Warby Parker Part Two: Market Strategy and a Social Mission

Note: This post is part two of a three post series on New York-based startup Warby Parker, driven by interviews with Neil Blumenthal, co-founder and co-CEO. At it’s core, Warby Parker is a company attempting to deliver high quality, fashionable, prescription eyewear to consumers at a reasonable price. 


Fashion First

The Warby Parker 2011 Annual Report displayed the outcomes of their social mission.

During a recent talk at GrowCo in New Orleans, Neil Blumenthal used a slide with three simple bullet points to illustrate the drivers behind the Warby Parker brand:

  • Fashion
  • Value & Service
  • Social Mission

The social mission aspect of Warby Parker is explained in most of their branding as, “Buy a pair, give a pair.” They gave away over 100,000 pairs of prescription glasses in 2011. They also are a certified B-Corp and boast net zero carbon emissions. But they don’t do any of that at the expense of fashion.

Neil drilled into the audience over and over again that Warby Parker is first and foremost a fashion company. When Neil describes the founding of Warby Parker, the story doesn’t go, “We wanted to give away free glasses to people in need.” He and his co-founders set out to solve a simpler problem: decent looking prescription glasses were too expensive.

But Warby Parker didn’t just focus on being cheaper. The founders knew that to create true value in the space they would have to disrupt the entire business model. They also knew they would have to create glasses that people would actually want to wear.

Neil brought this up again in our interview after his talk. “People buy glasses first and foremost [based on] how they look on their face.” He followed that up with, “Fashion comes first when we are thinking about the design of our frames… when we’re thinking about how aesthetically the website should look.”

Screenshot of WarbyParker.com; Green box added for emphasis.

As seen in the image above, fashion does come first on WarbyParker.com. The social mission is understated in the header. It’s given as much consideration as the link to, “Monocle,” a favorite of 2011 TribeCon speaker Andrew Hyde. It’s also the third message to slide across the main real estate of the homepage. Hm, wasn’t it third in that list earlier? Probably not a coincidence.

Compared to Fashion Not First

Compare this to another popular socially-driven brand, TOMS. TOMS.com displays their social mission as big as their brand name on the site header, and for good reason. According to the about page, TOMS was founded with a primary purpose of giving away shoes.

TOMS.com; Again green boxes added for emphasis.

TOMS deserves a lot of credit for convincing everyone to buy their shoes in the name of supporting their charitable cause. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it reminds me of the Emperor’s New Clothes*. They are a brand that relies more heavily on feel-good vanity than fashion.

But I digress, slightly.

Back in the land of Warby Parker, Neil and I discussed the evolution of social and mission-driven branding. My thought was that eventually, any company having a social mission would be like a car company having a half-decent safety rating: expected as a norm.

Here’s Neil’s take:

“I do think long term the status quo will be companies that do good in the world. That includes treating customers fairly and transparently. It means treating employees well. It means having a plan to protect the environment and trying to serve the community more broadly.

Long term – that will be table stakes. No consumer is going to buy from you unless you’re there. I think we are still 5 to 10 years away from that. Until then I think there are going to be companies that over emphasize the importance of social mission to consumers’ purchase calculus, and that will be to their own detriment.”

His advice to other companies? 

“At the end of the day, who are serving? Your customers are your revenue engine and you need to understand what motivates them. Make sure that is how you are thinking about your public messaging, informing how you design your product and ultimately driving your whole marketing strategy.”

I’d say that Warby Parker is positioning itself not only as a brand ahead of the fashion curve, but also ahead of the business curve.


More on Warby Parker:

Warby Parker Part One: Culture, Innovation, and a Culture of Innovation

Warby Parker Part Three: Raising Startup Capital [Coming Soon]


*You aren’t naked, I’m just not a big fan of your shoes. You probably don’t like mine either. Can we still be friends?