For Optical it’s a Brand (Anew) World… Every Day
By Jackie Micucci

These days it’s all about the power of the brand—building a brand, buying up a valuable brand, investing in a company’s brand equity, delivering a brand message, re-defining a brand… the list can go on and on. In fact, today’s bevy of celeb social climbers aspire to become brands themselves much like domestic diva Martha Stewart and hip hop mogul Jay-Z, very different people but both walking, talking brands that continue to grow and endure no matter what the circumstance.

Eyewear is no different. Frame designers of every ilk, dispensaries, lens manufacturers and even contact lens makers all need to build a strong and highly individualized brand aura in order to succeed in a landscape where consumers are constantly bombarded by a myriad of marketing messages.

With this story, experts from some of the nation’s top brand agencies dissect key elements that make up any successful brand. Retailers (be they optical or not) need to understand the essence of branding in order to make the proper merchandising point to consumers sometimes confused by the mixed messages of this brand-new world. And optical retailers (of course, the main concern here at 20/20) need to especially finetune their abilities to both medically dispense as well as “sell” in order to compete with all retail channels for those shared consumer dollars

“When we talk about a ‘brand’, we define it as a collection of experiences that reside in the hearts and minds of people,” explains Amanda Matusak, brand strategist for Deskey, a Cincinnati-based brand agency. “It’s not simply the name, the logo, the colors—it’s the entire breath of experiences. What is the value? Well, it’s up to you to do everything in your power to create an experience that is memorable— ownable— and relevant to your consumer.”

“Any strong brand starts with the company itself,” says Shawn Randall of Gel Communications, an ad agency and creative studio based in Glendale, Calif. “A company founded upon a strong philosophy and idea is the first main ingredient to a strong brand. This philosophy should translate directly into the quality of product, employee treatment and community involvement. This image of the company is ultimately what will live with the consumer daily. Strong brands go beyond a single product experience and work to communicate the core message of a given company across a broad range of products.”

But creating a good brand experience coupled with good brand values is not simple. “Mass retailers like Target have created expectations that ‘designer’ items are now available within reach,” notes Matusak. “Design is becoming cost of entry. Even Wal-Mart is working to position itself as being design conscious. So what makes it worth it for a consumer to buy your product instead of a product for half that price at Wal-Mart? It’s all about the brand. It’s all about having that strong relationship with the consumer.” “In all honesty, the market is in a state of total branding overload,” maintains Patrick Raske, also of Gel Communications. “As a stroll down the aisles of the Licensing Show reveals, anything recognizable is being sold as a brand. Consumers, like any living organism under attack, have developed incredible resistance to being ‘sold’ especially when there is no good reason for a far-fetched brand application. That said, branding has incredible value. Leveraging brand equity outside the core... now that’s tricky.”

So just how does a brand reach beyond its core? “Think of Starbucks,” says Raske. “No disputing the quality, integrity and power of that brand. But does that translate into a home furnishings line? Any commercially successful product in the market is based on knowledge of the targeted consumer. What is their world about and is the product designed to fit into that world? Does the content jibe? Is the expression in sync with the buyer? Moving into non-literal brand application is crucial… and tough.”

A brand walks a tight rope. Whether a store or a product there needs to be stability, however, the marketplace is always in a state of flux. “Your brand should never ever change. It is the core of your product—it is your soul,” maintains Matusak. “Your brand should marry up with the brand essence of the retailer you are courting. They should be able to work together to attract the same target audience.” This factor is of particular importance to optical retailers wishing to ply the niche approach with categories such as luxury eyewear, children’s eyewear and value eyewear. And it stages equal importance when considering a shift in the balance of sunwear being sold at an optical dispensary.

So then change isn’t good for a brand? Well, not exactly. “Your messaging, on the other hand, absolutely must change to meet the needs of your consumer,” adds Matusak. “For consumers, brand messaging needs to project an image that marries to their desired state. Know your target and what they want. For retailers, it’s important that a brand’s line matches their image. But it’s also important for them to understand what the brand’s product offers them.”

Another point the experts note is that a store is more than a mere showcase of brands, it is a brand unto itself. “Leveraging your brand equity is one of the most important things you can do,” says James Fredrick, director of Brand Experience at Landor Associates, a leading worldwide brand consultancy headquartered in San Francisco. “Every store design decision is a brand decision. The physical design, the sound, the scent—it all contributes to the overall experience.”

That experience begins from the moment a customer reaches the store parking lot and, nowadays, starts even before they are physically there thanks to the Internet. “What is the customers doing before they even get to the store?” asks John O’Meara, also of Landor. “Are there online touch points, direct marketing, advertising? What are they doing after the purchase to drive loyalty? There is a pre- and post-store experience. A lot of retailers are concerned about first point-of-purchase. The retailer needs to engage the shopper and provide an excellent shopping experience.”

O’Meara cites the Apple store as a good example of a retail experience that helps reinforce a positive brand message. “When you walk into the Apple store, it’s an extension of the whole Apple experience,” he says. “Its very spare product display is unabashedly about their product.”

What happens when a brand does such a good job that its name becomes synonymous with the product it represents? For example, when a patient walks into a dispensary wanting to get lenses that turn from clear to dark, they may ask about getting Transitions not even realizing this is a brand name for what they want—photochromics. How does that impact the brand and the retailer?

“We refer to this as a ‘reference brand,’ “ explains Matusak. “Obviously being a reference brand can be a powerful position. You created the category—you the standard. It’s a lot easier to be first to market than to be a ‘me too’ product. However, being a reference brand can put you in a tough position. For one, you are forever tied to the product that made you a reference brand—consumers are skeptical of ‘innovation’ within your brand. Second, you are forever battling to actually own your own name. When we worked with Johnson and Johnson, it was absolutely taboo to say ‘band-aid’ without adding the word ‘® Brand’—in written form or verbally.”

Being a reference brand is indeed a mixed blessing, concurs Larissa Desai of Gel Communications. “Kleenex owner Kimberly- Clark doesn’t benefit from a sale of a generic brand tissue just becathe purchaser refers to the item as a ‘box of Kleenex.’ Xerox fell on hard times despite a similar brand/category identification. So such an identification is not always a good thing for a brand. In part, this is becawith all the resources poured into advertising, differentiation is critical to ensuring that a brand maintains market share.”

However, Desai does cite (or should we say site) one brand where its reference status works for it. “In today’s tech field when some one says ‘Hey, Google XYZ’ they mean search for ‘XYZ’ on the Internet search engine Google,” she notes. “This is an example of a company whose solid brand and great product has the search engine market cornered. But if Google fails to stay ahead of the competition with its branding, quality and value, ‘Google XYZ’ could eventually become ‘genericized.’”

Think about the power of your brand—how to make it stronger and how its equity and core message can help grow your business. Remember the end-consumer and their image of your store and product.

“Truly successful companies are those that are involved in more than just making money,” says Gel’s Randall. “When a company like Home Depot invests dollars and time into building local parks in its community, this goes a long way to promote and build its brand image and consumer relations. This authenticity goes beyond company values into the very philosophy of the product itself and the relationship the product has with the consumer. An in-depth understanding of this will lead to core messages that will speak directly to your consumer and create a connection with your product.”

And that sensitive point-of-view should come as second nature to optical retailers since what they are really “selling” is the medical marvel of better vision and that missive is certainly higher than the goal of just selling to make money