The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Lilly Pulitzer

Anyone who’s taken high school trig may remember the sine graph that shows a repeating wave measured on a horizontal axis. (Bear with me here.) Maybe that year, you also took physics and came across Newton’s third law of motion: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

In the PR world, and specifically when grappling with the forces driving the rise and fall of reputations, one might find these equations instructive. One particular story recently caught my eye that seems to support these premises.


It wasn’t too long ago that Target’s customer database was massively breached from what soon was revealed as a significant failure on the mass retailer’s part. Suddenly, one of America’s hippest retailers found itself in a crisis of confidence that impacted its stock price, incurred a $10 million settlement, and perhaps most importantly, gave a black bullseye to the brand esteem the company so carefully forged over the years.

Photo: via
Photo: via

Still hurting from the breach, Target recently ran what may have been its most successful PR-driven sales promotion in the store’s history — a promotion so successful that it made the network evening news and single-handedly put the company back on the road to redemption. (Get it? Up, then down, then up again.)

In fact the auspicious store debut of the “Lilly Pulitzer for Target” line even merited a post-mortem in the Harvard Business Review “Lilly Pulitzer’s Target Disaster Was Actually a Success”:

“At first blush, the recent rapid sell-out of the new “Lilly Pulitzer for Target” line — and the backlash it generated from disappointed customers — seems like a major screw-up by both companies. But it actually contains the keys to successful expansion for other high-end brands and designer labels and to improved brand perceptions for other mass retailers.”

Target not only benefitted by the ample positive media attention, but the Lilly Pulitzer brand also was thrust into a most flowery national spotlight given the unprecedented and widely publicized run on its products.

Photo: Brian Sozzi
Lilly at Target  Photo: Brian Sozzi

Mainstream media soon weighed in with day-glowing company profiles:

  • Bloomberg “What’s Next for Lilly Pulitzer? Following the fashion line’s much-hyped collaboration with Target, Lilly looks inland”

The preppy designer was squarely back in fashion (had it ever gone out?), even prompting New York Magazine to visit corporate headquarters in Pennsylvania:

“Curious about the most extreme fluorescent-floral-wearing Lilly devotees, the Cut sent photographer Amy Lombard inside the Lilly Pulitzer headquarters in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania (a.k.a. “The Pink Palace”) — a macaron-filled corporate cabana where Spice Girls tracks play in the cafeteria, jewel-toned pedicures are de rigueur, and employee perks include “inspiration trips” to Tulum.”

That was then. Buried within the NYMag slide show was this image taken at an unnamed employee’s desk:

Photo at Lilly Pulitzer Employee's Workspace
A Lilly Pulitzer Employee’s Workspace Photo: Amy Lombard/The Cut

Suddenly it was Lilly’s turn to experience the trough of the sin wave graphic.

But let me first digress. When I worked on the 100th anniversary of Ochs-Sulzberger family ownership of The New York Times, CBS “Sunday Morning” committed to a segment for which it requested to shoot inside the vaunted newspaper’s newsroom. We had to decline. The Times had a policy that forbid cameras in the newsroom, ostensibly to prevent any reporters’ personal effects (especially in the political realm) from being publicized.

Had Lilly had such a policy (or more stringent employee rules) in place, it might have avoided the backlash this one illustrator’s “fat-shaming” illustrations wrought. The headlines spoke for themselves:

  • Huffington Post “Lilly Pulitzer Under Fire For Fat-Shaming Cartoons In Its Headquarters”
  • “Lilly Pulitzer under fire as headquarters’ fat-shaming cartoons hit the Web”

One journalist even chimed in from the land of Oz:

  • Sydney Morning Herald “Are Lilly Pulitzer’s fat shaming pictures a look into the dark comedy of fashion?”

After a month of boffo media attention, the online virality of this unsanctioned illustration thrust Lilly Pulitzer, the company, under a harsh media spotlght prompting this apology:

“These illustrations were the work of one individual and were posted in her personal work area. While we are an employer that does encourage people to decorate their own space, we are a female-dominated company and these images do not reflect our values. We apologize for any harm this may have caused.”

Now if only we could figure out how to more quickly convert a trough into a crest à la Newton’s Third Law of Motion,” we might very well be onto something here.