Be trustworthy. It really is the old adage, “treat others as you’d like to be treated”. Listen, we’re not all perfect, but we can strive to do the right thing. I remember brainstorming ideas in notebooks about how I wanted the company to look like. Scrapping entire ideas was necessary, because in the end I didn’t want to compromise on how our garments were made.
As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Michèle Jochem Yunus. The German-born designer graduated in 2012 from FH Kaiserslautern, Germany with a Bachelor’s in Textile Engineering. Before moving to Los Angeles in 2014, Michèle worked in Quality Assurance for Hohenstein Institute, a company renowned in Germany for specializing in textile testing. In 2017, she was inspired by her Muslim friends to start designing a hijab-friendly activewear line and decided to create LEIA. Michèle’s first line for LEIA combines her technical knowledge about fabrics with her passion for innovative design. The signature style of LEIA is described as classy and versatile while being highly functional. All pieces are designed and made in Los Angeles.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Michèle! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve always been interested in Design and Fashion, and I was working as a Textile Engineer in Germany before moving to LA. While I enjoyed the technical part of it, I realized that the creative part was missing.
I wanted to design something innovative, something that fulfills a need, that’s meaningful and helps people. Some of my friends who choose to cover their hair told me about the lack of hijab-friendly activewear.
They definitely inspired me to create my first modest activewear line.
After moving to Los Angeles, I bought myself a sewing machine and started to design some prototypes. From the early stages, my friends provided me with some valuable feedback and helped me in refining the pieces. I was working a 9 to 5 at the time, so every free minute I spent on designing and prototyping. Soon, I found an amazing design co-working space called Sew FYI in Downtown LA, and that’s when things really started to come together.
Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The most basic marketing mistake was understanding formats for Instagram and Facebook. I would upload videos multiple times only to find out the length was too long or the video was in the wrong format. The biggest takeaway was really figuring out how to present Leia in a way that looked professional and kept the audience engaged. For instance, I had my Kickstarter video that was over 3 mins long, but I couldn’t upload the full length of the video (this was before IGTV). I had to make interesting edits for posts and stories. We made freeze frames from the video that could be used as photos. The core lesson was that we could take 1 piece of content and use it 7 different ways.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think what sets us apart from other brands aside from our unique styling, is our commitment to empowering women who want to wear something that aligns with their values. I think those values have to go beyond what the brand represents, but also how the company is built from the ground up: the materials and how our workers are treated. We’re a startup, but I’m really looking to build something special. To me, Leia isn’t just a modest fashion brand, it’s a movement. I want women who wear hijab to feel a sense of community when they see our logo, that we quite literally have their back. I’m excited to get more content out there that features hijab wearing women, but also women of all shapes and sizes.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I have so many new ideas and design concepts that I’d love to bring out into the world, but at this early stage we’re more focused on getting our existing products out there and building brand awareness and visibility. There’s definitely more exciting stuff in the making that I’m hoping to roll out in the near future.
Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?
Great question. For me, what it came down to was how do I want people to feel when they see our product, whether that was self-empowerment or motivation to change their lives through exercising (branding), and how clear I was being about how the product’s technical elements could help the customer with their goal of working out. The imagery had to be clear about what made our garments different from the competition (advertising). The truth is, sometimes when it came to “branding” it would be 20% technical and 80% emotional, so branding and advertising wouldn’t be mutually exclusive per se. I never had the goal of trying to “sell” someone, it was more about how I could help people through my products.
Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?
Investing energy into your brand building is key. Brand building means telling your unique story. For me at least, I wanted to create something that would help women feel more comfortable and fashionable in modest activewear.
I wanted these particular women to feel like what they wore was top quality and looked cool. I know for me, it’s incredible the transformation your mind goes through when you wear the right clothes. You perform better. That’s why in our storytelling I thought of everything from the video to stills to the website experience, it just has to look and feel cutting edge — fashionable and functional design being the centerpiece. I also wanted to show that this brand was for every woman of every size and shape. Building a brand around ideas and solutions that you’re passionate about is probably the most important thing you can do.
Can you share 5 strategies that a small company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.
1. Be trustworthy. It really is the old adage, “treat others as you’d like to be treated”. Listen, we’re not all perfect, but we can strive to do the right thing. I remember brainstorming ideas in notebooks about how I wanted the company to look like. Scrapping entire ideas was necessary, because in the end I didn’t want to compromise on how our garments were made.
2. Assume positive intent. Everyone I meet, I see them as potential life-long friends. That might not always be the case, but it sets the tone for how I interact with others. We’ve worked with our same design and pattern making studio, Sew FYI, since the beginning. It feels good to see each other grow.
3. Be kind. There has never been an instance where being kind to everyone you interact with has hurt the business.
4. “Dream big. Start small. Act fast.” Not sure where the quote originated, but in my personal experience I’ve never fully understood what I was doing. I just had an idea and from there I googled and watched YouTube videos to figure out the next step.
5. Patience. This is not my strength, but I’ve realized that you can’t and won’t be able to do everything overnight.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
I’m a huge fan of brands like Reformation, Sézane, and Everlane. I love their efforts towards
transparency and ethical business practices. Those are brands I really look up to, and they have been a big inspiration for Leia. I’m specifically impressed with their beautiful designs and high-quality fabrics they’re using.
I think it’s important to define those core values first before starting to develop products.
In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?
It has definitely been a different process for us, especially because the process of building the brand wasn’t directly correlated with sales, at least in the beginning. I felt that initial wave of brand success when women from all over the world contacted us and were excited about our designs. It was something they’ve been waiting for for a long time.
The number of engagement plays a big role but how that ultimately converts to sales is an important measure too.
We’re using tools like Google Analytics and analytics from our social media platforms to help us understand our market and marketing strategies.
What role does social media play in your branding efforts?
Social media is huge for us. I don’t think Leia would be possible without it. Especially with Instagram, we attract a younger crowd that is on the forefront of technology and forward thinking — and that’s exactly what our brand is about. The communication is so immediate and gratifying. As soon as we post an image or video, the response is immediate, so we know how much or how little people enjoy our content. The opportunity to post polls has boosted interaction and people really seem to respond to the brand.
What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
In an ideal world, and this is something I struggle with, scheduling has become an important part of avoiding burnout. Batching communications and responses turns out to be more efficient and helps me keep my sanity. Planning your marketing strategy ahead of time is also key. It allows for you to make adjustments if circumstances change.
I think it’s important to take frequent short breaks — this is a reminder for myself as well. When you do take breaks, try to get away from technology. For instance, I go on walks around our neighborhood a couple times a day. It’s nice to be outside, breathe in fresh air, and kind of just decompress for a little bit, even if it’s just for 10 minutes.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I could inspire a movement it would be to spread kindness and compassion. Too often we’re consumed by how all of us are different. If we all make an effort to learn about one another and accept and respect each other, it’ll make life a bit easier for the whole planet.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t ever, for any reason, do anything to anyone for any reason ever, no matter what, no matter where, or who, or who you are with, or where you are going, or where you’ve been… ever, for any reason whatsoever…”
-Michael Scott, The Office
Sorry, I’ve been watching too much of The Office in my free time recently. But all joking side, there’s one quote that has really been resonating with me throughout my journey of building this brand.
“Everything is figureoutable.” -Marie Forleo.
When starting a brand/ business from scratch, you’ll find yourself in situations where you’re unsure of what the next steps might be and how the outcome is going to look like.
You might not have the solution right away and you might feel lost, but if you take it step by step and put in daily consistent effort, you’ll eventually figure it out, even if that means you might fail and have to start over again.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Absolutely! There’s actually several. I’d love to meet Yael Aflalo (Reformation), Morgane Sezalory (Sézane), and Michael Preysman (Everlane).
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.