THE BLOG
07/02/2015 11:45 am ET Updated Jul 02, 2016

My 2015 Brand Hero: Warby Parker

Is it possible to have an unforgettable experience shopping for eyeglasses? One company's done it. The store I visited was equal parts academic library and up-lighted wine bar. The staff, dressed in genius-bar blue shirts, circled so you knew they were there but always kept their distance, careful not to up-sell or interject salesmanship into the process (as in the familiar "those look so good on you"). Once I elected to buy a pair, I was immediately served by a young manager who shuttled effortlessly between breezy nonchalance and a warm, engaged professionalism. Where was I? In one of the 12 Warby Parker stores nationwide. Why am I telling you this? Because there is no finer brand in America than Warby Parker right now. From ideation to innovation to impish execution, they are doing almost everything right and studying them offers more lessons in how to launch a stellar brand than shelves of marketing theory and brand guides. I asked Co--CEO and Co-Founder, Neil Blumenthal via email about Warby Parker's current ascendancy and his answers evoke the brand's mix of earnestness and sophistication as much as any of the stores.

"We spend a lot of time and effort making sure that we're hiring super-friendly, curious, engaged people to work at Warby Parker," said Blumenthal. "Our interview process is designed to assess whether somebody shares our core values. If you select the right people up front, that's half the battle." The young lady at the store described her cohort to me as a "curated community" and Blumenthal agreed with this: "We look for people who are immensely empathetic. We don't like being upsold. Most people don't. So it never made sense to us to do that ourselves."

But how did Warby Parker get here? By taking their time to develop the brand. Blumenthal is one of the most articulate business leaders on the subject of branding I know of, referring to a brand as a "point of view" - the way a novelist might refer to a character. And this artfulness and commitment is part of what makes the Warby Parker brand work so well (he believes that most startups underinvest in branding.)

Think of the formula to a great brand as this: founding myth + brand benefits = brand story (told through brand voice and visual expression). Of course, the road to this is a voyage of discovery, quals and quants, archetypes and moodboards. But, at heart, a brand gathers power from its clarity and simplicity and Warby Parker is a stirring example of this.

Origins
You know the story: started in 2010 by four friends at Wharton, Warby Parker was conceived as an alternative to the overpriced status quo (most of us spectacle wearers know that a visit to the optometrist is rarely under $300). The Warby Parker innovation came from recognizing that the industry was controlled by a few large firms like Luxottica, which owns LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Ray-Ban and Oakley and makes eyeglasses for top brands including Prada, Chanel and Ralph Lauren. All of which translates to a sector with low innovation and price gouging. By circumventing traditional channels and engaging with customers directly through their website, Warby Parker is able to provide prescription eyewear for $95. By now, the Warby Parker story has come to acquire the contours of a foundational myth. Why does it work so well? Because it is the definition of a great rebel story (not unlike the parent's-garage preambles of Apple or Google) and that iconoclasm sends a strong current through their brand. It personalizes Warby Parker as a small-versus-big quixotic narrative and adds little evocative details along the way (Wharton, college dorm rooms,) that redound to its egghead cachet. Blumenthal invoked this sense of disruption in his descriptions of the company-- phrases like "a transformative lifestyle brand", "a revolutionary price," and "radically transform the optical industry." Founding myths matter because they authenticate your brand meaning by rooting it in a real-life piece of serendipity or struggle (nothing animates a brand like a fight). According to Blumenthal, "co-founder Dave Gilboa lost his glasses on a backpacking trip. The cost of replacing them was so high that he spent the first semester of grad school without them." What better symbol of an upstart than an astigmatic college student?

Brand Benefits
The second part of the brand formula involves brand benefits -- what people derive from your brand. Generally brand benefits are three fold -- functional (the excellence of your product or service); societal (how you interact with the world around you); and emotional (how you make people feel). Warby Parker understands this clearly using that same textbook structure, calling itself a lifestyle brand (emotional benefit) offering strong value and service (functional benefit) with a social mission (societal benefit). Its functional benefits are undeniable ($95 frames and lenses, etc.) but what makes the brand benefits so resonant are its societal and emotional benefits. Firstly, it's a B Corporation -- B Corps are certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. In Warby Parker's case this means a living wage; a strong benefits package and professional development for employees; carbon neutral production methods; and, most compellingly, a gift of one pair of eyeglasses to people in need for every one sold. According to Blumenthal, "we call this our Buy a Pair, Give a pair program." Since its launch in 2010, Warby Parker has distributed over one million pairs of glasses to people in need. It's an extraordinary, quixotic strategy and a limitless source of goodwill for the company. Warby Parker could have done the traditional form of corporate giving by supporting various non-profits or donating a percentage of its profits, but this one-for-one model is elegant because it creates agency within the purchase decision -- we personally feel like we are having an impact in the world through our choice.

Warby Parker Cool
But all of this would be immaterial if the brand benefits and founding myth didn't translate into a charming, sui generis brand story told through a distinctive voice and images. The Warby Parker brand expression is very specific and a tad eccentric, positioned somewhere between mid-20th century American literature (think Updike, Ginsberg and Plimpton); the soignee disaffection of a Whit Stillman film; and the playfulness of a band like Vampire Weekend. It's a throwback to mid-century east-coast sophistication (even the name Warby Parker is a conflation of two of Jack Kerouac's early characters, Zagg Parker and Warby Pepper) but also a new inscription of American confidence that feels current and timeless.

So, how do you create something so particular (and peculiar)? By doing it the right way. Like expert brand strategists, the co-founders assembled a moodboard - a collage of images that reflected the soul of the brand. The first image they selected was a rare bird called the blue-footed boobie and that set a strong, outré direction for the company's aesthetics and affect. Here's Blumenthal: "It's a bird that's found in the Galapagos, so you have to be sort of knowledgeable and worldly to know that it exists. It has a quizzical look on its face, so it's curious -- and for us, we wanted to create a curious brand that was all about learning. When you look at its body, it sort of looks like a penguin, so it's got a tuxedo, so it's sophisticated -- it has these design elements to it. And then you pan down, and a blue-footed boobie has these webbed, bright blue feet, and we just thought that was awesome and funny and has a little bit of flair, and a little bit of surprise. And that was something that we wanted to bring to Warby Parker. And then, of course, the name "blue-footed boobie," you kind of laugh when you hear it, and we wanted to take our work seriously but not ourselves seriously." From this moodboard grew the blue and white brandscape and the tone of the company's voice which includes such couplets as "witty yet sincere, casual yet composed...avoid(ing) the heavy handed and the heavy footed".

And, as Blumenthal told me, that tony eclecticism extends to their branded environments: "We try to create retail experiences that are innovative, enjoyable, and remarkable for customers," Blumenthal said. "Each of our stores expresses the spirit of the Warby Parker brand while drawing inspiration from neighborhood traditions and local details. Our San Francisco store features a detailed mural of SF landmarks by local illustration studio Lab Partners, while our Abbot Kinney store in Southern California is designed with doors wide open to the sea breezes and a custom facade by local artist Geoff McFetridge. These details make each store feel like a neighborhood gem instead of just another retail location."

So, are there any weaknesses in the brand? Only a few. One area that sometimes misconstrues the Warby Parker brand personality is the video content which includes not only commercials but specially commissioned documentaries and short films. Take "The Cat Burglar": Produced by the fine NY agency Partners & Spade, it's shot in a grainy, overexposed black and white and meant to evoke the early part of the French New Wave - films like Jean Luc Godard's All Boys Are Called Patrick or the seminal Eric Rohmer film, My Night at Maud's. The problem is that the conceit doesn't fit the brand. Warby Parker isn't ersatz European like Haagen Dazs. On top of it, the boyfriend's hectoring makes us wonder why our heroine stays with him. A Warby heroine, intrepid explorer that she is, would have left a long time ago.

The same goes for its first TV commercial: The Terry Gilliam-inspired animation is whimsical but do we really need a British voiceover artist who sounds like he came straight out of an Altoids commercial? This feels banal for such a singular brand. Well produced though it is, it misses the mark because it seems to feed at the same trough of Europhilia as other fashion brands which feels disappointing (Warby, we thought you were above that)! Warby Parker should always hew to its quintessential American-ness, its new-world energy and its bespoke confidence.

Still, these are quibbles when compared to what's working. So where to go from here? Moving forward, Warby Parker should curate and create new areas of engagement. For example, they could extend their societal benefit by allowing people to bring in their old eyeglasses when they pick up their new pair. And what about the world beyond spectacles? Could Warby Parker create horizontal brand extensions into new products - say pens (which would fit its literary sensibilities) or classic watches or even a literary magazine? The power of a first-class brand is that it transcends the product to become a ruling sensibility that can accommodate many things. Whatever they decide, it will be the next chapter in one our era's great brand stories.