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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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Choice & Clutter

The average American supermarket now carries 48,750 items, according to the Food Marketing Institute, more than five times the number in 1975. Britain’s Tesco stocks 91 different shampoos, 93 varieties of toothpaste and 115 of household cleaner.

In addition to the range of choice in even the most basic brand categories, consumers receive over 5,000 media messages a day containing over 100,564 words. So in my opinion, the most important metric in the next ten years will be how many messages consumers choose NOT to see on a daily basis.

We are creating consumers with such thick skins and blinders that messages bounce off them – we are training them to ignore and disengage which is exactly the opposite of our objective.

In response to choice, many brand owners are now taking steps to rationalize their brand portfolios to simplify and reduce cannibalization. According to Sheena Iyengar in The Art of Choosing, Procter & Gamble once thinned its range of Head & Shoulders shampoos from 26 to 15, and sales increased by 10%. Then they slowly began building up the sub-brands again in a non-sensical cycle or ‘more is more’.

Regarding communications clutter, Canadian media maven Marshall McLuhan presciently stated in the 1960’s, “One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There’s always more than you can cope with.”

In the next ten years, we will see cycles of brand proliferation and rationalization with corresponding communication cycles. So the brands that simplify people’s lives and speak honestly will stand a better chance of success than those who do not credit the growing power of the consumer, the stresses they are encountering, and how that will impact their choices.

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