Secret Marketing Ingredient: Making Spanx a Household Name

A serious approach to branding and sales is not always best. At Spanx, it’s all about the humor.

In her early career as a door-to-door salesperson, Spanx Founder, Sara Blakely could have taken rejection to heart like many salespeople. Instead, she taught herself to lighten up her sales approach with a well-placed joke or humorous comment. What she discovered was that interjecting humor into her sales conversations bought her an extra 30-seconds of their time. In that 30-seconds she could change the direction of her sales approach to win over a greater number of prospects, or at least have a few laughs.

Blakely’s introduction to the power of humor began at the kitchen dinner table alongside her father. Each night he would ask her how she failed that day. Met with high fives, laughter, and celebration for each incident, Blakely learned that approaching failure with humor and pride abolished any fear of moving forward to try again. Each setback was viewed as a lesson to build upon. “If you can laugh about it, you can learn from it,” Blakely says. To her, failure became not trying, instead of defined by the outcome.

Later on Blakely didn’t know the rules as a young entrepreneur which, in retrospect, she considers a benefit. She may have been naïve about proper protocol when it came to approaching department store buyers, but she did know that a novel, light-hearted approach to marketing could give her a leg up. Targeting a buyer at Neiman Marcus Blakely packed a single high heel inside of a shoebox and crafted a handwritten note that read: “Just trying to get my foot in the door. Can I have a few minutes of your time?” The buyer eventually conceded and gave Blakely ten-minutes of her time, beginning the upward sales trajectory of a company with a silly name: Spanx.

That name evolved from conversations with friends in the world of comedy where Blakely had served a brief stint doing stand-up. Reminded of a little trade secret that for some reason an audience finds the sound of the letter “k” worthy of a chuckle or two, she converted a “ks” to an “x” and found a winning name for her brand. “It made people laugh,” she says. She then chose to package with an equal amount of humor.  “Don’t worry. We’ve got your butt covered,” was right on the front panel. Before long, celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Roberts were announcing to the world that they wore Spanx. “I think it’s because I chose to do humor and people wanted to participate in that,” says Blakely.

Entrepreneurs need to be bold. 

A trial run at Neiman Marcus wasn’t taken lightly by the fun-loving entrepreneur. Her product was displayed in a dead zone, in the back corner of the store where no one seemed to venture. Taking matters into her own hands, Blakely purchased desktop dividers and filled them with Spanx. She then placed the dividers at every register around the store. She must have acted with quite a bit of authority because no one questioned her. By the time management realized that no one had approved the displays they weren’t about to challenge them, because Spanx was selling so well. The head of Neiman’s said, “Whatever this girl’s doing, let her keep doing it.” 

As Spanx grew, humor did not get left behind.

With humor being one of her top values, Blakely has built a culture that embraces and encourages funniness. There are the “oops meetings,” fashioned much like her family dinner table conversations. Employees are encouraged to bring levity to the table as they talk about a mistake or failure. Blakely believes that the fear of embarrassment holds power over us, so by intentionally embarrassing one’s self (in a light-hearted way), the fear loses its power. “If you can create a culture where [your employees] are not terrified to fail or make a mistake, then they’re going to be highly productive and more innovative,” she says.

How are you at standup?

Want to try your hand at comedy? Get a job at Spanx. You’ll be required to go through a training boot camp which includes doing standup. Blakely does not believe that you need to be serious to be taken seriously; performing standup pushes people beyond their serious zones. 

By now, I believe most entrepreneurs understand that failure does not define you, nor should it stop you from learning a valuable lesson and moving forward. But, are you able to laugh at yourself? Do you encourage your employees to keep innovating without fear getting in the way? Humor helps us to avoid over-complicating things, it’s a great ice breaker, and it lowers stress. How can you introduce a little bit more fun into your company culture? 

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