How Influencer Marketing Built a $400 Million Brand: The SPANX Success Story

Google “Sara Blakely SPANX success” and you’ll find a treasure trove of valuable advice.

“Find your why.”

“Don’t be afraid of failure.”

“Persistence is key.”

This is all great advice for entrepreneurs. But is it the actionable knowledge you need right now to build the direct-to-consumer brand of your dreams?

Not really.

If you’re looking for practical advice on how to build a winning DTC brand, you’re in the right place. 

The SPANX success story you may know and love didn’t unfold in a day. The brand was built over a long time, step by step, good decision after good decision. 

When she launched SPANX, Sara Blakely didn’t have entrepreneurial experience or tens of thousands of dollars in the bank. Call it intuition, innate skill, or a little bit of both, the SPANX brand is the sum of many parts––not an overnight success.

Keep reading to find out more about the SPANX success blueprint, and how you can apply Sara Blakely’s practices to your own DTC brand at any stage of its development. 

In a nutshell: The SPANX success story

It’s an entrepreneurial story for the ages: Sara Blakely started SPANX with $5,000 of her own savings after she cut the feet off her control top pantyhose because she didn’t like how the seam looked in her open-toed shoes.

Sara Blakely still owns 100% of her company with no current plans for an IPO.

Here are some of SPANX’s most important milestones:

1998: Sara Blakely cuts into some control top pantyhose and the idea for SPANX takes hold.

2000: Neiman Marcus places SPANX’s first large order.

2000: Oprah names SPANX one of her Favorite Things. 

2001: SPANX is featured on the QVC home shopping network.

2012: Sara Blakely appears on the cover of Forbes as the youngest female self-made billionaire. 

2012: SPANX opens its first standalone store in Virginia.

Key takeaways from the SPANX timeline:

  • It took 14 years for Sara Blakely to become a billionaire. Success doesn’t happen overnight.
  • Sara Blakely focused on the best placement and partnerships for her product. Neiman Marcus validated her product and opened the floodgates for success.
  • Sara Blakely may have invented influencer marketing when she sent Oprah a gift basket with a prototype and a note asking her to try on some SPANX.

For years, SPANX relied almost exclusively on celebrity word of mouth and PR for brand awareness. SPANX is a $400 million brand built on influencer marketing.

Of course, influencer marketing isn’t the only reason for SPANX’s ascent. Here are six ingredients for entrepreneurial success as recommended by Sara Blakely in her Self-made Entrepreneurship MasterClass

Success Ingredient #1: Differentiate your product from the start.

SPANX didn’t create a new category. Control top pantyhose had existed for years, and the market was arguably saturated by the time Sara Blakely stumbled upon her big idea. 

How SPANX won was through differentiation. Sara saw an existing product in a new way because of a real problem. 

Differentiation + Solve a real problem = Solid business foundation

What you can do to differentiate a product:

  • Create a spreadsheet and list as many industry categories as possible.
  • List products within those categories.
  • Map problems to products — how do you think those products can be better?
  • Ask other people if they experience the same problems.
  • Prioritize based on people’s answers.
  • Let your imagination take over and identify opportunities.

Success Ingredient #2: Choose a memorable name.

Sara names her ideas early in development. “It gives them energy,” she says. 

If you don’t have a ton of money for marketing, a great name is the hook you need to get people talking about your product. 

Jeff Johnson, founder of Nike, found that the best brand names had at maximum two syllables and at least one “exotic” letter, like x or k. Like Kleenex or Post-its, his goal was to generate a brand name that could transcend the product and become part of everyday vernacular.

What Sara recommends when naming your product:

  • Find a great place to think by brainstorming in different places for 20 minutes per day for a week.
  • When you find your spot, let your mind wander there for 20 minutes per day for another week.
  • Play a word association game: focus on your product and write down the first 5–10 words that come to mind.
  • Play with your words: combine them and change a couple letters. 
  • When you hit on some names you like, check available domains for them. 

Success Ingredient #3: Master the product demo––show, don’t tell.

Sara Blakely is a notoriously gifted salesperson. Before Sara Blakely started SPANX, she was selling fax machines for a Xerox competitor. But that doesn’t mean you need to be a professional salesperson to be great at sales.

To get better at sales, focus on one thing: show, don’t tell.

When Sara landed a pitch meeting with Neiman Marcus, she was speaking with a buyer who happened to be a woman. So she stopped herself in the middle of her presentation and asked the buyer to accompany her to the bathroom so she could … run an actual demo of her product.  

Sara wore white pants to the meeting and showed the buyer a before and after––with pantylines and without while wearing SPANX. The woman was so shocked by the results that she decided to stock SPANX on the spot.  

DTC brands don’t need to rely on product descriptions and copy-laden sell sheets to show how their products solve a problem or create a delightful experience. 

How to show your product’s value:

  • Refine your problem statement––and create a demo around the problem just as much as the solution.
  • Shoot a 30-second product demo and send the video to people whose opinions you respect. 
  • Create fit-for-platform product demos with influencers. Allow influencers to adapt the demo based on their style and audience.

Success Ingredient #4: Leverage influencers for PR.

Sara Blakely mastered influencer marketing before the existence of social media. 

She knew that if she could get Oprah talking about her product, people would pay attention. 

Back then that was called PR. Now it’s called influencer marketing.

More on influencer marketing in 2020

  • Brands make an average of $5.20 for every $1 spent on influencer marketing
  • Nearly two thirds of marketers say they’ve increased their influencer marketing budgets in 2020
  • 89% of marketers say that influencer marketing ROI is comparable or even better than other marketing channels

How you can take action on influencer marketing:

  • Find perfect-match creators through a platform like #paid
  • Choose 3-4 Instagram creators who love your product already. If your brand is new, send some free product to a shortlist of influencers who have clout in your space.
  • Set up discount codes for each influencer who promotes your product so you can track success.

Success Ingredient #5: Perfect the prototype.

SPANX took two years to go from idea to market. Sara Blakely could have rushed the process, but she didn’t. She became obsessed with the quality of her prototype, and this obsession set the foundation for high standards at SPANX.

Sara Blakely describes prototyping as a two-pronged process: 

  • Assessing whether your product can be made 
  • Testing your product’s strengths and weaknesses by comparing it to similar products

Here’s how you know your prototype is ready for market:

  • It solves the problem your product was meant to solve
  • You’re satisfied with the results after trying it and asking others to try it
  • You’re confident it’s different from similar products on the market
  • Your product is the best option on the market

Success Ingredient #6: Become obsessed with customer research.

Customer research is difficult when you don’t have any customers. If you’re a new DTC brand trying to get off the ground with a prototype, it’s 100% okay to recruit friends and family to act as a makeshift focus group to try your product. 

But you may have to push to get real feedback. When SPANX was in its infancy, Sara Blakely struggled to solicit real, constructive feedback that would help her iterate on her prototype. So she developed two sets of questions to encourage the kind of feedback she needed.

Question set 1: Broad feedback

  • What do you like about this product?
  • What are three things you would change about it?
  • Would you use this?

Question set 2: Deep feedback

  • When would you use this?
  • Would you recommend it to a friend?
  • Could you see this being your first choice compared to similar products that exist on the market? Why?
  • Do you see a need for this?
  • What are my product’s three greatest flaws?

When you do launch and gain customers, never become complacent. Always have processes in place to solicit customer feedback, no matter how large your brand becomes. 

Sara Blakely may not have seen overnight success with SPANX, but she did persist, and she did fail, and she did learn. And if you’re a new DTC brand, you’re already a hero in our eyes. Happy building!