Warby Parker sells a monocle. Which just about no one buys. But don’t underestimate the value of a great brand statement.
One of my favorite products at Warby Parker also happens to be our worst-selling item: the monocle. When we launched in 2010, our debut collection featured 27 pairs of eyeglasses and one monocle–a handsome tortoiseshell model named after Colonel Mustard. Despite dismal sales and growth prospects that roughly equal zero, the monocle has remained in rotation ever since. My wife Rachel even waged a bet with my co-founder Jeff that we’d never sell out of our first order.
Her skepticism made sense. On its face, a monocle is a strange item for a 21st-century company to sell. It seems like the equivalent of Apple unveiling an iTypewriter or Schwinn manufacturing a penny-farthing bicycle (the kind with the gigantic front wheel). Or SanDisk rolling out a line of floppy disks. In general, obsolete technology is obsolete for a reason. Monocles are no exception.
But that’s exactly why I love it. Nobody expects to stumble across a monocle while shopping in 2013. We have a showroom right inside our office headquarters in New York, and one of my favorite things to do is catch sight of customers discovering the monocle. A familiar behavioral arc follows: it starts with a “What the hell?” expression, proceeds to a smile, and usually ends with trying on the monocle, forcing various companions to try on the monocle, imitating a historical figure, and/or snapping a picture.
The truth is that the monocle creates a sense of surprise in customers while maintaining an intuitive connection to our core products–which is an important distinction to make. It’s not a random gimmick. We could sell fly-fishing rods or bean bags and provoke an equally surprised response, but it would also be a mystified response. The goal is to surprise customers, not confuse them.
The monocle is also a succinct and quirky way to represent what Warby Parker stands for–in other words, a brand piece. It’s unexpected, it starts conversations, and it’s fun to share. (Where else can you buy a monocle?) And because it lives entirely outside any remotely relevant trend cycle, it’s also, in its own peculiar way, sort of timeless. A handful of chefs have even told me that they use the monocle in their restaurant kitchens to read recipes; it’s easy to store in a pocket and doesn’t fog up as easily as glasses. I think of it as our own version of the stick of gum that used to come in packs of baseball cards–a small gesture that sets the brand apart.
My wife still owes Jeff ten dollars.