What Warby Parker can teach ANY company about brand strategy

"We want our brand to be like Warby Parker!"

Heard this one recently???

It used to be, “We want our brand to be like Apple!” (then Patagonia, Tesla and Toms…), now Warby Parker are in the mix. 

It's easy to scoff at this - particularly if you're working with a long standing, firmly for-profit business with no social mission baked into their business model. But here's a thought.  Every brand CAN be like Warby Parker.

Instead of dismissing comments like these, we should be helping clients understand how.

Before you start to tell me that this is the worst advice - that brands that try to create some sort of brand purpose that is inauthentic with their business practices are brands of the very WORST kind…

I get it.

I agree!

But there’s a different way to look at this. 

If we strip out all the terminology around brand purpose and social mission and we just look at what Warby Parker say about their brand, then we have a model that ANY brand can follow.

How your brand can be like Warby Parker

This model is all about answering your brand strategy questions clearly, particularly:

  1. WHY you exist
  2. WHO you are
  3. HOW you look, feel and sound

Warby Parker are very clear on WHY they exist: 'to offer designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially conscious businesses.'

And WHO they are - people who share these beliefs:

'We believe that buying glasses should be easy and fun. It should leave you happy and good-looking, with money in your pocket.'

'We also believe that everyone has the right to see.'

They are also very clear on how they should look, feel, and sound, as Neil Blumenthal one of the founders explains:

“From the get‑go, we spent a ton of time thinking about our brand … getting into the nitty‑gritty of “What we are, what we aren’t,” and having debates over the words like, collegiate versus preppy, and the fact that collegiate is more about learning and life on a campus, versus preppy, which has a certain connotation of wealth and status.  We even spent six months figuring out what the best name would be for the brand, because there were four of us and Blumenthal‑Gilboa‑Raider‑Hunt doesn’t roll off the tongue, exactly. Once you have a brand architecture and you know what you stand for, it’s a lot easier to come up with a name that fits that.”

Because they are clear on WHY they exist and the beliefs that define WHO they are, they are then clear on what they should do.

In their case, one of things they do is partner with non-profits like VisionSpring to ensure that for every pair of glasses sold, a pair is distributed to someone in need.

What they also do is sell great-looking eyewear FOR PROFIT.

The big thing to note here is that their definition of WHY they exist is not just about their social mission. It’s about their customers too – helping them look good and save money.

As Dave Gilboa, co-CEO and cofounder states,

“We spent an equal amount of time talking about the business model innovation and structural features of the optical industry that would enable us to create this disruptive business as we did talk about how we could build a social mission into this for-profit business.”

And cofounder Neil Blumenthal tells this story:  

“The impetus to start this company was the fact that we each had that experience walking to an optical shop, getting excited about a pair of glasses and then getting hit with a bill and getting up‑charged along the way, and walking out, feeling like we got kicked in the balls.”

Not paying heed to this side of Warby Parker’s story is where many brands are going wrong. 

What goes wrong when brands try to be like Warby Parker

Where it all falls apart is when brands seem to think that being like Warby Parker means creating a 'brand purpose' (a definition of WHY they exists) that ignores how they make money by tapping into something their customer cares about, and states instead that they are just in business to ‘do good’. They elevate a belief about societal contribution to become the one and only answer to WHY they exist.  

As we see above - this is NOT how Warby Parker define their 'WHY'.  

And it strikes people as disingenuous - because it is! 

Even some of the world's most valuable brands make this mistake.

I was heartened to see in 2018 that Cisco had done a brand strategy piece of work that had resulted in them tying their brand closer to one of their most distinctive assets (the bridge).  

In Cisco’s words, the “Bridge to Possible” represented their commitment to connect people, places, ideas, and things across its secure network. It’s about the good that Cisco enables with its technology, which it sees as the bridge to addressing the world’s challenges.

To me this made a lot of sense – their definition of WHY they exist is grounded in their technology services, which they need to sell to stay in business, but is a big enough statement to include taking on world problems that technology can help address – allowing for them to create programs and initiatives that ensure they contribute more broadly to societal problems.

Moreover, the bridge has a special connotation to the company – the name Cisco is derived from their founding roots in San Francisco, and their logo is based on the Golden Gate bridge.  So, reinforcing this distinctive asset in their brand strategy and messaging would also help to trigger the brand for category buyers (contributing to brand growth, as researched by Jenni Romaniuk in her work with Byron Sharp in How Brands Grow).

But then, in June 2020, “in a blog post and in remarks delivered via an international Cisco event, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins, laid out a new definition of WHY Cisco exists, as he reacted to the recent deaths of black Americans at the hands of police:

“We know our responsibilities don’t end with technology. It’s now about making the world we envision possible. Over the past six months, we came to the conclusion that our new purpose is to Power an Inclusive Future for All.” 

He added,

“At Cisco, we have done our fair share of giving – whether it be the first $50 million we committed to solving homelessness in Silicon Valley in 2018 or the initial $225 million in COVID-19 global response we committed in March which we have grown to over $500 million today. But what happens when we take it beyond our financial means and put all the might of what makes Cisco unique towards fighting a pandemic or centuries of systemic racism?”

Well, let’s think about this for a moment.  What would happen if they put all the might of Cisco towards fighting a pandemic or racism?  Well, they’d likely go out of business.

This idea that your brand needs to be ALL about social mission – that 'brand purpose' trumps everything else you do - is tripping up countless CEOs and founders.

The problem with purpose

If you're a for-profit organisation, WHY you exist can’t just represent the community of stakeholders who will benefit from your contribution to the broader society but won’t buy your product or service.

Your why also needs to guide customer experiences and innovation, not just social impact. 

“It’s important to focus on what you’re best at and leverage your business to help others scale impact. “We are unapologetically a for profit business,” Warby Parker’s cofounder says. “If we tried to set up these programs all over the world, it would cause us to lose focus on product development and delivering great customer experiences. Organizational partners, like VisionSpring help set up programs and deliver impact where it’s needed most.”

Cisco could have addressed their desire to contribute to these incredibly worthy societal goals without throwing out their 'bridge to possible' idea. They could have worked on building a bridge to a future where it's not possible for any pandemic to take hold in the way this one has.  They could have kept a definition of WHY they exist that is rooted in what they mean to customers AND communities, that built on their brand and marketing equity, that was better placed to help them grow.

Just like Warby Parker does.

In summary - any brand can do 3 things to be like Warby Parker. 

  1. Define WHY you exist and make sure it reflects why people are going to care about your product, not just your programs.
  2. Define WHO you are – whether you articulate this as beliefs your values, it doesn’t matter – just be clear on what you stand for.
  3. Do things that are congruous with why you exist and what you believe. Don’t do things that aren’t.
    Because, “It’s funny - people hate hypocrites more than they hate the big polluters.” (Neil Blumenthal, Warby Parker). 

It can be that simple. 

Want to learn more on how to answer the 4 questions every strong brand needs to address? Grab my free mini-course, Brand Strategy in 7 Simple Steps.


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