Consistency is key. People trust companies (and people) who do what they say they’ll do, when they say they’ll do it. Follow through on your promises. Revisit your values and mission regularly and do a quick evaluation — ask yourself, are these values and mission still shining through in our brand messaging and our services/products? If not, consider updating your values and mission (brands can evolve!) or update your messaging and services/products to get back into alignment with your original vision.
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Very Successful Lifestyle Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julia Sokol, founder and CEO of SassClass, a dance studio empowering women to unleash their feminine expression, and xixi, a creative community space for women in NYC. Julia strongly believes in the power of sisterhood/community, free-spirited playfulness, and creative expression and is honored to support those values through both of her businesses. Prior to starting SassClass & xixi, Julia had a 7+ year career in digital marketing and data analytics, most recently as a Director of Digital Analytics at Carat. She is passionate about self-development, dancing, and adventuring. She usually steps off the beaten path and challenges the status-quo and she’s committed to leading an extraordinary life and helping others do the same!
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I was born in Manhattan and raised in a middle-class suburb in New Jersey. My parents are immigrants from the former Soviet Union — they came here in the early 80s with nothing and had to start their lives over from scratch. I think in a large part due to their life experiences, they take a very risk-averse approach to life. They encouraged me to take a standard path in life — do well in school, go to a good college, get a good job, work my way up the corporate ladder, etc. I started down this path, but I wasn’t fulfilled. In my mid-20s I decided to listen to my heart above all else and I quit my six-figure corporate career without any idea what I was going to do next.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
Dance has always been my main hobby and passion throughout my life. It was the one activity that nobody had to push me to do — I naturally gravitated towards it and was happy to put my time and energy into dancing, choreographing, and performing in shows. When I quit my corporate career, I embarked on a solo travel journey with no itinerary. I followed my gut and that took me halfway across the world and back. In that time I really got clear on the things that matter to me. Among these things is self-expression and community. Once I got back to NYC, I joined a self-development program called Landmark and in this program we were encouraged to step into our leadership and create a project that would positively impact a community of our choice. I decided to combine my love for dance, self-expression, and community and the result was a dance program designed for women with little-to-no dance experience to be able to access the joy and benefits of dance. It was meant to be a one-time thing but the response was so overwhelmingly positive that I decided, as long as the demand is there, I’ll keep launching programs. Here I am five years later with a team of Instructors, videographers, editors, and our own studio space in Midtown Manhattan!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In the very early days, before I even considered my project a business, I had begun unofficially referring to it with a name that I thought was very clever and cute. However, I didn’t actually Google the name to see if it was being used — I thought it was so unique, surely nobody else has come up with this! Turns out, I was wrong. Not only was the name being used, it was actually the name of another (at the time quite small, so it wasn’t on my radar) dance studio in New York City that had been around for almost 10 years. Thankfully I caught this very early on before I began referring to my classes publicly with this name!
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Most recently, I really enjoyed reading “Billion Dollar Loser” which is a book focused on Adam Neumann — the founder of WeWork. It’s a fascinating tale of the rise and “fall” of WeWork. I love reading stories about founders and how they grew their companies. This book in particular really illuminates how “success” can be so dependent on the founder and his/her ability to be charismatic, charming, and get investors as well as employees to buy into their grand vision — even if it’s built on a shaky foundation. I think it’s fascinating.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Take the leap and build your wings on the way down.” I’ve learned that you can’t wait until you feel ready for something or you may be waiting forever — you just have to go for it, and trust that you will find a way to make it work. It’s with this philosophy that I’ve been able to launch my business, every new offering that we have created along the way, and more. The feeling of not being ready has become a feeling I am used to, and I take action despite it, because I trust that I will “build my winds” once I take the leap.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, let’s define our terms. How do you define a Lifestyle Brand? How is a Lifestyle Brand different from a normal, typical brand?
A lifestyle brand is much more than a simple product or service. A lifestyle brand can be recognized by the way it makes you feel — everything about the brand aligns with a set of values that the brand is built to support. These values come through in the brand’s essence across all channels and stages of interacting with the brand.
What are the benefits of creating a lifestyle brand?
Lifestyle brands are values-driven and as such I believe they have the most potential to have a strong positive impact on groups of people. I also think that when a brand is created from a specific set of values, the right consumers whose values align will gravitate towards the product or service and from this phenomena, community will naturally form.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved Lifestyle Brand? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
One of my aspirational brands is 305 Fitness. They’re still a pretty young company and have seen tremendous success under a very talented, creative founder who is a female millennial like me. What specifically impresses me is how unapologetically the brand represents its values throughout every single channel — whether it’s a confirmation email for a class, an Instagram post, a paid advertisement, an in-studio experience, and the brand is true to its core values and identity and it’s unmistakable. To replicate that, I think the team behind a brand need to get extremely clear on the values and mission of the business. From there, every aspect of the business should be thoughtfully-planned to ensure that it fully embodies these values and mission.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a lifestyle brand that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
I’m a big believer in the strength of niche branding. You don’t want to be the brand that caters to “everybody” because then, you’re really catering to nobody. If you’re the founder of the business and are just starting out, you have to really think about what you want this brand to be, what values you want it to uphold, and what mission you want it to serve. Be honest and true to yourself as you define those — don’t judge whatever comes up for you, even if you think it’s too specific or too niche. If you are into it, then trust me, your community is out there looking for it too! Once you have those solidly-defined, build the rest of the brand strategy and go-to-market strategy from there.
What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a lifestyle brand? What can be done to avoid those errors?
As mentioned above, I think a common mistake is trying to cater to everyone. This approach will result in an undefined, overly generic brand that doesn’t have enough of a personality and culture to succeed.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a lifestyle brand that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
I’d invest in a brand strategy coach at least for an initial in-depth consultation (about 3 hours). They’ll ask you the right questions to get you clear on your vision, and they’ll help extract the gold out of what comes up. This will really help you define your brand values, mission, voice, and more, and it will be a very strong starting point as you build your business.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Very Successful Lifestyle Brand” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Get clear on your brand values and mission. These will act as your guiding light and keep your brand on track as you grow.
- Make sure your brand values and mission inspire you. Often your brand’s values may overlap with some of your own personal values as the founder of the brand. If your values and mission don’t light you up and excite you, then it may only be a matter of time before you decide the hard work (and it WILL be hard) of growing a company isn’t worth it, since you’re not passionate about the purpose you’re serving in the world.
- Don’t be afraid to be niche! If you try to appeal to everyone, you’ll end up appealing to nobody. Own your brand’s values, voice, culture and trust that the right people will find you! It may take time, but stay true to it, because once the right customer finds you, they’ll immediately know you’re the right brand for them.
- Ensure that your team is clear on your brand’s values and mission. Incorporate a brand overview into your training process for new employees. To keep your lifestyle brand going, everyone who is a part of it must be on the same page about what you stand for.
- Consistency is key. People trust companies (and people) who do what they say they’ll do, when they say they’ll do it. Follow through on your promises. Revisit your values and mission regularly and do a quick evaluation — ask yourself, are these values and mission still shining through in our brand messaging and our services/products? If not, consider updating your values and mission (brands can evolve!) or update your messaging and services/products to get back into alignment with your original vision.
Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are an inspiration to a great many people. 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.
I think that there’s a lot of work to be done in the relations between men and women, and between feminine and masculine energy. A lot of women are walking around with resentment towards men and the masculine — because of thousands of years of oppression — which is understandable, but this isn’t the way towards progress. This can cause men to suppress their inherently masculine qualities and energy because they feel that they’re bad or wrong. There’s resentment and fear on both sides, and the ways we’re dealing with this now are not working and are not setting us up for success in the future or in our romantic relationships.. I’m reading a great book about this now called “Prerequisites to Ecstasy” by Om Rupani.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I’d love to have lunch with Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.