Why is the eyewear industry bad at branding?

If nothing else this should drive home a truth I think is universally recognized but seldom spoken: the industry is horrendous at branding.

12th August 1913: Three suffragettes wearing sandwich boards in English, French and German protest against the British government’s policies regarding women. The accusation is that ‘The British Government is Murdering Women’. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Why is this?

It was through a series of historical accidents that optical dispensaries came to retail fashion product in the first place. There were some isolated forerunners: manufacturers like Tura and Optyl, retailers like Optique Boutique, Pierre Marly, and Lugene’s, but most of the rest of the industry was more concerned with science and medicine than style, which is what they were trained for.

Painting with the broadest strokes, here’s what happened:

Before the 1980s only plano sunglasses were generally regarded as fashion items. The companies that produced them used drug and department stores as their main retail channels. They were closer to fashion companies than optical companies. Beginning in the late 1970s a number of factors decimated that sector. It quickly declined. At this point optical companies that sold almost exclusively to optical specialty stores filled the vacuum and became the category’s fashion leaders, largely by default. The rapidly growing designer licensing paradigm helped make this happen.

Suddenly a part of the industry that had little prior experience creating or selling fashion product found itself controlling a vast, fashion driven market created over the course of 50 years by a separate, now effectively defunct, group of companies that had known how to create and build fashion brands.

Under these circumstances companies that could produce, sell and distribute the best became titans. From top to bottom B to B skills trumped marketing to the end consumer. Brand building was not a required part of the tool kit.

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