What Spanx teaches us about innovation
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Posted by: Barbara Francella
By Bridget Brennan
I had a deep thought while packing a pair of Spanx into my suitcase the other day,
preparing to speak at a conference on the topic of women consumers.
For the three people reading this who don’t know about Spanx,
it’s the enthusiastically named "shapewear” product line that’s reinvented the
category your grandmother used to call "girdles.” Except that Spanx are to
girdles what iPads are to mainframe computers: they’re sleek, modern, ingenious
and hard to live without ― at least, once you’ve gotten used to them.
Spanx founder Sara Blakely addressed
the NEW Leadership Summit in 2009, and last year Forbes crowned her the world’s
youngest self-made female billionaire at age 41. You probably had the same
thought I did. Spanx is a relatively simple product that answered a huge unmet
need in the marketplace. It’s a company valued at $1 billion…so why wasn’t it
invented by a big brand?
Conventional wisdom would say Spanx should have been created
by one of the giants in the hosiery, lingerie or apparel industries. Instead,
it was dreamed up by Ms. Blakely, a former fax machine salesperson who toiled
away at the idea while working at her day job. I once saw Ms. Blakely speak at
a business conference and she was charming and self-deprecating, radiating
youth and feminine energy. She had the audience howling as she recounted ―
hilariously — just how often she heard the word "No” and was laughed out of
offices as she tried to get her idea for "footless pantyhose” to be taken
Whose bright idea?
Let’s be frank: It can be hard to get a female-focused
product idea off the ground, even when it’s not as overtly feminine as a pair
of Spanx. As enlightened as we are, most things that are feminine are still not
considered "cool” in the masculine culture of corporations. This culture gap
between the masculine and feminine can stifle innovation, because both men and
women may feel self-conscious advocating an idea ― or sometimes even an opinion
— rooted in the female point of view. It
begs the question: How open is the culture of your own organization when it
comes to gender and innovation?
It’s an important issue for two reasons. First, women drive
the majority of consumer purchases, and thus are responsible for the fortunes
of most consumer businesses. Yet they remain underrepresented in senior
management, where many if not most strategic decisions are made. Second, there
are societal issues at work. Men are under pressure to be viewed as masculine
by peers and colleagues. From early childhood onward, boys learn to reject anything
pink or feminine, to avoid the possibility of peer disapproval or ridicule.
The pressure to be masculine stays with men for about the
first four decades of life, and gradually eases up as they get older. This can
make it difficult for some men to advocate and defend a female-centric product
idea in the workplace, without the worry of looking "ridiculous.”
And the pressure isn’t only on men. Many women also feel
uncomfortable advocating a female point of view, because they feel pressure to
prove they are no different from their male colleagues. The decades that women
have spent proving they are equal to men has sometimes led to the mistaken idea
that women must prove they are the same as men. Any successful innovator knows
that different is glorious, different is fantastic, different is where the
A reluctance to embrace gender differences within corporate
walls can be stifling to innovation, particularly in large companies.
This is why we often see breakthrough new products coming
from entrepreneurs ― both male and female. By definition, peer pressure is less
or non-existent for an entrepreneur. This can make it easier to come up with
the next Method or Pinterest or Spanx or even Facebook, which trades in the
currency of shared feelings, thoughts and pictures.
It’s worth examining in your own business: Is your corporate
culture open enough to innovate for women, the world’s most powerful consumers?
Think like an entrepreneur and try to eliminate gender as a
blind spot for innovation. You never
know where it might lead. Haven’t you heard? Spanx now makes products for men.
Bridget Brennan is the
author of Why She Buys and
founder of Female Factor, which offers strategies for marketing and selling to
women.Follow Bridget at twitter.com/bridgetbrennan
or email her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first
appeared on Forbes.com.
Views expressed in
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