3 Publicity Lessons Women Founders Can Learn From Spanx's Sara Blakely
Sara Blakely didn't become one of the most admired CEOs without taking her public image seriously. Blakely credits her publicity-savvy approach to her grass-roots success that launched a billion-dollar exit.
In 2012, Sara Blakely made headlines as one of the first women billionaires. Her company Spanx was valued at over $1 billion; she'd retained 100% ownership, had zero debt and, to that point, had never spent a dollar on advertising. Blakely wasn't lucky. She's smart, and from the start, she was dialed into earning trust and positive word-of-mouth reviews.
Blakely was so PR savvy she patented Spanx early because she saw it as a marketing lever. She knew actions can translate to media coverage. Consistently, Blakely refined and perfected three key strategies she credits to her success.
1. Tell your story
One thing Sara Blakely did immediately is take control of her own narrative. CEOs who take a personal interest in their brand's success always generate better coverage. Blakely never took the "fake it before you make it" stance in the press. She took her failures and turned them into stories about resilience. Her career-focused and ambitious customers could relate to her humble fax-machine sales beginnings. Blakely famously said she's "game for anything," and it's the company that has to rein her in.
Blakely celebrates her strengths as a woman, recently claiming she ran the business from a place of intuition, vulnerability and empathy, which led to an acquisition by private-equity firm Blackstone in November 2021.
From the start, Blakely refined her story, kept it authentic and told it over and over and over again. She never deviated from her "why," and she never glossed over speed bumps or failures. That's why, despite her elite success, women the world over related to Blakely. Her approachability gives her another lever to pull; she can celebrate her wins, and women celebrate with her.
2. The not-so-overnight success of product placement
"We always had PR and grassroots marketing at the forefront of what we did. It was getting the word out any way we could: speaking engagements, sampling," said Spanx CEO Laurie Ann Goldman.
In the halls of famous breakthroughs, the Oprah Effect is perhaps one of the most celebrated. In the case of Spanx, when Oprah included the brand on her list of favorite things, for many women, it was the first time they'd heard of the product. But Sara Blakely had been sending celebrities, stylists and female icons Spanx samples from the very beginning, and she wasn't cheap about it. Blakely sent full gift baskets, with enough product to make sure every celebrity had enough to get through the week, no matter how intense their appearance calendar was. By the time Gwyneth Paltrow said on the red carpet that Spanx was her post-baby-body secret in 2003, Spanx was already a well-known insider secret. "Word of mouth and the media are so much more powerful and believable, so that's the route I decided to go," said Blakely.
Blakely knew that consistent product placement and earning the trust of celebrity influencers would pay off. It may have seemed like an overnight success, but in fact, Blakely had been gifting her product for years — and she did it with class.
3. Absolute customer clarity
Blakely knew that if you're for everyone, you're for no one. When she first started sending celebrity gift baskets, she targeted Oprah because she was open about her weight challenges, and Kim Kardashian because of her famous booty. Despite her success in famous retailers, direct-to-consumer sales are at the heart of the Spanx expansion, making up 70% of its sales, which means Spanx has to develop deep relationships with its target customers. If you look at Spanx coverage over the years, you'll notice that Blakely prioritized customer clarity and was disciplined about sticking to her "why."
Blakely's approachable voice is another key to the brand's success. She talks to her consumers the way they talk with their friends — from packaging to interviews, she gives us enough to relate to her. Even her extravagances seemed relatable to her target market. You never hear about Blakely's car or vacation homes. Instead, you hear about splurges like when she bought Olivia Newton John's Grease pants, a piece of clothing her target market clearly remembers — and one that showcases a spectacular derriere.
Employing these three publicity strategies doesn't guarantee a billion-dollar business, but it does guarantee that you will get noticed. Everyone from consumers to venture capitalists and private-equity firms like to know there's a story and potential for brand affinity, both of which helped the Spanx brand become so iconic.
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