With a focus on pinpointed and precise design for every way you come to experience their brand, you might think the company was created by craftsmen. In fact, the founders come from a different side of the playing field—they’re Wharton graduates—but with their vision, what started off as a school project is now helping to rewrite the textbook on branding in the real world.
While a lot can and has been said about New York’s eyewear start-up darling Warby Parker, one might sum up their outfit with a quick glance at—or perhaps through—their prized Monocle. The bespoke fashionability, the quirky humor, the complete lack of utility—all fill the mind’s eye with images of Williamsburg’s most love-to-hate/hate-to-love apparel, lovingly conceived and slaved over by starving artist craftsmen. While there is so much more than these conjured images to describe the complexity of Warby Parker, the brains behind the operation—craftsmen, though not necessarily of the starving artist variety—might be more than satisfied to have had you make that top-of-mind association. It means you’ve tapped into the brand.
Too cool for (B) school
Warby Parker came on the scene as early as 2010, though its seeds would be planted earlier at the Wharton Business School in UPenn (University of Pennsylvania)—a far cry from an atelier in Brooklyn. Founder Neil Blumenthal’s background in nonprofit eyewear would seem to bring him to the company’s existential question—why are eyeglasses so darned expensive? The answer: an industry oligopoly allowing for fat producer surpluses. It would seem through kicking this around the guts of a business plan would come into place—by cutting out the middleman, using proprietary designs to avoid licensing costs and applying the psychologically sticky price point of $95, a profitable business could be built. But this would only tell a small part of the story, and from here the more important and distinguishing element would come into play—the marketing plan. This would encompass the unique voice and look of a brand, and tied to this, the community to which it would be related. After all, gigantic eyewear conglomerates like Luxottica might have economies of scale protecting them from the little guys, but they may not have any more direct access to communities, particularly niche ones, as the founders of Warby Parker might through their own voice, charm and transparency as just ‘a bunch of regular guys’—at least regular by Ivy liberal arts standards.
By combining the selling points of their operational plan with their own unique voice, and opting to hone in on a particular community demographic—a young, hip, savvy and educated demo which UPenn would conveniently provide in droves—the founders would graduate with a business not just based on selling a fashionable product at a discount but selling participation in a community of like-minded people and all of the feelgood associations that would come with it. It is arguably the latter more than the former that has explained their success and cited profitability to date.
Rewriting the branding textbook
Despite Warby’s B-school incubation, it’s probably safe to say that their branding success did not come out of any textbook end-of-chapter marketing exercise. You get the sense that, like many out there, Warby Parker has grown mildly nauseous of the B-word and the cliched language associated with it. On the other hand, by following the beat of their own drum they created one of the best possible examples of late of a brand built on ‘we’. It’s reminiscent of the Obama Campaign of 2008, a somewhat real-world, somewhat digital mix unified by a symbiotic voice and movement of an unmistakable identity. Warby Parker’s taken the pains to do much the same with the artisan’s attention to detail, and the results call for a new language of brand identity (fodder for the “post-branding” textbook):
Story starts with a brand name—it’s visually in all communications, and it’s literally what’s heard in word-of–mouth. Not surprisingly, the founders are said to have kicked this one around for over six months—in the end they went with the prename and surname of two J.D. Salinger characters, connoting the pomp and pedigree of vintage. What’s interesting about the name is that it’s more than just hip—it’s literary and almost academic. It’s conveniently both the founders’ true social ‘world’ and one of the most appealing high disposable income demographics out there.
This pinpointing perfectionist’s approach to brand naming is emblematic of the rest of what the company does with their design. It’s clear they’ve put a lot of thought into the design of their frames, the look is a middle ground between literary sophistication and youthful fashionability and frivolity. But the design goes well beyond fashion and into the brand at large—call it ADE: Art-Directed Everything. Their website shopping experience is elegantly laid out in simple yet clear terms, including their value proposition (great glasses need not be so expensive), their founding (appropriately personal), and their critical brand values. The presentation is clean, neat, to-the-point and always tied to the specific voice (terse, and ironic or heartfelt, depending on what’s needed at that time). It’s as if it were written by the founders—it probably was. Through the use of beautiful photography throughout, even images of the third world make the brand come off as just purely looking good.
A cornerstone of the Warby Parker story lies in their focus on social innovation and transparency—it’s partially something one believes the founders are close to personally (coming from a non-profit world), partially linked to the target audience and building the feelgood component of purchase (yes, they already provide the feelgood sensation of buying the cool-kids-alternative that sticks it to the man, but this is a feelgood at a higher level of the Maslow pyramid). Warby Parker hasn’t just committed to certain non-profit relationships—nothing too new in the world of corporate social responsibility—they’ve gone the extra mile by seeking out a specific B Corporation status. This status requires transparent social performance standards, higher legal accountability and adherence to sustainable business policies. Of course, as per most things Warby Parker, having this status wouldn’t just be a behind-the-scenes legal move but part of the brand mission. They hopped on the brand affirming opportunity, taking the status’ annual report requirement and delivering possibly the most earnest, transparent and funny annual report in the history of, well, annual reporting.
Technically a player in the fashion e-commerce game, Warby Parker has implemented a few policies to help bridge the digital-to-personal gap and make the whole experience simpler for their customers. Their try-out policy allows users to try out up to five pairs of frames by having them shipped to them, while offering pre-paid packaging to send the pairs back at no charge. This can only help to break down the barriers of online shopping, particularly amongst an audience that may be cost-conscious—in many ways, it’s even better than the store try-on experience as one gets to try on the glasses at home and not in the neon artifice of the retail environment. With such policies they come to resemble other great ecommerce innovators such as Zappos, the shoe retailer owned by Amazon, who stood out from their competitors in an earlier ecom wave with such eye-widening disruptive policies as free shipping, free returns and 24/7 service—Warby Parker has added the first two as well. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh was trying to ensure a unique brand experience through dedicated customer service to stick out from the pack, and Warby has in its own way stepped up to what’s now more of a best practice in the field.
In the same way Warby Parker tries to bridge the digital-physical try-on gap through their innovative try-on policies, marketing-wise they have tried to not just traditionally advertise in the physical world but create happenings in and around their community’s lifestyle. It’s a unique approach amongst eyewear companies, let alone ecommerce ones.
Case in point—their almost two-month long Holiday Spectacle Bazaar this past holiday season in SoHo, showcasing live performances and the wares of other companies of a shared communal spirit with Warby Parker—publishing house McSweeney’s, Best Made Company, seller of axes, blankets and pocket knives, Confettisystem, makers of festive ceiling garlands crafted out of household tissues, and more. A clear association would be made between themselves and a few crafty and heady niche brands, perfectly tied in to their positioning.
Fast forward to Warby’s three day Citizen’s Circus at SXSW 2012 (South by Southwest) , a known arts and tech destination. Here they would evolve their live event model by tacking on youth democracy pushing Rock The Vote as a partner, positioning themselves at “the confluence of culture and active citizenship.” Thus they not only figuratively and literally housed other brands under their roof, creating a mother brand to tap into wider communities and values—they deepened the ties to their audience too, making the Warby Parker relationship less about infrequent consumption (after all, how many times a year does anyone really buy vintage glasses?) and more about citizenship, shared values and other more recurring and central aspects in their community’s lives.
The future’s so bright, they may have to go beyond shades
With such an impressive ramp-up to date, the question is where Warby Parker will now head. On one hand, their roots and existential raison-d’être came from the optical world. On the other hand, as copycatting of their eyewear model becomes pervasive, the question on their minds—and surely those of their venture capitalist backers—is how the company will choose, or be forced, to evolve.
Perhaps they will follow a similar trajectory to Zappos, who went from a few million in sales to over a billion in a very short period of time and in this process would expand to a much wider product scope, building out from woman’s shoes to not just other forms of apparel but into things as diverse as sporting goods—of course, having been integrated into parent company Amazon would make such a move much more logical. But in ushering in of all this product, Zappos would blur the focus of its community and dilute the brand, leaving its unifying identity to shipping policies and customer service but not much more.
Perhaps instead Warby Parker ought to follow the lead of a company like Virgin, who not only catered to a youth audience (albeit a fairly different one), but in expanding their product line to seemingly wild extremes—records, airlines, mortgages—based on the logic of being wherever their audience was?
It seems like the future should lie somewhere in between. Yes, they are poised for expansion into various product lines and can bring their impeccable design to market in a wide variety of areas, most logically fashion, apparel and accessories of a vintage nature. On the other hand, they’ll need to know where to draw the line in the products that they put out lest they exceed the reach of their already-built audience. They’ve already spent time and effort building the beginnings of a strong community around them. As B-School grads, they should know not to care for sunk costs going forward, but as craftsmen they’ll value the blood, sweat and tears that will have been worth something. Ironically, that intuition will probably make for the smartest business move of all.