01 Sep 2012
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Who Owns Yoga?

Parsing the power of branding
by Kim Girard

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Rohit Deshpandé, the Sebastian S. Kresge Professor of Marketing, often asks his students a show-stopping question: Is everything brandable? And next: Should everything be brandable?

In “Branding Yoga,” cowritten with HBS Global Research Group associate director Kerry Herman and research associate Annelena Lobb, Deshpandé examines the paths of two successful yoga teachers, each with a different approach to practicing and marketing the ancient discipline of yoga.

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’s the former model and ballet dancer Tara Stiles, who isn’t particularly interested in yoga’s roots or rules but rather in mixing up styles of yoga to create a beneficial exercise.

“These are two different examples 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. He arrived in the United States in 1971, opening his first studio in Los Angeles and teaching traditional hatha yoga.

Bikram built his business slowly. In 1978, he wrote Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class. He trademarked his company’s name, Bikram’s Yoga College of India, and in 1994 began offering intensive courses, training 200 teachers each year.

Bikram also followed the very nontraditional yoga practice of seeking legal protections on the poses and the techniques he taught. In 2002, Bikram patented 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 the doors of other yoga studios that he believed were in violation. “To stop them from stealing I must go to the lawyers,” he said.

By 2011, there were some 5,000 Bikram Yoga studios worldwide. Deshpandé notes that Bikram succeeded through the strategic use of branding and legal protections, and that he also started early in the United States and understood 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,” Deshpandé 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.”

Tara Stiles, meanwhile, found yoga success her own way. The former model’s early experiences of yoga were personal and drew from several different traditions. “It felt right and natural, not rigid with a certain style,” said Stiles, who was put off by yoga “gurus” she encountered in New York.

In 2008, after Stiles opened Strala Yoga, the popular doctor and self-help author Deepak Chopra hired her as his personal yoga instructor, a huge endorsement.

Stiles, he said, was making yoga cool. “We are basically breaking the rules, improvising, adding music; in our minds, connecting to the younger generation,” observed Chopra. “In society, brands that stay relevant succeed.”

The Hindu American Foundation has weighed in 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 between them.

So, should yoga be branded? Deshpandé taught the case for the first time in the Owner/President Management Program, sparking a lively debate among participants who were divided on whether the commercialization of yoga is appropriate: “The discussion was very heated. The arguments against it are that yoga’s religious aspect is something that is very personal, and that it should not be commercialized.”

The other side of the argument doesn’t consider religion. Yoga is simply about business. “For some people, it’s all about creating value for a large audience,” Deshpandé says, “and by using marketing and branding you can be more effective and bring your product to a larger audience.”

—Kim Girard is a freelance writer for HBS Working Knowledge.

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