Squeezed by Rivals, Spanx Taps Ashley Graham as Its First Celebrity Ambassador | BoF

After over two decades, Spanx’s products are as synonymous with shapewear as Kleenex’s are with tissues.

But defining a category doesn’t offer immunity from competition. In the last few years, new entrants have aggressively chased Spanx’s business, including celebrity-backed brands like Kim Kardashian’s Skims and more recently, Yitty from Lizzo and Fabletics.

As much name recognition as Spanx has, Kardashian undoubtedly has more. Now, Spanx is looking for some star power of its own, hiring Ashley Graham as its first celebrity ambassador.

In a new campaign, the model and entrepreneur highlights Spanx’s latest innovation, a pair of “silver lining technology” white pants that are meant to be completely opaque, smoothing and shaping the wearer’s legs. On a Los Angeles billboard and in two commercials, Graham will appear “nude,” covered only by the fabric used in the new Spanx pants to prove to consumers just how reliable the product is. Marketing agency Gut, which has created advertisements for brands such as Michelob Ultra and Philadelphia Cream Cheese, produced the campaign.

models wearing white pants

A look at Spanx’s new “silver lining” pants. (Spanx)

Spanx still thinks of itself as the “leaders and innovators within the shapewear category,” said Spanx president Kim Jones. But remaining at the top means fending off the wolves.

“At Spanx, we’re much more focused on our own business and focused on delivering high-quality, innovative products that deliver results for our consumers,” Jones said of competition in the category. “We’re focused on what we do best.”

That best is what Spanx calls “functional fashion” — clothes that solve apparel problems for women, promising products with greater comfort or durability. The strategy is similar to how Skims sells its self-described “solutionwear,” but unlike Skims, Spanx isn’t interested in pushing a constant stream of drops or trend-focused styles.

There are advantages to that approach: Spanx introduces products on a seasonal basis, including everything from bras and underwear to denim and swimsuits, and sells them through a slew of wholesale partners like Nordstrom and Revolve as well as on its own site. Customers can easily find Spanx, but the strategy misses out on the drop approach’s regular, built-in marketing moments.

As the incumbent in the space, brand recognition isn’t an issue — Blackstone managing director Ann Chung said consumer awareness of Spanx is “on par” with Lululemon. Instead, its problem is encouraging new customers to think of Spanx first now that it’s not the only well-known shapewear brand on the market.

“Look, we have a tonne of respect for what Skims, Kim [Kardashian] and the team have done … but I think that we live in a different space,” said Chung. “There are spaces and consumers for different parts of the shapewear market and it’s a big enough market for us all to play.”

Bringing in Blackstone

Spanx launched in 2000 and slowly grew to become synonymous with shapewear products at a time when those products were relegated to the shadowy corners of department stores. Much of the public discourse around Spanx focused on founder Sara Blakely, who became a poster child for female founders and self-made billionaires in the mid-2010s, a predecessor of the so-called “girl boss” era that arrived a few years later. Spanx expanded into categories like denim and apparel in 50 global markets, and by 2012, it reached a quarter of a billion dollars in sales.

In November 2021, Blakely sold a majority stake of Spanx to private equity firm Blackstone for a deal that valued the company at $1.2 billion. (Just three months later and fresh off of a new funding round, Skims was valued at $3.2 billion.) Spanx and Blackstone executives said Spanx’s value largely comes from its high customer retention levels: More than half of revenue comes from repeat purchases, Chung said, while the company has grown 40 percent year-over-year. Its best-selling products include high-rise flare pants, which served as the model for this newest product launch. Jones declined to give Spanx sales figures.

While procurement, supply chain and hiring are all among Blackstone’s areas of focus for Spanx, one of the biggest priorities is reinvigorating the brand itself, which has traditionally handled all of its creative output internally. Last year, Blackstone launched its own brand division and in April 2021, hired veteran brand strategist Jonny Bauer from the firm Droga5 to head up the operation. Spanx is currently looking to hire its first chief brand officer to help build on the foundation the campaign with Graham sets.

“There will be other more brand-centric things coming down the line,” Bauer said. “It’s not necessarily to change anything, but to build on the existing relationship that women have with Spanx.”

To be sure, a successful, long-lasting brand requires more than a celebrity endorsement or backer. In fact, the utter saturation of celebrity brands in fashion and beauty has actually rendered many of them forgettable, particularly when there’s little founder-product fit. Spanx’s advantage is not rooted in celebrity, but levelling the playing field in a category where Kardashians thrive won’t hurt, either.

“Spanx is … a functional fashion company and we don’t want to lose the ‘function’ part, that’s just completely who we are,” Bauer said. “But yes, this [campaign] does add a new layer of fashion connected to it.”

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