HBS Cases: Branding Yoga

As yoga's popularity has grown into a $6 billion business, a cast of successful entrepreneurs has emerged with their own styles of the ancient practice. Yet yoga's rise underscores a larger question for Professor Rohit Deshpandé: Is everything brandable?
by Kim Girard

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.

Two Paths

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.

Yoga poseBy 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."

Adding Value

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.

Creating Value

"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.

About the Author

Kim Girard is a writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts.
    • Anonymous
    Great article!, I found Hot Yoga a fantastic meditation-exercise-self inducted massage-sweat program 6 years ago. Introduced by an HBS classmate I became addicted to it and gained strength, flexibility and overall health. Then I heard about Bikram Yoga and practiced in two or three different studios. I was VERY disappointed because Bikram Yoga teachers appeared to me more interested in reciting the instructions (memorized by the word!!) than in yoga itself. There was also a controversy amongst the Bikram Yoga Studios I visited as Bikram wanted to charge Bikram Yoga studios for using his brand, etc.
    All in all, yoga is one of India's (or that region of the world and that civilization) contributions to Human Kind. I congratulate the government of India for doing such an exceptional work in cataloging yoga. Anyone who has gotten addicted to yoga like I am will agree that it is truly a gift to Human Kind.
    • Akash
    In principle branding is a critical piece for product marketing. However, its contradictory to the principles espoused by Yoga. One of Hinduism key tenets is spirituality and the notion of - strive hard towards a goal but don't be tied to its results. The branding of Bikram and cease and desist approach are a far cry from that lofty tenet.
    • Anonymous
    Branding an undifferentiated commodity is nothing new. I recall an HBS case from many years ago about Sunkist imprinting their name on oranges.

    What is different here is that branding is building upon an existing "brand" -- yoga -- which has been part of the public domain since before the expression "public domain" was invented.

    What comes to mind is the recent branding of Kabbalah, a tradition of Jewish mysticism, as a celebrity-endorsed product. (See this L. A. Times article. )

    Similarly, the efforts of a Texas company to trademark the name of basmati rice which has been a cultural staple food in India for centuries. (See this N.Y. Times article.)

    The more that branding becomes a means of creating a distinction where little or no distinction exists, or to lay claim to something otherwise in the public domain, the more cynical the consumer becomes. In the long run, this seriously weakens the power of branding as a bona fide marketing tool.
    • Anonymous
    This is a great article! I would consider the positive side of yoga branding being the fact this has made the yoga available to a greater audience thus the benefits of yoga have been shared regardless of the audience religion. In fact, I am catholic and I have found the practice of yoga has made me understand more my spirituality and understand that the teacings are basically the same, so if people would be better by doing yoga-with-a-brand and not linking it to a religious practice, this is welcome since a lot of physical and emotional pain is healed.
    • Zufi Deo
    • Founder, www.bizstuff.co
    I think if we use the open source model - ie the yoga it self is free however the charge is for the customisation and support - then we can see how something like Yoga can be branded and productised.
    • Dr.Priya M Vaidya
    • Assistant Professor, Guru Nanak College of Arts, Science and Commerce,Mumbai, India
    The article is very interesting. It poses forward interesting questions about knowledge as a means to an end and also as an end in itself.
    If Yoga is perceived as a means to an end-then the aspect of branding Yoga follows.
    Most importantly- it then defeats the very purpose of learning Yoga .It hampers man's journey towards self development .
    Branding Yoga attempts gives rise to ethical dilemmas and questions that focus upon on the essence of commercializing the sanctity of human life.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Yoga is commonly known generic term for physical,mental and spiritual disciplines which originated in ancient India. Various forms of yoga are described in Indian scriptures.
    Yoga means 'yoke','to join','to attach' - the ultimate aim of yoga is to attain a state of highest bliss. This, as per the holy Indian scripture 'Upanishad", yoga is 'steady control of the senses, which, alongwith cessation of mental activity, leads to supreme state'. Thus yoga, in essence, is the merger of body, mind and intellect which need to move in a common direction with none of the three receiving more attention than the other two.
    While this is the basic purpose of yoga, this has been lost due to excessive and undue body consciousness which in the ultimate does not keep us totally happy and worry free.
    Yoga became popular in US in 1980s as a physical system of health exercises. By and by, it became popular as it kept people physically fit leading to cure of many diseases. Keeping the users' expectations in view, newer exercise postures were devised and people somewhat hypnotised to get inclined to these forms of so called yoga. In my view the studios are more like gyms as they fail to provide what the real purpose of yoga is.
    Hence, branding yoga is an exercise in popularising the physical part and people need to know that they are following the new forms for their outer self only and not the real Self which matters more.
    • Michel Hogan
    The whole question rests on what you see a "brand" to be.

    Very few products are brands in their own right. The fact that Bikram still adds "yoga" to the name of his product suggests that the brand is actually yoga and the product is Bikram. In that way I would think that while he can claim ownership of his particular flavored product, the underlying "brand" of yoga has a broader ownership.

    Marketing obsessions with making everything about brand aside - most often a product is just a product and there is nothing wrong with that.
    • Dr Rajendra Prasad
    • Associate Professor, University of delhi
    • Anonymous
    What we see in the west is not Yoga most of the time, it is Asana, that is the only part of the tradition that can be purchased. The other parts are only obtainable through self study and practice. Bikram's yoga is a group of Asanas. Ms. Stile's Yoga is Asana.
    Yoga is a science that comes from the Indian culture's study of humanity over thousands of years. It has many parts. The use of the postures is only one part of Yoga. Also, the Sanskrit language is a living language that is misinterpreted through our structure of language in the west. The words in Sanskrit have vibrational values to the mind and body, just as many ancient languages did. Each posture is named not only for description, but for purpose.
    In studying the branding of Asana, it would also be important to study the personalities that attempting to brand it. Are they branding "Yoga" or themselves? Bikram's purpose to separate himself out by trademarking, and Ms. Stiles need to remove herself from the tradition and the language tells me more about the use of the product to brand the person. Both Bikram and Ms. Stiles saw a market and created their product to fit that market.
    On the subject of Yoga, a branding study is interesting, but a consumer study would be more revealing about it's growth as a product.
    • SAT GOEL
    If Yoga can be branded and sold. Then soon, breathing and exercising will be branded and sold. Branding does not add value to the product or service, it only increases its cost.
    • Laurence McKinney
    I am reminded of the first visit of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to Boston under the auspices of a foundation founded by HBS classmate Charlie Geer. After his talk, seated on a cushion in Sander's Theater he took questions from a line at the microphone. When my time came I agreed how useful meditative practice could be and mentioned the success I'd enjoyed already.

    He gave his characteristic giggle and smiled "It would appear that you have already attained Bliss Consciousness without the need for Transcendental Meditation," and his smile sort of narrowed as he paused ... "but it would have been FAR easier for you if you HAD used Transcendental Meditation" Giggle. I nodded my appreciation and returned to my seat.

    I was satisfied, but I wondered if anyone else was picking up the real message both of us understood:
    "Hey, Charlie, we all know there are a couple of thousand dozen karma yoga practices which with consistent practice will make us into wizards .... but will you buzz off? I'm selling my brand here!"

    Yep, he's a real yogi, and I heard it loud and clear. His brand. Perhaps the first "branded" yoga, and for celebrity endorsements - you can't beat the Beatles.
    • Srini
    • Director, HP
    There are two aspects to this:
    1. Branding
    2. Content ownership.

    Branding: Is perfectly a choice for some one to push their way, their system and try to make sure that people opt for them.

    Content Ownership: When the base content belongs (in this case) to a community for eons, it's unethical in the name of branding for some one to slap cases against others.
    What's good for the goose should be good for the gander too. If any branded yoga - copied in full or in part from the community, they should have no right to crib when others copy from them.
    • Joyce Garforth
    • Yoga Teacher
    One must remember that Yoga asanas are only a flicker of parenthesis of all that embraces the total concept of Patanjali Yoga. It is time to learn more, and develop the totality of it. This will encompass and draw a larger amount of people of this entire globe. Isn't this what marketing is all about?
    • Vandana Sonwaney
    • Professor, SYmbiosis Institute of Operations Management
    In case of Yoga, the core product is crucial. The science behind it has to remain intact.
    Augementations will not create great Brand resonance. Hence Yoga should reamin a generic brand competing with Mechanised Gyms and otehr outfit for physical/ mental well being, strength and tenacity.
    Lets not Brand everything ! SOme thigns should just remain as they are without perceptually created aura around them.
    • Joyce Garforth
    • Yoga Teacher
    Have been practising yoga since 1968, teaching Yoga since 1975, studied various systems in Yoga, i.e. Iyengar, Ashtanga, incorporate yoga with pressure points techniques as in reflexology, aromatherapy, ayurveda, traditional Patanjali path of yoga, completing with deep quided relaxation and meditation complete with music. I have in my quiet way of teaching yoga connected also with thousands of people over the years. There is no need for branding this system, it is in the true system of Yoga, that attracts people to come nowadays, and to be entirely absorbed in what you teach with truthfulness and above all: Non violence.
    • Travacor Side Effects
    • http://travacor-vitamin.jimdo.com/
    Yoga is the only methodology available with the humanity which has anatomized the human existence without opening a human body. It is the oldest and the deepest psychology of the human existence.
    • rushabh
    • student
    If branding yoga, improves the quality of life of anothers and benefits them then,according to me there is no harm in branding it.Ultimately it is a discovery of ancient BHARAT (India) and it will always be our invention no matter how far it spreads and who practices it. We Indians believe in giving and spreading love..
    • k.Bharadwaja
    • Yoga Exponent /Teacher, Benaka Public School
    yoga is a great science of Correct living and helps in expansion of higher mind in persons.This should be taken in the spirit of any other scientific advancement by the persons who have contributed to the progress of the society. but never as religion.It is very much universal.if yoga helps in progress of mankind why not persue