Harvard Biz School Tackles Yoga Branding


During their tenure in the prestigious and competitive Owner/President Management Program at Harvard Business School, CEOs and COOs from around the world learn how to bring their businesses to the next level. The course covers a wide range of topics, from navigating the global economy to negotiating for success.

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Now there's a new topic being covered: yoga.

Two years ago, after reading a New York Times article about the Take Back Yoga campaign, in which the Hindu-American Foundation strongly opposed the branding of yoga, Harvard Business School Professor of Marketing Rohit Deshpandé was inspired to investigate the topic from a marketing stance. He wrote a case study in which he examined the branding of yoga offering Tara Stiles (who is fairly unattached to tradition or branding) and Bikram Choudhury (who legally patented his style of yoga) as differing examples. He uses this study in the management program to discuss the ethics of branding.

“Here we have always taken branding as a given, because this is a business school, not a theology school,” Deshpandé tells Yoga Buzz. But, he says, he started to think differently after examining the concerns around branding what some believe to be a spiritual discipline. This encouraged him to bring new philosophical questions to the program. “Could everything be branded? Should everything branded?” he asks. “We should question the commercialization of everything.”

Deshpandé, who grew up in Bombay and did yoga as a child, is fascinated by the way yoga has become a booming business here in the U.S. “We didn’t think about it in terms of Ashtanga or Iyengar,” he says. “Yoga was just a form of exercise, like calisthenics.”

As to whether branding hurts or helps yoga, Deshpandé believes that ultimately it depends on whether it benefits the consumer. If it helps someone to differentiate between the myriad styles of yoga and derive more benefit from the practice, he says, then it’s a useful thing. “If [branding assists with] personal growth for the student, then that’s what’s important.”