As part of the run-up to PSFK CONFERENCE 2013 in New York this April, PSFK will be publishing a series of short interviews with speakers to give a taste of what will be discussed in this meeting of creative minds. Neil Blumenthal, co-founder at Warby Parker, manufacturer of vintage-inspired glasses, will be a keynote speaker at this year’s event. He spoke to PSFK about what drove him to create a charitable range of spectacles and how he has managed to keep his philanthropic ethos in tune with the need to run a business.
What was the inspiration for Warby Parker and the charitable aim behind it?
We love glasses but hate paying the equivalent of an iPhone for them. Dave had just lost his $700 glasses, and Jeff’s glasses were broken. All of us were overpaying for them. Andy had an idea to sell glasses online which no one was really doing yet. I already knew how to design and manufacture glasses from working at the non-profit VisionSpring. It seemed like we could solve a real problem by designing and selling prescription glasses for $95 instead of $500 and in the process, create a brand centered around doing good in the world.
We wanted to build a mission-driven organization that wanted to work at everyday. For us that meant being stakeholder-centric and considering our customers, employees, the environment and the community at large in every decision we make. An example is that we distribute a pair of glasses to someone in need for every pair we sell by partnering with VisionSpring, the non-profit I used to manage.
While we believe our social mission resonates with our customers, we don’t think it’s the primary reason why they buy our glasses (the main reason is because they look good on their face!), so some it’s often not the first thing you hear about us. However, our hope is that this approach (business as a vehicle to do good in the world) becomes the standard for all companies. We believe that businesses can be profitable, can be scalable and can do good in the world without charging a premium for doing so.
How have you used marketing to make your brand stand out in an extremely crowded market?
At first, we were more concerned with creating a great product and an awesome customer experience, namely through an innovative Home Try-On program and a beautiful, user-friendly site. We thought if we created great customer experiences that word would get around, so we didn’t spend any money on marketing and advertising. That said, as the company’s grown, our approach to marketing has changed, while still remaining decidedly offbeat. We ran our first television commercial last year, collaborating with the illustrator Alia Penner to create a quirky introduction to the Warby Parker story. For us, it’s more about collaborations, high-concept events and creating reasons for our customers to tell their friends about us.
While we can’t say that we’ve taken a completely passive approach when it comes to marketing, the authenticity behind the brand has done more for us marketing-wise than any big marketing initiative like the other guys. We have many people to thank for helping spread the word early on and following our growth for the past few years. We can also attribute much of our success to innovative marketing directions such as Warby Barker, our April Fool’s joke last year, and the Annual Report, both of which has not only driven a lot of traffic to our site but also further established us as a lifestyle brand instead of just somewhere customers buy glasses.
How have you managed to stay relevant, given that many people are moving towards contact lenses, and reconcile your desire to do good with the need to turn a profit?
We launched the company with a lofty objective: to radically transform the optical industry and likewise, we wanted to create a model for how for-profit companies should act, thinking about all stakeholders from customers, to employees to the communities we work with and the environment. We like to think of glasses as a fashion accessory, something you’d treat like any other accessory, swapping out frames as often as you match shoes, hats, even jewelry to the rest of your clothes. Unlike contact lenses, glasses are becoming less and less about fulfilling a medical need than it is about style and one’s identity. Glasses go on your face, which means people take more care in choosing a frame and color that suits them. With the $95 price point, style (and its constantly shifting trends) is more accessible for everyone.