between traditional practitioners who wanted to "take back yoga" from celebrity teachers with newfangled twists on the ancient practice, the word "brand" jumped out at him.
"What had me intrigued was that there was this controversy," says Deshpandé, the Sebastian S. Kresge Professor of Marketing. "There were strong positions taken by a number of people. It wasn't just a descriptive story."
“There are two elements of brand authenticity, and they appeal to two different sorts of people”
Deshpandé decided that the business of yoga would make a lively teaching case for his class of entrepreneurs in the School's Owner/President Management Program, with plenty of lessons about branding and competitive strategy.
In Branding Yoga, cowritten with HBS Global Research Group associate director Kerry Herman and research associate Annelena Lobb, Deshpandé examines the different paths of two successful yoga teachers.
There's Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram yoga in America, who has aggressively fought to patent his approach to traditional yoga style. Then there is the former model and ballet dancer Tara Stiles, who isn't particularly interested in yoga's roots or rules, but rather in mixing up different styles of yoga to create a beneficial exercise.
"There are two elements of brand authenticity, and they appeal to two different sorts of people," Deshpandé says.
The enterprising Bikram, born in 1946 in Calcutta and known worldwide by his first name, began studying yoga as a four-year-old under his guru Bishnu Ghosh. He arrived in America in 1971, opening his first studio in Los Angeles and teaching traditional Hatha yoga to students including Shirley MacLaine.
Bikram built his business slowly. In 1979, he wrote Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class. He also trademarked his company's name, Bikram's Yoga College of India. In 1994, he began offering intensive courses, training 200 teachers per year, according to the case.
Worried that competitors were copying his teachings and techniques, Bikram decided in 2002 to patent a typical 90-minute class, which consists of 26 postures and two breathing exercises in a room heated to 105°F. Hundreds of cease-and-desist letters were slapped on competing studio owners.
The Indian government, meanwhile, took umbrage with Bikram's legal claims, arguing that yoga was part of the country's traditional knowledge. The government put together a panel of 100 historians and scientists that began cataloging 1,500 yoga poses found in ancient texts written in Sanskrit, Urdu, and Persian. The goal was not to challenge Bikram in court, the case explains, but rather to keep others from following his proprietary example.
By 2011, there were some 5,000 Bikram Yoga studios worldwide. Deshpandé notes that in a world where the majority of yoga teachers were just scraping by Bikram succeeded through strategic use of branding and legal protections. Bikram also gained an edge by starting early in the United States and understanding yoga's commercial potential.
"He's very good at marketing the business, but especially on the branding side, he understood the importance of the Bikram brand," he says. "It wasn't about yoga, it was about Bikram yoga, and he had to establish what the difference was. His story was all about understanding that you needed legal protection for your branding."
The Stiles Approach
Tara Stiles, meanwhile, found success in yoga her own way. She had studied ballet before launching a brief modeling career with the Ford Agency. Her early experiences of yoga were personal and drew from several different traditions. "It felt right and natural, not rigid with a certain style," she said. Yoga "gurus" she had encountered in New York put her off.
Stiles used Facebook to promote yoga classes taught out of her apartment and offered private sessions. She also blogged about yoga for Women's Health and the Huffington Post. In 2008, after opening her own studio, Strala Yoga, the popular doctor and self-help author Deepak Chopra hired Stiles as his personal yoga instructor, a huge endorsement.
Stiles created controversy because she was "making yoga cool," Chopra said in the case. "We are basically breaking the rules, improvising, adding music; in our minds, connecting the younger generation. In society, brands that succeed stay relevant."
Stiles hasn't patented her classes, but in 2010 she did publish a book called Slim Calm Sexy Yoga and launched a yoga DVD under Jane Fonda's "Team Fonda" fitness brand. In addition, she and Chopra collaborated on the iPad app Authentic Yoga. Those actions spurred some instructors to label her a sellout, but Deshpandé is more measured.
"Tara Stiles appeals to a much younger demographic than Bikram," he says. "She's not as regimented in her form of yoga. There's no Sanskrit in her yoga. Bikram is about Sanskrit. Bikram is about India. She's quintessentially American."
Deshpandé taught the case for the first time this past spring, drawing a lively debate among participants who were divided on whether the commercialization of yoga is appropriate.
"The discussion was very heated," he says. "The argument against it is that religion is something that is very personal, and that it should not be commercialized."
“It wasn't about yoga, it was about Bikram yoga”
(The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) has weighed in on the debate as well. The organization launched an awareness campaign called "Take Back Yoga—Bringing to Light Yoga's Hindu Roots." The goal was not to convert yoga devotees to Hinduism, according to the organizers, but rather to have them acknowledge the connection.
HAF cofounder and board member Aseem Shukla wrote a 2010 piece for the Washington Post's On Faith column called "The Theft of Yoga." In it, Shukla blasted the "facile complicity of generations of Hindu yogis, gurus, swamis, and others that offered up a religion's spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism."
The other side of the argument focuses on business rather than religion. "It's all about creating value for a large audience. By using marketing and branding you can be more effective and bring [your product] to a larger audience," Deshpandé says.
"Branding Yoga" is one of five branding cases Deshpandé uses in his classes to explore how companies create brands that are differentiated and worthy of a price premium. In addition to yoga, he cites the bottled water industry as an example.
"You get this stuff for free out of your faucet," he says. "With Evian or Dasani you pay $2, $4, and that's the reaction consumers have: 'You are just attaching a fancy name on it, which costs me money.' "
It's up to the company to add value to that brand to make it worth the price, stresses Deshpandé. Participants also tackle how to leverage a brand globally, build a multibrand portfolio, and defend a brand against competition.