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Finding Your Leg Up With a Niche Product

Sara Blakely, Founder and Owner, Spanx, Inc.

Entrepreneurs find their inspiration in the strangest places. My lightening bolt came from rampant visible panty lines and uncomfortable thongs.

One night I wanted to wear my cream pants with open-toed shoes, but I couldn’t find the right undergarment. Everything I tried gave me panty lines and additional lumps and bumps. Out of frustration, I cut the feet out of my control top pantyhose. It was the perfect solution, except that the hose rolled up my legs all night. I searched for footless pantyhose in stores, but everyone had the same response, "No, we don't have anything like that, but what a great idea. If you find them, let us know." That's when frustration turned into inspiration, and in 2000, with $5,000 in savings, the brand SPANX and the company Spanx, Inc. were born.

What started as an idea for footless pantyhose soon grew legs of its own. My footless pantyhose idea evolved into a super niche product category: new-and-improved and comfortable footless pantyhose with super control and body-shaping support. Starting a company with such a niche product required that I find unique marketing tactics to get my product onto shelves and into shopping bags. Marketing body-shaping pantyhose is extremely niche to the hosiery department, since body shapers are typically found in the intimates department. So my challenge was to find a way to get my brand and niche products noticed and sold among a sea of established and well-known hosiery brands.

How did I find my leg up against the big brands? My story shows five key areas essential to selling your product in an entrenched mass market, even on a start-up budget.

The Spanx Challenge

It took me two years to design and perfect my product and get SPANX Original Footless pantyhose manufactured. But that time enabled me to make the calculated decisions that determined my success as a niche product in the massive industry of retailing. In an effort to compete against “the big boys,” I carefully considered how I would name my company, position the brand, and design the packaging so that it would get noticed and purchased. I knew nothing about the retail business outside of the fact that I was a consumer who loved to shop, and I wanted SPANX footless pantyhose to be in the stores I loved.

I cold-called and landed all of the top high-end retailers in the country – Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bloomindales. Starting a business out of the back of my apartment certainly had its shipping challenges, inventory nightmares, and all-nighters. But just three years later, I have a team of 20 employees, a line of 16 products and counting, international distribution to fine department stores and boutiques, and retail sales of $31 million – a small, but rapidly growing, share of the $2 billion hosiery industry.

Determined to remain self-funded from the start, I had to find inexpensive and effective forms of marketing that would make my $5,000 personal investment go the farthest. The challenge was building national distribution from the start without having a budget for advertising to build national demand. Facing this challenge not only helped with the initial product launch; even as SPANX grows and expands its team and its product line, our grassroots marketing tactics continue to help us differentiate our specialty brand from the mass-market hosiery brands.

It’s All in the Name

Many entrepreneurs take the process of naming their brand very lightly. In the retail world, giving your specialty brand a memorable, funny, or whimsical name can be the key to getting your product on the shelf. When I was trying to find the right name for my brand, I put the potential names to the test.

I knew that Kodak and Coca-Cola are the two most recognized names in the world, and they both have a predominant "K" sound in them. Also, from doing stand-up comedy, it is a known secret that the "K" sound makes people laugh. So for good luck, I wanted my product's name to have the "K" sound in it, and SPANKS hit me like a lightning bolt. I immediately knew it was perfect! At the last minute, I changed the KS to an X after doing research that showed made-up words do better for products than real words (and are easier to trademark).

The SPANX brand is edgy, fun, extremely catchy, and it makes your mind wander for a moment. I gave my brand an edgy name knowing that the name would be my key to getting free exposure through PR. Giving radio DJs and TV anchors fuel for witty banter and plays on words opened many studio doors and airwaves to my products and my story. How many other pantyhose companies get regularly interviewed by top radio stations all over the country?

Give Your Packaging Legs of Its Own

Before I invented footless pantyhose, I visited every hosiery department I could find to see if my product already existed. The industry at the time was in a 10-year slump, and from the look of the hosiery departments, it was easy to see why. Every department was a sea of drab-colored packaging and boring displays. I knew if I wanted my product to sell, it had to not only get noticed; it needed to jump off the shelves and beg to be purchased, so I developed packaging that defied the industry conventions.

Everything about SPANX packaging is different, from its bright red color to its honest woman-to-woman motto, “Don’t worry…we’ve got your butt covered.” Even though upscale department stores are typically very conservative, I was not afraid to do something shocking to get my product noticed. I knew that women would love to have products that are honest, funny, and solution-oriented. Our department stores are huge fans -- many claim SPANX products revitalized the hosiery department and the industry.

As we create packaging, we make sure to illustrate the unique benefits and solution-oriented innovations of each product. We make some amazing promises to our customers – like “no binding waistband or leg band” and “sooo comfortable you forget you have them on” – and we back up these promises with high-quality products.

Today, every product we create must have a name and packaging that’s creative and funny enough to get noticed among fixtures full of our own brand. Spanx is no longer just a footless pantyhose company. We make products like Power Panties, Topless socks, an all-hosiery bra called Bra-llelujah, and Laundry Lovin’, an aromatherapy laundry detergent, just to name a few.

We are constantly inventing new products and shocking the industry, which strengthens our position as a niche player in a mass industry. We have an innovation in every new product we create. We aren't afraid to invade other departments of the stores with our bold, edgy specialty brand. For example, this spring we are launching a full line of body-shaping apparel called Slim-X.

Put the Words in Their Mouths

After I finally had my footless pantyhose product in hand, I called friends all over the country and told them to go to stores and talk up SPANX pantyhose to the store clerks and other shoppers. I also made a key decision to give product away to trend-setting people, from fashionable friends to society partygoers and Oprah, and I asked them to spread the word.

I hit the streets -- calling and visiting major department store buyers, telling everyone I knew to buy a pair (I even agreed to reimburse some friends), and standing in high-traffic areas of stores telling customers why they couldn't live without SPANX products. Today, one of our best methods for selling our products and getting new customers is to hold SPANX days, in-store promotions with our own sales people, much like the ones I did in the beginning. These promotional activities have plenty of consumer appeal, but they also show our department store buyers that as a company, we are committed to increasing our sales.

My first appointment with a buyer taught me an important lesson: that people needed to see exactly how my product would transform their appearance. I took the buyer to the ladies room, and did my own personal “before and after” demonstration. Today we provide department store and boutique sales staff before and after pictures, and we use these pictures in our marketing collateral. We sell SPANX products on QVC, a television shopping channel, and when we started showing the before and after pictures on television, we noticed an immediate increase in sales.

Make Friends With the Media

Building national distribution is only half of the formula when getting exposure for a specialty brand. With a strong sales background, I was able to get my foot in the door and convince buyers that they needed my product in their departments and boutiques. The flip side is that I needed to create national consumer demand — again without advertising. My friends and I began calling newspapers, magazines, and TV stations, and we were able to get SPANX footless pantyhose significant coverage in the media.

I learned the value of PR early. In my spree to give away SPANX products to influential people, I sent samples to Oprah Winfrey. Just three months after I sold my footless pantyhose to the stores, Oprah decided to make SPANX Original Footless Pantyhose part of her “Oprah’s Favorite Things” list in 2000. Within the first 24 hours after the show aired, online sales of SPANX pantyhose totaled $30,000, and in three months, we sold 50,000 pair of footless pantyhose from the back of my apartment. The instant credibility opened doors everywhere. Suddenly, buyers wanted my product, fashion magazines were calling for interviews and samples, and vendors wanted my business.

Most entrepreneurs don’t want to spend money on public relations in the early stages of a niche business. For me, having a PR position from the start was a priority. If you have a story to tell (and make sure that you do!), then PR can be the most credible way to tell it. It’s more believable and informative than advertising, and it’s definitely less expensive. And it can give you the national exposure that you need to drive consumers to your products in the stores. Most department stores expect brands to advertise, but with good, consistent PR coverage that mentions the stores your product is in and sends customers their way, you can make your distributors very happy.

It has been a dream come true to see my specialty products and inventions featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The View, The Other Half, CNN, CNBC, and Style Network, as well as in the pages of Forbes, Fortune, People, Entrepreneur, InStyle, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Glamour, Essence, Self, O, Oprah magazine, and USA Today. Word of mouth is very powerful. SPANX is an international brand now because our customers and the media have spread the word about a specialty product!

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