At Warby Parker, the power of branding is easy to see

Warby Parker co-founder Neil Blumenthal

Warby Parker, a New York-based eyewear start-up that is getting a lot of attention, is often painted as an eyeglass shop for hipsters. But that quick summation does a disservice to what the company has done and how it hass built one of the hottest start-ups around. I sat down with Neil Blumenthal, one of Warby Parker’s co-founders, to talk about what’s driving the company’s success and he said it comes down to the way it has created and maintained its brand.
Blumenthal told me it was not enough to see an opportunity in providing more affordable glasses. That’s been done before online, though with very meager success. What the founders did was take more than a year and half to figure out exactly what they wanted to be. What they came up with was a plan to become a fashion brand, not just a retailer, one that offered great service, lower prices and a social mission from day one.
“A lot of investors were surprised we had such a coherent brand but it was because we spent so much time on it,” Blumenthal said.
As an example, they spent six months just working on the name, which is pulled from unpublished names in the works of Jack Kerouac, an inspiration to the founders. They batted around ideas about how to offer glasses for sale online without fitting rooms, which led to a Web application that lets people envision how glasses will look on them. And more importantly, they added a try-at-home program so people can check out glasses before buying with no charge on shipping. They recruited the services of a eyeglass designer and the same manufacturers used by big eyewear companies, launching two years ago with a collection of 27 styles all priced at $95.
From the start, they emphasized doing social good through a buy-a-pair, give-a-pair program, in which Warby Parker distributed a pair glasses to people in need for every pair sold. Blumenthal got the idea after working with VisionSpring, a nonprofit that distributes low-cost glasses in developing countries. He said unlike other companies that add on social campaigns, this has been part of the mission from day one and one of the reasons why people respond to the Warby Parker brand.
“A good brand is authentic and ingrained in every aspect of the company,” Blumenthal said. “Slick designs is just one component. Fifty percent of people come from word of mouth. They’re telling their friends about the service because of their connection to it.”
The company isn’t releasing sales figures but said in its annual report for 2011 that it distributed more than 100,000 pairs of glasses. That suggests it sold just as many glasses, which means about $10 million or more in sales. The company’s Net Promoter Score, which measures customer loyalty and is maintained by Bain, Satmetrix, and Fred Reichheld, is an impressive 88, ahead of Apple (s aapl), Zappos (s amzn) and many others. It has more than 50,000 fans and gets 56 mentions per hour on Twitter, according to the company’s annual report.
Blumenthal said that online sales of glasses made up less than 1 percent before the company got started but he estimates it is now about 3 percent. That shows just how hard it is to break into the eyewear game. The industry is dominated by giants like Luxottica, which owns LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Ray-Ban and Oakley and makes eyeglasses for top brands including Prada, Chanel and Ralph Lauren. But by building its own brand, instead of just operating as an online retailer, Warby Parker is able to lure people with its own name and designs. And it can cut out the middle man, which is how it can under sell a lot of designer glasses by several hundred dollars. The only mark-up it applies is for high-index lenses, a $30 fee.
The company’s identity also extends to the way it sells. It has gotten notice for selling online but it has built up a small network of showrooms around the country, where consumers can try on glasses in a traditional manner. Ultimately, it’s about delivering on its promise regardless of the channel.
“We look at e-commerce as a medium but not the core of the company,” said Blumenthal.
Blumenthal said other start-ups often work on prototyping products and getting to an MVP, or minimum viable product. But he said that wouldn’t work for a fashion brand, which needed to have all the pieces in place from the start. He said it’s unlikely the company would have found the success it has if it hadn’t assembled all the pieces in place at launch.
Warby Parker is still in growth mode and is not yet profitable. The company has more than 60 employees now, as it looks to expand following its $12 million Series A round in September, led by Tiger Global, with participation from Menlo Ventures’ Talent Fund and existing investors First Round Capital, Lerer Ventures and Thrive Capital.
Blumenthal said the company’s work on its brand continues to pay dividends and he hopes that it can also be an example to others, particularly with regard to social good.
“People don’t understand the degree we’re committed to social good. Our goal is to build a large, profitable company that can serve as an example of how a company can do good in the world,” he said.