My family took many car trips during my childhood. Shorter ones to visit grandparents, aunts and uncles in New York City and New Jersey; longer ones for vacations in upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C. and even Florida.

My sister, brother and I shared the back seat while my parents shared the driving.

This was in the 1970s and early 1980s, before cell phones, tablets and Nintendo DS.

Desperate for ways to occupy us – there were only so many games of Geography and license plate search they could stand – my parents would ask us to help them look for signs on the highway.

I loved doing this and was often the first one to see the sign they sought. It happened enough that my parents called me Eagle Eye.

So when I was studying in France during my junior year in college and could not see the highway signs that far in advance I knew something was up.

Even my childhood better-than-20/20 vision was no match for astigmatism.

At age 20, shortly after I returned from Europe, I got my first pair of eyeglasses.

Since then I have had many pairs of glasses and have spent hundreds of dollars on them each time. The lenses alone cost a fortune.

I often wondered why they were so expensive.

When Dave Gilboa lost a $700 pair of Prada glasses as a business school student, he and his friend Neil Blumenthal wondered the same thing.

Goliath with Glasses

Gilboa and Blumenthal researched the eyeglass market and found that virtually all roads led back to one company, Luxottica. As Luxottica’s company web page says:

“One of the Group’s competitive advantages is the vertically integrated business model built over the years, covering the entire value chain: design, product development, manufacturing, logistics and distribution.”

“Vertical integration covering the entire value chain” is investor-speak. The consumer term is monopoly.

If you thought Oakley, Ray-Ban, Prada Eyewear and Vogue Eyewear were competing eyeglass brands, you would be wrong.

If you thought Lens Crafters, Pearle Vision, Sunglass Hut and Target Optical were competing retailers, you would be wrong.

They are all Luxottica brands and there are many more. Not to mention the company’s control over the lens market.

Blumenthal had run a nonprofit called VisionSpring that is dedicated to providing glasses to people in the developing world who can’t afford them.

Gilboa and Blumenthal hatched a business idea to make glasses more affordable by selling them directly to consumers online, eliminating the Luxottica retail middlemen, and to donate a pair of glasses to someone in need for every pair sold so customers would feel good about their purchase.

Using their remaining time in business school, they developed and launched Warby Parker with two other classmates.

Warby Parker’s Visual Journey

The Warby Parker founding team of four were notable not just for their disruption of the eyeglass market, but also for their deliberate and insight-driven modus operandi.

They identified the attributes they wanted for the brand – to be quirky and authentic and to have flair.

They spent six months considering over 2000 brand names and testing several with business school classmates before settling on Warby Parker, a combination drawn from two Jack Kerouac novel characters that inspired them.

When they launched via a GQ magazine feature, the brand took off. People called asking to come to their office to try on the glasses. But there was no office.  It was just their apartment.

They invited five people to their apartment and learned not only of consumers’ desire to try on the frames upfront but also that buying glasses was a social experience.

From this research the founders launched their home trial program allowing customers to order five frames and try them on at home for free. It also led to the insight that they should have a store attached to their office.

Quickly their store was on track to do $3 million in sales.

They built a pop up store in a garage and then outfitted a bus as a traveling pop up store. Tracking the bus sales helped them decide where to locate stores.

Mission-Driven Brand Development

But wait, wasn’t Warby Parker supposed to be an online retailer of glasses?

That was the initial idea to serve their mission, but it was not the mission itself. Staying true to their mission, to improve access to eyeglasses, allowed them to be flexible with the mode of delivery.

Moreover, focusing on their mission and the problem that they solve has paved the road to grow the brand.

The mission launched the company with the idea of providing good looking glasses less expensively by selling directly to consumers. It also provided the social cause for the brand of providing glasses to those in need who can’t afford them.

Via their experience they learned that improving access also meant bringing a good buying experience to the customer, first via home trial and the outfitted bus and later by opening brick and mortar stores.

They have enhanced the experience by providing full-length mirrors and by equipping sales associates with tablets that provide customer information such as frames they have ordered at home, ones they have liked in the past, and prescription information.

Store associates encourage selfies and use of Warby Parker’s Snapchat filter so shoppers can get feedback from friends to help decide on a pair.

Eyeing the Future

What’s next?

Eliminating the next level barrier to getting glasses, the trip to the optometrist.

From the beginning Warby’s founders knew that sending potential customers to get their eyes examined meant that the optometrist would lead them to the front of their store to see their own frame selection.

After years of investment and development, this summer Warby Parker launched its own eye exam app to help customers whose prescription has not changed obtain an updated prescription.

The app requires a smartphone and a laptop and applies to customers between the ages of 18-50. An eye doctor reviews the results and if there is no change in vision, issues an updated prescription that the customer can use anywhere. The cost for the prescription is $40.

Warby Parker also opened its own lens manufacturing facility in Sloatsburg, New York this year and has continued to open more stores. This year their brick and mortar store sales will exceed their online ones.

The Power of a Clear Brand Mission

Did Warby’s founders envision an eye exam app and a lens facility when they started the company in 2010? Probably not.

But that’s the power of a good brand mission. It helps you understand where to take the brand next.

It also helps you attract employees. Blumenthal said that their mission is the number one reason that people come to work there.

Have you been wondering about your brand’s next phase of growth or weighing competing opportunities? Have you been having trouble attracting new employees?

If you are facing these issues, take time to get clear on your brand’s mission.

  • What is the problem your brand solves?
  • What are the barriers your customer faces in getting this problem solved?
  • What can you do to remove those barriers and grow your brand?
  • How can you involve your customer in your mission?

Learn from Warby Parker and test your new solutions in limited fashion before investing a full-fledged new area of business. Figure out your version of the outfitted bus.

And as you test your bus be glad that you don’t have three young kids in the back with nothing to do!

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