Warby Parker: The Brand and the Business

This originally appeared in Sparksheet.

Jeff Swystun looks at how Warby Parker is disrupting the eyewear industry by blending online and in-store commerce, even while the company struggles to profit.

Brands can become verb-worthy. In my father’s day it was the Cadillac, a car synonymous with luxury and status. If you had a Caddy you’d arrived.

Today, brand-verbs have taken on extended meaning. Start-ups and businesses seek to emulate certain brands: companies aim start the UBERization of their industry. We also hear that whole industries are being “Warby Parkered.” This is funny given Warby Parker was once called “the Warby-Parker-Eyewear-LogoNetflix of Eyewear” in GQ.

The affordable, hipster-chic eyewear company has risen fast but is yet to make much money. In an April 30th article in The Wall Street Journal, Warby Parker admitted it was not profitable. Dave Gilboa, co-founder and co-chief executive, did not share revenue performance but claimed annual sales were picking up.

The Category

Warby Parker founders set their sights on an industry with bloated costs and one dominated by just a few sleepy players. The business model cut out the middleman to work directly with manufacturing. The designer eyewear was then sold online to cut retail costs.

All of this was wrapped in a strong brand predicated on being hip and fresh that delivered superior quality and customer service. Warby Parker felt that by greatly improving the buying experience they would make traditional competitors irrelevant. This approach has rocked the complacent category.

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Pop-Up Retail: Where Will It Go Next?

In 1997 Patrick Courrielche devised what was later called a one-day “ultimate hipster mall.” This is notable for two reasons. First, it was one of the first examples of what we know now as a pop-up retail. Second, I was unaware that the term “hipster” existed in 1997. My research shows it was coined in the 1990’s but did not become uber popular until the 2010’s. Did you notice that I fit “uber” into that sentence. Did you also notice that I am wildly off topic because this is supposed to be about pop-up retail?

Courrielche’s event was actually called The Ritual Expo. It was the catalyst for companies that liked the idea of creating short-term experiences to promote their brands to specific audiences. It prompted AT&T, Levi-Strauss, and Motorola to work with Courrielche on pop-up shopping experiences.

This form of retail goes back before 1997. Circuses, ice cream trucks, farmer’s markets, hot dog stands, and even the old bookmobile rate as pop-ups. For decades, Halloween shops have popped h-m-pop-upup prior to October 31st every year. Even the seasonal Christmas tree sellers meet the definition of a pop-up retailer. One could argue that many of the 5th Avenue flagship stores in New York are longstanding pop-up shops. That is because few make money from those locations and maintain the investment for awareness only.

The format has multiple benefits for the brand. It allows an interesting connection with existing customers while making a splashy introduction to new ones. Awareness tends to be the biggest benefit and not only for the foot traffic who happen by. Pop-ups are notorious for gaining traditional media and social media attention. As a whole, the investment is relatively reasonable. The square footage costs and promotion are upwards of 80% cheaper than a traditional retail store.

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The Evolution of the TV Tray Table

Remember those gaudily decorated, cheap metal fold-out trays? With the advent of a television in every home in the 1950’s, families soon needed a way to hold food and beverage items while watching one of the three available channels. The TV tray table quickly became a must-have. Their IMG_2165design and ubiquity make them an undeniable pop culture icon.

So what came first the TV tray table or the TV dinner? National advertising for TV tray tables first appeared in 1952. Two years later, C.A. Swanson & Sons introduced the frozen TV dinner, marketing it as an easy-to-prepare, fun-to-eat meal, with a disposable tray that reduced clean-up time. The TV dinner tapped into excitement over television and the tray table was there to literally lend support. By 1960, nearly 90% of American homes had a television and a similar percentage had a TV tray table set.

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David’s Tea: The Brand and Business

This originally appeared in Sparksheet.

Tea is gaining grounds in North America’s coffee culture and David’s Tea is looking to expand and modernize the millennia-old industry. Jeff Swystun examines the standing power of this bold brand as it steps onto the stock exchange and transitions from niche to mass market.

The bold sign, in cheerful teal and green, draws your attention. Curious, you peak inside and are greeted by a clean, bright environment and pleasing aromas. The aisles and displays resemble a cosmetic store. The goods are presented as precious keepsakes; the packaging suggests there is an item among them uniquely for you. A fresh-faced staffer attentively waits to answer any questions.

Welcome to the new world of tea.

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David’s Tea was founded in 2008. A newcomer to the centuries old tea business, but one confident that it could make the product relevant to the modern consumer. The opportunity is great, but the company also faces significant challenges. It must convert coffee drinkers, have smart distribution, and battle a competitor with deep pockets while keeping investors happy.

The Category

Tea has been a beverage of choice for centuries, since its origins as a medicinal elixir in Shang Dynasty China. The British famously popularized tea production for the western drinker and through trade took it global. The East Indian Tea Company was so successful it became a synonym for “monopoly”.

Tom Standage, author of The World in a Glass: Six Drinks That Changed History, writes, “Englishmen around the world could drink tea, whether they were a colonial administrator in India or a London businessman. The sun never set on the British Empire—which meant that it was always teatime somewhere.”

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Logo Contests Disappoint

The latest example in a long line of backlashes against logo contests is making waves, or in this case, shaking leaves. This one comes from the Government of Canada who invited submissions to mark the 150th anniversary celebrations of the country. The winning design is a multi-coloured, pointed maple leaf shape that has produced interesting criticism.

It is not because the leaf is a safe, smart bet given it is an image that Canada “owns” along with Mounties, beavers and canoes rather the disapproval comes from the professional design community. The Graphic Designers of Canada, the national body that certifies graphic and communication designers, released an open letter criticizing the government and specifically Canadian Heritage who championed the contest. Their chief concerns involve exploitation and the government’s inability to recognize the value of good design.

 

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Ad Agencies Make Their Own Products

I recall the 1999 attention-getting idea by Vancouver agency Rethink. The three leaders of the agency had just left Palmer Jarvis DDB to go out on their own. In order to create buzz for their startup they branded and distributed Rethink Beer. The product helped put Rethink on the map and remained on shelves until 2003.

This is one example in a longstanding series of agency experiments with product development. A new book by Leif Abraham, with an amazingly long title, suggests how Madison Avenue needs to change. His effort is called, Madison Valley: Building Digital Products. Getting the Most out of Talent. And How Madison Avenue Can Be More like Silicon Valley, which is a fine preview of the book’s content. The overriding premise is creative businesses should not restrict themselves to communications but should leverage their talents for real product innovation.

Having worked at, and for, a number of agencies, I know these businesses would love to reap the profits of an iPod or Nike FuelBand as additional revenue or to stave off the long anticipated lower margins resulting from an old business model. Yet, Abraham points out the reality, “Every agency wants to build a lab and make products. Every award show adds product innovation categories. But we haven’t yet seen a successful product coming out of an ad agency. My book gives an analysis on how product innovation is treated in agencies today, what needs to change and why it’s about more than just the product.”

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My IKEA Customer Experience

The relationship I have with IKEA is weirdly ambivalent. I deeply admire their business model and success. The retailer’s clear, contemporary and self-deprecating advertising appeals. Even the faux Scandinavian-named products weirdly please me. However, I cannot stomach walking through their aircraft carrier-sized stores whose layouts were designed by the most sadistic and manipulative consumer behavioral scientists.

On those few occasions when I put myself through the labyrinth I curse my decision just ten feet past the front door. No matter who you are or what you are shopping for, at best, only ten percent of what is on display is remotely relevant to your immediate needs. Yet, if you are like me, you leave the store with one of those oversized contractor flat carts not the wimpy-suburban-mommy shopping cart.

On that flat cart I have been known to pile a Klampen mirror, a collection of Rundlig serving bowls, two styles of giant

Welcome to the prison yard.

Welcome to the prison yard.

family sized laundry baskets, numerous packs of Bastig knobs for kitchen cupboards, a Galant file cabinet, a collection of seventeen scissors with different colored handles, a storage box for other storage boxes, and a twelve-seat dining room set. It may sound super convenient because I found everything I needed but on that occasion I had actually gone to IKEA to buy one bathmat that I forgot to purchase.

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Jeff Keynotes in China

Jeff was honoured to be one of two keynote speakers at the Tsinghua University Design Symposium. He joined Paul Gardien, Vice President of Philips Design along with other great speakers. This is the preeminent design event in China and is held every two years. This time it was in Shenzhen. In preparation for the symposium, the organizers posed four questions to Jeff.

How do you see the conference theme of “design-driven innovation”?

This is a highly relevant and exciting theme. The way I interpret it is good design is the result of observing and serving the needs and wants of consumers. True innovation results when a product or service makes people’s lives easier, more fulfilling and interesting. Even the best marketer in the world cannot help a poor product because the more attention brought to it, the quicker it will fail. Read more

Did You Watch That New Book?

The publishing industry continues to grow and more people are reading more often. Two trade groups, the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, compiled a recent survey called BookStats. The survey revealed that e-books now account for 20% of publishers’ revenues. That is both impressive and not surprising.

The concern that e-books would doom print has largely abated. Besides, the real issue is the extent to which we are all reading not the device on which our books reside. To me, any uptick in the activity is positive. Reading entertains, informs, and educates. It spirits us away, challenges our conventions and exposes us to new ideas. It allows us to travel and experience so much without leaving our favorite chair.

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