Adam Lewis

NexThought Monday – Warby Parker Blurring Lines Between ‘Social’ and ‘Business’: Glasses firm takes BOGO model to new heights

Last month, determined to keep up with the latest trend in hipster eyewear, I purchased my first pair of Warby Parker glasses. Warby was all the buzz among vision-impaired colleagues and friends, boasting styles and prices that were uniquely embraced on both sides of the East River -– a rare feat for a New York City population known for making a mainstream trend out of resisting mainstream trends. And, of course, there’s its social mission: A “buy one, give one” model that has become a major selling point for companies trying to reach more socially conscious consumers.

But Warby’s success hinges on more than its product and mission, demonstrating a new and very simple kind of “corporate social responsibility” that companies can no longer afford to take lightly.

By now, the concept of socially responsible business practices is nothing new. We’ve seen multinational companies invest in CSR initiatives for decades, sometimes as a means of enhancing reputation, other times as a way of cultivating new geographic and demographic markets. But publicly traded companies are often constrained by shareholders in how they approach CSR: They are beholden to profit-maximizing activities, expected to deliver on an economic bottom line, not a social one.

This expectation has paved the way for social businesses and “benefit corporations” – profit-seeking companies that blend in a social mission to their bottom line, using market forces to stay afloat while also accounting for the interests of employees, the community and the surrounding environment. Brands like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s are ubiquitous B Corps, formally registered to jointly pursue social and financial gain.

But yet another nuance has emerged in the world of corporate social responsibility: the buy one, give one model. Companies like TOMS Shoes – which donates a pair of shoes to low-income countries for every pair purchased in high-income ones – have tapped into the formerly unrequited millennial desire to do good from a distance – and with style. This model has now been adopted by dozens of other companies selling products ranging from soccer balls to backpacks to condoms.

Warby Parker does the same; it just does it better.

(The author says Warby Parker’s “buy a pair, give a pair” business model helps catalyze the economy in developing countries, left.)

On the surface, Warby’s “buy a pair, give a pair” approach sounds like any other BOGO model: For each pair of glasses sold, it donates one (plus other funds) to nonprofits like Vision Spring. However, “buy a pair, give a pair” is actually a bit of a misnomer. Instead of simply giving glasses away, Warby’s donations to Vision Spring enable the organization to train and supply individual entrepreneurs to sell glasses at affordable prices in low-income countries. Unlike TOMS, whose donations are often criticized for undercutting local businesses and perpetuating a culture of dependency, Warby catalyzes economic development and productivity by empowering micro-entrepreneurs and improving access to an often-overlooked public health need.

While this twist on the BOGO model certainly represents an important step forward in the world of socially responsible business, Warby’s social consciousness bleeds into the company’s operations in equally progressive ways. And it’s setting a new gold standard for simple, genuinely engaged business practice.

Take its social media activities, for instance. Whereas more regulated industries like pharma have failed to embrace social media for many legal and compliance constraints – thereby appearing out of touch – Warby uses platforms like Twitter and Facebook to stay engaged with its younger, more digitally active market. Whether it’s uploading videos thanking bloggers for sharing new collections or posting fun facts about its sales team, Warby uses common language and channels to reach its audience in creative, interactive ways.

It’s no surprise then that its customer service follows suit. We’ve all had our share of painful experiences liaising with companies while we waited for a product, hoped for an exchange or wished to file a complaint. I’m in that club, too. So imagine my delight when I received a series of personal emails from Warby’s sales team detailing different glasses options based on my prescription, complete with exclamation points and smileys throughout. No automated response. No nondescript legal jargon. Just a pleasant back-and-forth with a real person.

And then Warby confirmed my order with an email titled, “Let the obsessive package tracking begin.” Since then, they’ve invited me back to the store to adjust my glasses for free (including an old pair purchased elsewhere).

The company has also found creative ways of reaching consumers who aren’t in walking distance from boutique shopping areas: by bringing the dressing room to you. It offers a webcam-enabled virtual mirror that allows you to try on glasses while shopping online. And if you’d like a more hands-on experience, Warby will ship you up to five sets of frames to try on at home free of charge. Both of these offerings create a personal touch that is too often lacking in the consumer retail experience.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly: the price. Go to other retailers like Lenscrafters and you’ll expect to pay several hundred dollars for frames, with hidden costs for lenses often embedded in the total price (I paid $425, for instance, not realizing that my prescription bumped the price of lenses up by $200). But at Warby, what you see is what you pay, and what you see is almost always a flat rate of $95 for frames and lenses – and rather fashionable ones at that.

From its take on the BOGO model to its personalized consumer experience, Warby Parker’s offerings combine to position the company as a stand-out example of socially conscious business. But I’d be hard-pressed to argue that Warby’s business practices are any more “social” than they are just good business.

As social businesses and B Corps continue to pervade the corporate world, it’ll be fascinating to watch the lines between “social” and “business” continue to blur, with accountability to the community and environment becoming an expectation, not just a selling point. Thanks to Warby, I can clearly see what that world might look like.

Adam Lewis is a senior associate at Rabin Martin, a global health strategy firm in New York. He has no financial stake in Warby Parker.

corporate social responsibility, marketing and advertising