“Boys will make passes at girls who wear glasses.”
My mom, 1987
I began wearing glasses at 18 years old, back in 1987. More specifically, I went into bifocals as a freshman in college. My options were limited and very, very expensive. Given the cost, I defaulted to the cheapest frame in the store. I struggled to reconcile the reality that my glasses were my most used accessory in my life — they were the first thing I put on in the morning and the last thing I took off at night — and yet they failed to match my style and personality. I lived in fear of breaking them or losing them, both from the immediate loss of vision and the extraordinary cost of replacing them.
While I didn’t know the phrase then, I longed for the day when someone would disrupt the industry. And then someone did.
Artifacts from the early hipster period
Around 2011, I began hearing about this new company, Warby Parker. A friend’s husband was one of those early adopters every company wants. He posted on Facebook about his journey to Warby-Parker, we saw him order, we saw him try on the glasses, we saw them arrive. He celebrated his new look with links to the Warby Parker website. Very soon after, his family and friends were all doing the same. I watched the viral social media marketing in real-time and recognized that this company was doing a few things differently. They relied on users to amplify their brand and in turn took advantage of and shaped the birth of social media for business. More specifically, had Warby Parker gone the traditional route, they would never have attracted my friend. He was the type of person who needed to be an early adopter/influencer for everything. He was both new to social media and new to Warby Parker and he used both to establish his own presence online. Looking through the archive of Warby Parker’s influencers, you can see this attitude reflected in people like Molly Yeh, Franklin Leonard, and Mohamed Fayaz.
I’m not sure their product would have resonated with a traditional market, even with the social good component. My friend would never have taken the risk to promote a product anyone had access to, he wanted to let you know how awesome he was because he had found this amazing company no-one knew about yet via a platform that reflected that same exclusivity.
Know your audience
Warby Parker emerged out of a very specific moment in time, serving a growing Millennial audience. They clearly understood their audience. They tapped into a zeitgeist with retro-styled frames, all with very cute and specific frame names. They were also really clear who they weren’t serving. Most eyeglass wearers don’t need reading glasses or bifocals until they hit their forties. Warby Parker waited a few years before including those (at a much higher price) into their collection, waiting for their hipster audience to grow up. Linear or mass-marketing would not have worked for Warby Parker, they would have wasted their marketing dollars on a huge segment of the population they had no interest in serving.
And yet …
You’d think I would have rushed to order once bifocals were introduced. At the time I was heavy into social media and could have been an early influencer. And yet, I’m still going to my local optometrist, paying obscene amounts for lack-luster eyeglasses, because there remain a few of us who need custom fitting, who can’t take a risk on not being able to see while we send glasses back and forth to a mail-order house somewhere far away. Despite all Warby Parker’s attempts to find a very narrow lane for marketing and promotion, they actually work best for mass-market consumers.
You know you’ve made it when …
While I could go on and on about the benefits of social media marketing and how well Warby Parker used and leveraged that, I actually think it is best illustrated by the geniuses at McSweeney’s, when they lampoon you, you know you’ve made it.