Optical Branding, a Legacy of the 1980’s Designer Explosion.

In a recent Vision Monday  article a veteran editor, Gloria Nicola, speaks of the positive contributions of optical branding.  Addressing some of the joys of her work over the past 27 years, the article quotes her as saying:

“One of the most important changes in the industry were the arrival of fashion designer names, which started to arrive first, via imports and then later in major licenses, particularly in the ’80s.”

I remember those early years!  I entered the field in 1983 and, at that time, there were very few “designer labels” in optical.  Frame manufacturers like Logo, Tura, and Luxotica stood on their own as brands.  There were some famous people who had licensed their names to frame lines (the two I remember were Jimmy Connors and Dorothy Hamel!) but few of them seemed to be associated with the truly top notch or higher priced frames.   

Then, in the next few years, everything changed.  The entire mercantile world became obsessed with designer branding.  It started with designer jeans but it spread, like a raging wildfire, into just about every aspect of consumer life.  Fashion designers didn’t just lend their names to clothing.  They placed their costly brands on everything, from accessories to perfumes, bedding, decorations, and even soap!  By the time of the “New Millenium”, you could literally pick your favorite fashion designer, clothe yourself from head to foot with his or her label, and completely furnish your home (even down to the shades of paint!) with their franchised goods as well.  And, of course, consumers wanted designer brand eyeglasses.  It was all part of the larger picture. 

The Optical Benefits of Designer Branding. 

There can really be no doubt that this “designer revolution” gave our industry an immediate benefit.  Before the 1980’s, glasses were something no one wanted.  I had a friend in high school (with a probable -2.00D Rx) who refused to wear her glasses.  Her parents got her fitted with contacts.  All the bespectacled faces in my high school yearbook sport thick, ugly plastic frames or heavy, plain metal frames.  They only wore glasses because they had to. 

When I worked for an optometrist in 1984 I was supposed to sell a frame in about 5 minutes.  If I couldn’t pick three frames off the rack and get the patient to choose one, I wasn’t doing my job.  Fashion had little to do with the practice of opthalmic dispensing.  They wouldn’t even show frames in the storefront window!  It wasn’t professional.

Man, have we EVER come a long way! 

Today’s patients are fashion savvy.  They want, and expect, to look good in their glasses.  Patients think shopping for the frame is fun and come in asking for their favorite brands.  Friends shop together and take “selfies”  to send to other friends.   Wearing glasses isn’t so bad anymore.  Instead, it’s COOL!  Today’s specs are an accessory. 

Now, I am not a brand shopper.  I buy things because I like them.  I don’t give a hoot for whose name is on the label, and I certainly wouldn’t pay MORE for something just because of a brand.  Yet even I (curmudgeon that I am!) can see the benefits of name branding to our industry.

The good thing, of course, is that it gets people to BUY more eyeglasses.  Specs have become a fashion commodity, not just a medically necessary device.  Patients are less afraid to get their eyes examined (What happens if I need… shudder… eyeglasses!) They accept it more easily if they do have to wear them.

Millions of patients buy more than one.  Some will buy one frame in multiple colors.  Others will buy different styles for different looks.  The concept of “Lifestyle Dispensing” took off at about this time.  We expected our patients to purchase multiple pairs.  One of my colleagues was famous for asking: “How many pairs of shoes do you have? So why would you only wear one, plain, brown pair of eyeglasses?”  It worked like a charm! 

Since designers always update their collections, frame styles changed rapidly too.  Every year brought something new and exciting, and the customers loved it.  People were less and less likely to just replace the lenses in their old frames.  They had to have something new! The Vision Monday article quotes their frame editor, Gloria Nicola, joyfully extolling the artistic contributions of certain designer houses over the past years. 

And… curmudgeon though I am, I have to agree with her. 

Eyeglass frames used to be UGLY and now they can actually be beautiful.  As a jewelry collector, I rejoice to see the little details in today’s frames.  Designers have worked wonders with trims, colors, contrasting materials, and even stones.  Selling eyeglasses can be as fun as wearing them! You get to be almost an artist yourself.

Of course, style doesn’t necessarily equal beauty.  There are styles right now that strain the imagination to call beautiful (I have said for years that designers are secretly laughing at us!)  Yet even that is all part and parcel of human society.  “Beauty” is in the eye of the beholder, and sometimes the beholder doesn’t want beauty, but to make a statement, to differentiate itself from some previous norm.  And this, too, shall pass.. and itself become passe.

Then, when the current fad passes into the realm of yesterday’s news, our patient/customers will want the next designer trend and they will flock to us to supply it.  Their prescriptions will have expired so they will need new eye exams.  The result will be new, trendy, exciting eyeglasses with prescriptions that are actually current!  Revenues go up.  We all keep our jobs.  What could there possibly be to not like about this? 

The Downside to Optical Branding 

Believe it or not, designer branding in the optical world has had a dark side.  It has led us down the wrong path. Yes, the frames are beautiful, and yes, people buy more of them, but the our industry isn’t just about fashion.  We are as much a medical field as we are a fashion/consumer field.  And we are a technology field too!  As eye-care professionals, we dispense technologically advanced optical devices that correct visual error. 

As I stated in my previous post, The Vocation of Opticianry, the whole reason our field exists is to provide patients with better vision.  Yes, we sell fashion products, but that is only the “icing on the cake” to giving patients back what Nature denied.  Sadly, since people tend to pay far more attention to their wants than their needs, we often have to convince people to want that good vision!  The “designer brand wave” that has swept our industry has put the focus (don’t excuse the pun!) entirely in the wrong place.  The frame in NOT the most important part of the purchase. 

Think about it.  If you were shopping for a new sound system, would you buy one because of how it looked, or how it sounded?  Or… would you spend $1,000 on a new TV simply because it was… pink?  Sound stupid?  Well of course!  Yet that is exactly how the average customer purchases eyewear!  It’s all about form, not function.

People come in to “shop” for the frames, and then we have to “sell” them the lenses.  A lot of the patients even refer to the frames on our wall as “lenses!”  In their mind, the devices that actually make them see better just sort of come with the fashion devices in our displays.  They pick the frame and think we do some sort of magic back in the lab that makes them work properly!  The idea that there are multiple ways of doing this, multiple options for those lenses, is incomprehensible.  A lot of them, if given the option, will stick with the old technology. 

It all goes back to wants vs needs.  Seeing well is a need.  Looking good is a want.  Lots of people will go into debt in order to look a little better.  They often have a much harder time justifying extra money to SEE a little better. 

I see it every day.  A patient spends hours trying on frames, but after finding just the “right look” they want basic, cheap lenses because they’re never going to wear them.  (Then why care how it looks?)  Parents fuss over a child’s new frame purchase.  They’ll grill you anxiously about size, fit, and appearance.  But then, when it comes to the lenses, you have an uphill battle concerning non-reflectives or aspherics.  “Oh, he just needs the basic.”  (needs, again!)  They think a child only needs to SEE, not see as well as possible.  Yet they need to look as good as possible? 

Now add in the problems of today’s optical insurance, which covers the most on the frame, and the least on the lenses, and we have an industry with exciting new technology coming out of our ears, but a marketing perception skewed in the wrong direction.  There has got to be a better way! 

The Solution?  MORE Designer Branding! 

The best way to fix this problem, believe it or not, is to employ the same venue we used to create it.  The optical industry put itself on the consumer map by aggressive advertizing, and popular designer frame branding. So we should do the same with the lenses.  BRAND the lenses! 

There are a number of lens companies that are already doing a good job of marketing their unique lens coatings or their patented progressive designs.  Yet that is simply a niche market.  What I’m talking about here is taking the idea to a higher step.  Even people who remember the lens adds often see these products as something they might buy “someday” when they can “afford” it.  Again, luxury lenses are NEEDS, not WANTS.  A lot of customers will pass up those advertized “better” lenses because they can get by OK with the regular ones, and many just can’t understand how the products can actually perform differently from what they already have.  They can SEE the look of a designer frame style.  They have to take your word on a lens technology. 

But MILLIONS of customers would spend the extra money on lenses with a fashion designer brand on them!  It makes perfect sense.  Patients spend hundreds of dollars on designer labeled frames to match their designer label clothing, shoes, and handbags.  Of course those same patients would want the same label on their exclusive designer lenses!  And it would be so simple to do it. 

There are only so many frame companies and even fewer lens companies, with one frame company perhaps marketing more than one designer name.  So let that frame company make a deal with a lens company.  With today’s new “digital” technology, there could be multiple ways to tweak a lens design to make it “exclusive” to a particular designer label.  Or even better yet, just tweak the non-glare coating to make a “custom” reflex color correspond to each designer’s signature shade!  Then add a laser cut logo in the lower right hand corner of the lens so that the designer brand is visible to everyone looking at the wearer.  All their friends will know they have these new, exclusive lenses.  People will buy them hand over fist! 

The marketing potential here is incredible.  I can think of plenty of ways for designers to put their artistry into those little laser-etched logos!  Reflective metallic materials?  Colors?  Stones? The possibilities are endless!  Modern, high tech lenses will go from being a need to a want, and people will be eager to buy them.  Optical revenue will skyrocket, stock in optical companies will rise, our profession will take another quantum leap in prestige, and the general public will be dragged (this time without the kicking and screaming!) into the modern age of clear, high performance, digitally designed, non-reflecting lenses! 

Designer optical branding:  Bring it on!