If you are an entrepreneurial woman, you know that building a powerful brand is much more than just what you do, it’s how you present what you do to the world that matters. While there are a few who excel at it, the majority of us could use some help, which is where Liz Dennery Sanders comes in. The Founder of SheBrand, Liz is a brand consultant, creative director and stylist, and has worked with everyone from celebrities to fashion brands to help tell their stories. Liz can’t be everywhere at once, but now we can all benefit from her expertise, with the launch of her book, Style & Substance: How To Create a Compelling Brand, which comes out early next week (sign up here to be notified). It’s not just a how-to, but a workbook with chapters meant to help you create a concise brand identity. Even if you’ve done brand work for your business, shouldn’t you constantly re-evaluate? Liz is also a big women’s advocate and believes we need more seats at the table. To get there, we need more women’s success stories, and I think she sees this book as a stepping stone. I’m going to work on my book over my next vacation which is (thankfully) right around the corner. Here Liz shares why women need to stop with the “shiny object syndrome”, how you can get into the book backwards, and why she might be the Imelda Marcos of lip gloss.
Please tell us what you do and how you describe yourself: I help women connect to and use their voice more powerfully. I help women express themselves and their message to their audience in a more compelling way. I work with larger brands as well, differentiating themselves and how do they resonate more powerfully with their target audience, which is usually a female audience.
I do brand exploration work. I do a lot of creative direction, which is really one of the sweet spots for me. I love doing a photo shoot for a look book, building a website, creating beautiful marketing materials and then creating a strategy for marketing. One of the reasons I wrote the book is because I see a lot of women putting the cart before the horse, making the mistake of trying to be out there, doing everything at once and being everything to everyone, as opposed to doing the brand aspiration work first. So, I do a lot of that work, which is sort of an archeological dig of figuring out who am I? What’s my story? What’s the value that I deliver to other people and how can I express myself? What’s my narrative, in a more compelling way? That’s how I spend my days.
What was your path to becoming a brand strategist? In college I had internships—in Boston I worked for Warner Brothers Pictures promoting their films and a female owned entertainment PR agency that worked with restaurants, art galleries and theaters. Then I moved to New York in ’96 and worked at Harper’s Bazaar. That was a foray into working with much larger brands like Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Versace.
Whether it was working at a PR agency, a movie studio or one of the world’s top women’s magazines and eventually my own PR and marketing agency, it was always about who is this brand? What is their ethos? What is the story that they are trying to tell and what is going to make an emotional connection with their consumers?
When did you launch SheBrand? I launched SheBrand at the beginning of 2009. Before, I had my own PR agency, Dennery Marks, for 10 years that I had started in New York and then moved to LA. In 2008 I was feeling pretty unfulfilled with my agency work. I had been doing PR for a really long time and it felt like it had become a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business.
Even though we garnered millions and millions of dollars in press value for clients, and we dressed everybody from Halle Berry to Sharon Stone, to Heidi Klum, it was really more of well you got us in Harper’s Bazaar, now we want to be in Vogue. You got us five million dollars in press value. We want ten. At the time back in 2008 I was really feeling a lot more fulfilled through my philanthropic work. I had worked at Women in Need when I lived out in New York. When I moved out to LA I got involved with Step Up Women’s Network and eventually served on their board. I was working with at risk teen girls and I was mentoring younger professional women. I loved that work. I’ll never forget I was driving home one night from a meeting with a mentee. I had been unhappy in my business for about a year. I had been really struggling to figure out what’s my next step? What am I going to do? The name SheBrand literally downloaded into my head and I had to pull over on the side of the road. It was the most simple, clear message. I still til this day believe it was a universal download.
You know that feeling that you get when the hair stands up on the back of your neck and you get goosebumps all over? That’s what happened to me and everything moved very swiftly after that. I made the decision to downsize my agency, which actually wasn’t that difficult at the time because it was the start of the recession. I kept a small handful of clients because financially it made sense to do that while I built SheBrand. SheBrand started in early 2009.
What do you love most about the work you do now? It’s a couple of things. It’s endless creativity. I have the opportunity to work both with individual women, women like you and like me, small business owners, service professionals, consultants, coaches. I also do work with some very high profile women as well, which is sort of a different challenge in terms of their narrative. Also, larger brands. So there’s always variety. There’s always creativity involved so I love that. I think I got this from the philanthropic work that I was doing. I made that connection of–I love it when a woman has a light bulb go off. I love it when she steps into what’s she supposed to be doing and she feels confident about it. It’s almost like the domino effect.
She gets clear about who she is and why she’s doing the work that she’s doing. She gets clear about who her target audience is. She has a much stronger story and a compelling narrative. She ultimately starts attracting more clients, more opportunities. She becomes more successful and she’s playing a bigger game in the world. That is what we really need right now, more women playing a bigger game.
It does seem like the number of female entrepreneurs is exploding. Why do you think that’s happening? I think there are two reasons. I think number one, there are more resources available today than there ever has been. Everything is figureoutable. There’s Google, the internet and there are apps that can give women the resources they need at very, very low costs. I think number two, the 2016 election was a huge wake up call for everyone but especially for women in seeing, wow, we are so underrepresented. One of my favorite nonprofits, She Should Run, talks about women are 51 percent of the population, but less than 20 percent of seats in government are women. That’s a problem.
But it’s not just politically. It’s everywhere. I think that another reason that women are stepping into building their own businesses and creating their own platforms, is because they realize that they need to take a seat at the table. They need to connect to their voice, what they want to do in the world and they need to play.
I want to get into your book, Style + Substance. Why did you decide to write it? There are tons of books on branding and marketing out there. But I felt like there was no resource that really broke it down into a simple process and that also really focused on the brand foundation, like what you have to do before you go out there and market yourself. Because as I mentioned earlier, I think women are getting whiplashed by bright, shiny object syndrome. There’s a lot of comparison out there. There’s a lot of FOMO going on and so I saw a need for a tool. I wanted to create something that was cost effective, less than $20, that any woman could buy and that would provide a tremendous amount of value. However, I did not start writing it until after the election because that lit a fire under me.
I wrote a piece on SheBrand.com about six months ago called, “Why Anger is Good for Your Brand.” I believe that what happened and what has transpired since has actually helped me get even stronger in my positioning for SheBrand. It has given me an even greater sense of urgency to help women. Obviously I started SheBrand because I wanted to help women connect to their voices and become more successful, whatever that would look like for them. I do believe that having a strong brand equates to having more power–more power in your life, more power over your day to day and more power in the world.
What do you want women to take away from the book? More brand clarity. If you don’t have brand clarity, then your marketing will never work. More of a connection to why they’re doing the work they’re doing and what their mission is. What’s the point? What’s the purpose? What’s their positioning? I think that, that is tremendously key and I also do think that to understand that when they do this, when they step into their power, they are going to be more successful. It’s actually going to be easier to then create a marketing strategy and to have that strategy be effective.
I got the book and immediately thought, “Oh, I have to do this.” But this is the thing, it’s still sitting on my bedside table. How do you suggest women dive in and get to it? To really get somebody to put pen to paper? I’m so glad that you asked this question, because I think it’s very important because things can feel so overwhelming. We’re just inundated with information and how do you know what’s going to be helpful? What’s not? That sort of goes back to what I was saying about women just feeling like they have to be everywhere, be everything to everyone, and that there’s always more to learn, there’s always more to do. I don’t know if you actually got to the conclusion of the book yet, but I actually address that. In the conclusion there’s a section where I say, “If it does feel overwhelming then if all you do is set a timer for 30 minutes and answer these five questions, you will already be on your way to having a more compelling brand. Just these five questions alone will make a huge difference in your clarity about yourself, about your brand, about who your audience is and how to engage with them.”
I list out five specific questions that I think are really crucial. I think the entire book is tremendously helpful. Obviously I wouldn’t have put it out there otherwise, and I think it’s important for a woman to put together a brand handbook if she has a business because I think it’s worth it to take the time to do it. It doesn’t happen overnight and a brand handbook is always evolving. My advice is number one, answer the five questions in the conclusion before you do anything else in the book. If that’s all you do, you will still gain clarity. Number two, I’ve always loved the phrase how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. This is no different. Some people literally will devour the book in one sitting. For most of us that’s not really feasible. A little bit at a time is totally fine.
Great. I can start at the end and work backwards.
Going back to your company, what was the easiest thing for you when you started SheBrand and what was something that was surprisingly difficult? The easiest thing was it was almost like a mission was handed to me. Not to sound too woo, woo, but because it was such a strong, intuitive hit, it was almost the fastest I’ve ever moved on any business project in my entire life. I had an extreme knowing, which we don’t always have. Sometimes we have to take a leap of faith but for me it was knowing “this is it”. I’m so connected to this. This connects to my bigger, personal mission, which is to give more women their voice, to help them connect their voice, to step into their power and to become successful because what we need more than anything right now is more confident, successful women who are going to play a bigger game.
On the flip side of that coin, I think the hardest thing was, and this was the case with my PR agency too, is when you take on your own thing it’s 24/7. I think what was hard for me initially was creating good boundaries. Because I loved my work and really wanted to succeed, I was just constantly doing–working with clients, building a new website, writing more articles, blog posts, submitting guest posts, you name it.
I think that it can be exhausting. Even when you love what you do, you still need time away from it. What I found in that time away—sometimes it was just in the shower or a weekend at the beach, I would get hits of great inspiration. When your nose is to the grindstone, it’s usually not the time that you get your greatest creative, inspirational hits. To be totally candid, I do still struggle with it a little bit because I’m a hard worker. That’s just in my DNA.
One of your attributes that helps you succeed: Tenacity. I don’t give up. I’m really determined. That has certainly gotten me to where I am today and hopefully will continue to get me where I want to go.
What motivates you? Freedom. Not having to answer to a “traditional boss,” or anyone else for that matter. Having my son, wanting to have a good life for him and to be the best mother I can possibly be. He’s a tremendous influence on what motivates me. And in my work, seeing women that need more tools, more support and more resources to make it happen for them from a business perspective and from a success perspective.
To date what do you think has been your biggest success? I think a lot of people from the outside looking in would say you’ve worked with some of the biggest brands in the world from fashion brands like Ralph Lauren or Escada, to well known women like Serena Williams. I actually think my biggest success ties back to the attributes that we were talking about in terms of tenacity and having courage. I moved across the country multiple times. I moved from New Orleans to New York not knowing very many people, and not having a job when I moved and landing at Harper’s Bazaar. Having an incredible experience there, meeting and connecting with incredible people, which ultimately parlayed my work into my agency and has brought me to where I am today. I think my biggest success is the willingness to change it up, pick up and start again. It always lead to the next best thing, the next opportunity, amazing adventures. I know there are more to come.
What has been a dud or a failure and what have you learned from it? I don’t know if I would call it a failure but I definitely would call it a lesson. I worked in the last couple of years with a female-driven brand marketing to women, but that ultimately was led by a man. This man really pushed everyone around. Everyone that worked for him, myself included, was a woman. He just was not a great individual in terms of his leadership style or lack thereof. I watched in horror as did some of the girls on my team who were brought on to work on the project with how this man treated other women. I think the dud piece of it was that I stayed on. Some people might say six months is not a very long time but I probably should have stepped away sooner.
We let them go as a client because that is not how we operate or want to operate. We would have loved to have changed that culture but that was not our role. I think it was sometimes you have to walk away from what’s not working. It’s not just about a paycheck.
Role models: When I am facing a decision on something or something that is a little bit difficult, I always ask myself what would Michelle Obama do? I call it my WWMOD. I personally can’t find anything wrong with Michelle. She is smart. She is gracious. She handles everything with integrity. She has a great sense of humor. She’s a great orator…the list goes on.
Best career advice you have received or would give to somebody starting out: I read this in a book back when I still had my PR agency. It was sort of towards the end in the last couple of years when I was starting to feel the rumblings of wanting something else. I cannot remember what book it was but the statement was something to the effect of, “Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you should be doing it.” I remember I was reading it in bed and I sat straight up in bed. I was like, “Oh my God. That is so true.” There are a lot of people that talk about that. Marcus Buckingham with Now Discover Your Strengths. There are a lot of books out today that talk about your genius work versus your competent work. Women are so multifaceted and dynamic. There’s so many things that we could be doing that we’d be very good at, but it doesn’t mean that we should be doing them.
I think my advice for women today is it’s not just about what you’re good at, it’s about what lights your fire. What creates flow for you? What do you feel passionate about? And really asking those questions of yourself. Otherwise, we can get trapped for years, if not forever, doing work that we’re good at but that we don’t really truly love. I think that’s a big one.
Three words that describe SheBrand: Smart, stylish and badass. It’s one of the pieces behind Style & Substance. I’m a big, big fan of the ampersand, of the word “and”. I think it’s one of the most powerful words in the English language. I love to tease out a little bit of the contradictions….I can love fashion and politics. I can love Fendi and feminism. You can also have a very stylish brand and throw in a few four letter words as well. That’s okay. Your right audience is going to find you and appreciate you no matter what. You don’t need to be everything to everyone.
Three words that describe you: Intelligent, gracious, feminist. That third one has really come to play a lot more in last years. People have asked me because they’ve said, “You’ve become more polarizing because you have aired your views on the regular. You’ve used your business to do that,” and that’s my choice. I feel very strongly that the more we can share ourselves and be, and I feel like this word is over used but true, the more authentic we are, the more vulnerable and transparent we are with the people that we serve, the stronger the emotional connection is that we make. That’s key.
Life goals: Number one life goal for me is to be the best mom that I can possibly be. I adopted my son almost five years ago. He is just one of the biggest lights of my life and I learn so much from him. It’s also one of the hardest things I’ve ever done too.
Another big life goal for me is to build something that will have a lasting impact on women and serve women. I am pretty big into legacy and asking ourselves early on what do I want my legacy to be? How do I want to serve? How do I want to make a difference? As cliché as that sounds, coming into SheBrand in the last eight years and working with so many women has made me realize, wow, I just want to do as much as I can while I’m here and enjoy it too.
That kind of brings me to the third piece, which is if I had a tombstone … which I won’t. If I did I would want it to say, “While she was here she lived,” because I think there are a lot of people who are walking around complaining, who are in a scarcity mentality and focus on the negative. We have a lot of victimization going on, right?
It’s first world problems. I think people tend to focus on what’s not working instead of what is working. There’s such a big proponent of what do I have to be grateful for? What can I appreciate in my life today? As cheesy as that might sound, I’m a big fan of how do we manage our minds? I think there’s a statistic that 98 percent of the thoughts that we have today, we also had yesterday and they’re total crap. We have these tapes that play over and over again. Things that we got in childhood, from experiences, so on and so forth but we have a choice. We have a choice to be aware that, that’s happening and then we have a choice to choose a better thought. I’m always looking for the better thought.
Daily goals: Very similar. To appreciate more. I’m a big proponent of extreme presence and especially with a child, it’s so important. He teaches me that. Then when I’m in my office and I’m working on something I’m present to that. And appreciating more, even just the little things.
I was able to have a hot shower this morning and it felt good. I was able to bring my son to school, walk him in and see his excitement at seeing all his friends. This sounds very Oprah-esque, but the more that we can really look at those things, I think that the quality of our life improves on the daily.
How do you unplug? I meditate in the morning. It’s not every day. I tend to go through periods where I’m doing it for a couple of months and then I might have a couple of weeks that I just don’t get to it. It’s short. Most mornings it’s five minutes. I also do Pilates pretty regularly. I have to admit a great bottle of red wine with a couple of girlfriends is definitely on that list. I have a couple of local places that are like second living rooms, where we’ll go order a bottle of wine, decompress, share stories of the week. It really makes a difference.
Hidden talent/hobbies: Lots of people don’t know it but I’m actually a pretty good singer. I aspired to be Michelle Pfeiffer in, “The Fabulous Baker Boys.” This is going way back in college years and just post college, singing in a couple of Speakeasys and that kind of thing. I don’t really get to do it as much today. I’ll sing in the shower and I definitely sing in the car. In a place like LA where you’re surrounded by other people in their cars, I am jamming out and singing. They must think “who is that crazy chick”?
Do you collect anything? Quotes and books. I’m a huge fan of language. I always have a new book or two every month. And I have lists of famous quotes.
I also collect lip glosses. Imelda Marcos collected shoes, I probably have a hundred different lip glosses. The Chanel Glossimers are pretty awesome and I do love Glossier’s new Balm dotcoms. I also collect gold rings, you’ll rarely see me without at least a dozen on my fingers. Many are quite sentimental, including one that belonged to my 95-year-old auntie, who passed away a few years ago.
Inspirational/Motivational Read: One of my favorites is The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. I gift it a lot. I highly recommend it for any creative individual.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: A birthday trip in 2015 to Positano with girlfriends, and again in 2017 to a castle in Scotland, followed by a few days in Paris.
Favorite small indulgence: It’s tie between Diptyque Lait Frais body lotion and a daily piece of sea salt dark chocolate.
Scent that brings back memories: Houbigant’s Quelque Fleurs–it’s too strong for me now, but I wore it in my 20’s and early 30’s while living in New Orleans and then NYC. Let’s just say I had a really good time. 🙂
Lucky charm: My son Jack.
Favorite hour of the day: Dusk.
Follow Liz: Instagram.