Pearle Vision CMO Doug Zarkin on Having an Eye for a Brand
Updated: Nov 25, 2019
On today's episode, Pearle Vision Chief Marketing Officer Doug Zarkin joins Authentic Influence for a conversation on how the brand is staying focused on the future through genuine brand identity.
Today, you'll learn:
How Pearle Vision pursues a "Quality care brand" strategy
How the brand builds trust through doctors as franchisees
Competing against the wave of DTC in eyewear (Warby Parker, Felix Gray, etc)
Tips on how to become a more authentic marketer
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Music: "Streetview" by Jahzzar is licensed under a Attribution-ShareAlike License (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Adam: All right folks. Got Another interview on tap today. I am here with Doug Zarkin from Pearle Vision. Doug, thanks so much for coming on the show. How are you doing this morning?
Doug: Good, thank you for having me.
Adam: It's a pleasure to have you. I can't wait to dive into this conversation specifically because I know Pearle vision is a big player in eyewear and I also know that I eyewear, uh, is one of these industries recently, which has been changing a lot specifically with the way we talk about social becoming direct, uh, amplifying and fostering stories and experiences of consumers. So really glad that you came on the show today. So, um, we're going to talk about all sorts of topics related to that, but, let's just start at the very beginning. Let's start at how you got involved with the, with Pearle vision and your just journey up to this point.
Doug: Sure. So, um, I joined Luxxotica in 2012 to, um, as part of a leadership change, uh, overhaul to help revitalize the Pearle Vision vision and brand. Um, Pearle Vision is the franchise model within the Luxxotica family. Um, the majority of our nearly 600 locations in North America are owned and operated by opticians and optometrists. But the brand had experienced, um, a number of years of relatively stagnant levels of growth. And in a franchise system, if you're not growing, that's not a good thing. That's not a good thing cause it doesn't attract new owners to join the Pearle Vision family. It's also not good because the number one job, um, as the, the franchisor is to help drive profitability for each and every location that carries your brand name. And so, um, when I joined the organization in 2012, it was really to bring a, a bit of energy focus and vitality into what is really an iconic brand. Pearle Vision was started in 1961 by Dr. Stanley Pearle in Savannah, Georgia. And, um, truly was the groundbreaking brand within the optical retail landscape, but had fallen on some challenging times. And really there was some opportunities to, to focus the brand in a much greater way. Um, and that's a skill and frankly, a challenge that I love. Um, and it's been pretty consistent in my career, dating back to the beginning of my career in the agency world, moving through organizations such as Avon products, limited brands, and then joining Luxxotica in 2012 where I've been ever since.
Adam: And so these past couple of years you've really been able to take that, that, that transition and leadership, take it in stride and, and, and make Pearle Vision better than ever. And I want to talk about a couple of things within that. I want to talk about, uh, you know, being a quality care brand. I want to talk about building relationships, but if we could start really broad and then we'll specify, I'm sure then that comes hand in hand with the premise that authenticity as a brand is extremely important. I would just love to know your very brief thoughts on that and then we'll dive into some of the specifics.
Doug: So, um, you know, a brand is really nothing more than a group of people that share a similar belief system. Um, brands are not tangible, brands are emotional. Um, they stand for something, they represent something. There's a set of ideals. And so for us, uh, one of the core ideals that represent the Pearle Vision brand is the notion of genuine, um, genuine is not only in the fact that the, the kind of services both in the eyecare and the eyewear arena that we deliver, but more importantly the how we do it. The fact that we are really a brand that is at the local level owned by local people in the community that most importantly have a commitment to the people behind the eyes. And so authenticity for us is a vital component of what differentiates us and frankly, um, has evolved us from being perceived as this antiseptic national brand into a brand that really is part of the local communities in which we own and operate one of our eye care centers.
Adam: Yeah, that's a great point. And, I like how you used the word antiseptic as an adjective there. I haven't heard that very much. Um, the model that you mentioned there, the franchisor model where, uh, you know, doctors are owning the, the, the stores operating the stores that Pearle Vision has in its fleet has to mean, you know, that you're inevitably gonna get something more local and more authentic than you talked broadly about shifting from strategies that were more price focused and promotion focused to, to quality care with, you know, this unmatched commitment to care from the exam floor to the retail floor. Do you think that that is bolstered by the fact that local doctors are running these locations?
Doug: Absolutely. I think it's, it's whether it's a neighborhood optician or optometrist, the fact that we are a brand that is really driven out of somebody who lives in the community is an incredible advantage for our business. Um, you know, you not only have a very good sense of what's happening in the community, you, you make yourself available to the community as more than just a retail destination, but more of a support system. Um, you know, eyecare is one of those categories that you don't know you need it until you need it. Meaning, you know, all of a sudden you start getting really bad headaches or things are starting to look blurry. Um, you know, the TV screen, you can't read the guide at the bottom of it or the, the, the words on the page are a little bit blurry out of focus or heaven forbid, as a parent, if you've got a note from, you know, your child's teacher that your son or daughter's having difficulty reading the board, then you become a mission critical healthcare entity. And it's, it's not only then do we thrive, but also really getting into the community and offering proactive eyecare. You know, unfortunately our category is not one right now, like dental or pediatrics where consumers are driven to schedule that annual exam and annual checkup because that's the way they did it when they were children. You know, the importance of eyecare is still an emerging discipline. And so, um, you know, we have to work hard to inform and educate, um, in order to stimulate people to take the action that we want them to do.
Adam: Yeah, that's a great point. And, um, it's even, you know, better to know that you have somebody who lives right down the street to help you out with that. Um, is that something that has really blossomed since you came on that developing that trust between doctor or patient or is that something that's been much more longstanding?
Doug: No, I, I think, um, it's something that's always been inherent in our system. I think in the last seven years we've had the opportunity to liberate that message and bring it more to the forefront. And it's obviously, it's a lot more than just what marketing does, you know? Um, you know, we tend to get some of the glory and most of the blame when things don't go well, but we have an unbelievable cross functional team… operations, product, um, finance that really helps to take this message and ensure that it gets out and connects with consumers. But I would say in the last seven years, we've done a much better job of bringing it to life and reminding people, you know, who we are, what we do.
Adam: Okay, well that's great to know. And of course I have to ask, because within these last seven years, there has been a quite a transformation in eyewear as an industry with this wave of direct to consumer. Lots and lots of folks popping up competitively, lots of brands trying to get some share here. A lot of them that I see tend to be talking about price and promotion… sort of sounds like the strategy that Pearle Vision may have had before shifting to quality care. What do you assess to be the nature of that competition from say a Warby Parker or a Felix Grays? And how does Pearle Vision respond to that?
Doug: So, you know, I think our category is one where unfortunately the products and services have been commoditized by competitors that don't necessarily have an ingrained reason to believe. Um, you know, for us we have such a very strong heritage in doctor quality because we are a brand that was founded by a doctor. Um, and the epicenter of what we do focuses on eyecare first. Um, I think in every category that's competitive like optical, you're going to find players at all different price points and you know, while they create some degree of noise, at the end of the day, if you deliver an amazing value proposition… value equal to experience over price, it's somewhat irrelevant what the competition is doing. Focusing more on what you do and being the best you you can be has been a pretty important part of I think our resurgence to the top of the category.
Adam: Well great. I'm glad that you hold that opinion. That's just something like you know, like I said, that industry has, um, at least in the way that it is his played in mass marketing to me, um, just strikes me as a consumer as one that is, that is extremely competitive. But, um, I want to talk a little bit about the ways in which you are taking these stories in the way in which you are, you know, um, uh, promoting the, the great experience that your consumers are having with you that, uh, you know, that you are striving to make as good as you can against this competition. So I want to learn a little bit about, you know, the sort of the environments that you foster, which allows these stories and experiences to shine through, whether it be through the experience in the store, other things that Pearle Vision is doing, perhaps content that is being, uh, produced, released, amplified. But I would just like to know from the start, how do you create the environments in which consumers can have these wonderful experiences to talk about?
Doug: Well, first of all, from a vernacular perspective, it begins with the fact that we don't refer to our retail locations as stores. We refer to them as eyecare centers. And we do that because a store has customers and customers demand service and an eyecare center has patients and they expect care. And so the ladder allows us to put ourselves in the right mindset in order to succeed. Uh, the amplification of our messaging starts with the, with the actual experience itself. Um, brands are no longer in 100% control of their reputation. Um, we have spent a significant amount of time coaching and training our associates, our, our franchisees, our doctors on the importance of engaging in the narrative that is your reputation. And so, um, we have built out very strong relationships with companies that help us manage the reputation. And by managing, I mean giving us the visibility to what is happening in the digital ecosystem.
Doug: Um, when you have a negative experience, for example, it's actually an opportunity to try to regain control of the narrative and turn somebody who is an adversary into an advocate. And we have done that on a number of occasions simply by listening and asking the question of what could we be doing a better job of, um, the stories that we tell both in our and our video creative. And I think importantly, even in our display, creative has allowed the consumer to be in the right mindset for what they should expect when they come into a Pearle Vision, what they should expect in terms of the trust and expertise that we possess. Um, I think social has been an invaluable part of that ecosystem. It's not only offering us the opportunity to showcase different facets of the Pearle Vision offering like our best-in-class product, um, but it also is awesome for is us an opportunity to showcase the experience and expertise we have in the eyecare category. Seasonal allergy tips, the importance of Rx sun, protecting your eyes, the importance of vision care for kids. These are all messages that help really drive a reputation and a perception that is positive, that supports the brand's commitment to eyecare.
Adam: I like how you make that, uh, that delineation there from, and, and you know, I wasn't even thinking about it myself when I was saying, Oh, this, the stores, you never will. It's not really bad. It's, it's, it's eyecare centers expecting care. And that just starting conversation like that can certainly, um, can certainly change the whole conversation. And actually even as you said it there, Doug and made me think, maybe wonder about the true nature of the competition that you're going up against. But anyway, that's neither here nor there necessarily. I want to know about some of these stories. I mean, do you have a couple favorites of people who've, you know, have really benefited from, from the Pearle Vision story and maybe, uh, stories of, uh, you know, an up and coming doctor who has really thrived through the brand?
Doug: You know, there, I'd rather not get specific and call out an individual doctor cause it wouldn't be fair. Um, in terms of the, the number of successes that we've had within the business, I will say, um, there are an incredible number of stories of where our doctors have gone beyond just prescribing a, a script for corrective lenses and have actually uncovered something pretty significant. I mean, one in particular, I won't mention his name, but, um, uh, a doctor here in the New York area who was giving a routine eye exam. And as part of that looks into the eye and saw a pressure build up in the, um, in the area behind the eye and basically said to the patient, listen, I'm stopping the exam. You need to get to an emergency room immediately. This could be something significant. And sure enough, it was, um, it was a pressure build up and in, in the area behind the, the eye. The patient got it taken care of pretty quickly and was fine, but had that ruptured, it could've led to a serious issues, serious brain issues. And so there are a number of stories where we have our doctors just doing that kind of comprehensive exam experience and being able to do more than just treat vision correction, you know, early onset diabetes, macular degeneration, high blood pressure. These are all things that can, that can be, um, noticed by a comprehensive eye exam. So we have a number of great examples in our system of where our doctors are going above and beyond and finding out things that are more overall health and wellness related than just purely saying you're a minus two or a minus one. I need a pair of prescription glasses.
Adam: Right. Wow. That is a story of, uh, you know, certainly of, of, of urgency and emergency. But, you know, glad obviously that happened there and it's, it's, I suppose, you know, I'm, I'm surprising myself just a little bit through this interview or perhaps you're surprised me with the, these answers here Doug, just a little bit because, you know, I keep, I ask questions on the show a lot about, oh, what are your great stories? And we get lots of feel good stories about like, oh, they really, they really liked the x. And so then we were able to amplify y. And I guess it's really started when you talked about, hang on, I'm gonna clear my throat. Excuse me. It really started when we talked about the transition to eye care centers, but these stories then are not just stories of people who have a certain number and a prescription. I mean, these are, these are stories about health. These are stories about people being better at, these are stories about people needing care and getting it. So, uh, that's great. I'm glad that you have that digest of those sorts of stories and that and that you're able to, uh, to pump them back out into the world, you know, you know, uh, however you may be able to do that. I have a question about, um, specifically about what's new at Pearle Vision in a way… what are some new ways in which Pearle Vision is trying to, uh, to build these relationships? Trying to tell the story, trying to give these good messages of, uh, of the health benefit and, and the quality of care that provision has come to provide in the last seven years.
Doug: Well, what's new is what's new is the fact that we are consistently, consistently delivering a, an amazing patient experience. What's new is the fact that we have raised the bar into what one of our neighbors should expect, um, from a comprehensive eye exam at Pearle Vision… from an expert finding, helping you find that perfect pair guiding you through the process of finding that perfect pair. What's new is the fact that Pearle Vision has really restored its relevancy as a brand commitment to care. Those are all things that are new and they're new because they are, we have for the last seven years has been on a journey to really rearchitect the brand narrative to really reeducate consumers on what Pearle Vision stands for. Hardest thing in marketing is to reeducate a consumer on what you, what you stand for. Easy to build brand awareness, hard to build, educated brand awareness, extremely challenging to reeducate somebody on what your brand is. And we have an amazing cross functional team that has been able to successfully reposition Pearle Vision as a premium neighborhood destination that has focused on eyecare and eyewear.
Adam: And as that premium neighborhood destination and taking, taking on that persona, what's something that you think that consumers or patients will say that might not know about Pearle Vision that they should?
Doug: Well, first of all I think, I don't think they know that we are a brand that's owned by doctors and opticians. Um, Pearle Vision as a franchise brand, um, prides itself on, you know, nearly 80% of our locations are locally owned and operated. What that means is that we are not some generic national brand that is just trying to get you in and get you out… that we are a brand of people caring for people and these people live the communities in which we own and operate. I think that's the first thing. I think the second thing is most people don't know that there actually was a Dr. Stanley Pearle, um, that this brand has its roots in the medical community and that we really were the brand that essentially created the optical retail category. Um, and have been a leader ever since this brand opened its first location in Savannah, Georgia. Um, what I think is really exciting is people have begun to recognize the fact that we are different. Um, we're different from some sister brands at Luxxotica like Lens Crafters. We're different than, than online brands… some that you mentioned before, you know, we stand for something that is meaningful. Um, and I think that differentiation is beginning to really come through and resonate and it's resulting in consistent growth.
Adam: Well, first of all, that's really great to hear about the growth and, and, and good for consumers to know or good for patients to know and what they should know. I keep doing that. Um, but to know that it is truly from the ground up community built by doctors, uh, for the patients. Yeah. You know what, I, I think that is a really important point to be hammering home. Sure. Obviously that, you know, much more than I, but, uh, I got two more questions here for you, Doug. The first, well actually they're both related to this broad, uh, umbrella of authenticity. Uh, but the first is, is related to a little bit of it, a self-assessment here because here at the, here at the show, we're all about defining authenticity. Alright? Practicing what you preach and for a brand, what that really means is that, you know, are you properly, um, are you grassroots? Are you mobilizing the masses? Are you cultivating personal relationships with the patients? In this case, in generally with consumers, fans and followers that you hold. Now, if you think about a scale from zero to 10, where zero is on that scale, not authentic at all and 10 is very authentic, totally authentic with way you do things, I mean, right now, where would you put Pearle Vision on that list?
Doug: You know, I think we're in in the mid eights. Um, and I, I think the reason why I would not give myself a rating higher is because we have made great progress, but we're not perfect. Um, you know, you are only as good as the worst location that flies your banner. And I think we have a little bit of inconsistency in the system that we're working towards. I also think that each and every day we're learning about how to really refine our neighborhood eyecare experience to be even more genuine as we like to call it, um, to ensure that we're meeting every patient's needs. You know, it's very challenging to anticipate what somebody wants and is even more challenging to understand what somebody needs. And so that's the journey that we're on, but we have made remarkable progress. Our operations team in partnership with our human resources group has built out a, an experience platform that allows us to more often than not deliver that amazing experience to really deliver value, uh, for our men, for our friends in the community.
Adam: Well, that's great. I'm glad that, I'm glad that you recognize there's always a little ways to go. And, and of course the, you know, you're only as strong as your weakest link, but, uh, appreciate the insight there. And then finally, Doug, one question is more personal based on your experience and also the folks that listen to this show. Uh, our listeners are largely marketers and students of the craft and I always want to be knowing from our guests what some of the tips are to become more authentic because the folks that tune into this show are anywhere from your sole proprietor to your small business marketing team, uh, to working at a Fortune 500 or a Fortune 100 entity. So given your, let's say, let's start with the microcosm of your experience at Pearle Vision over the last seven years, but then obviously your vast experience in brands in a much longer time span. What are some of your tips for how to best get started with building a more authentic experience in a more authentic brand?
Doug: So that's a great question and I think it comes back to what is marketing. And I'm not talking about what they teach you in college, I'm talking about at its core. What is marketing? Marketing is about positioning. Positioning is about the art of sacrifice. The journey that we have been on at Pearle Vision started with appreciating the fact that you can't be everything to everybody. In our case, we prioritized that commitment to genuine eye care and that was the pathway that has allowed us to move forward as quickly as we have. I think the second thing is because you are making progress, don't believe for a second that that's perfection. And that speaks to the fact that, you know, we are in year seven of our five year plan and it's not because we haven't achieved results, it's actually we’ve blown results out of the, out of the water. It's because we recognize that our definition of success evolves as the category evolves, as new competitors come in, the way in which we do things need to be tweaked to best reflect the changing needs, wants and desires of those in the community. I would say the last thing is surround yourself with a team of amazing people. Um, you know, I'm fortunate that I have, uh, a group of, as I like to call them, marketing superheros that work with me on Pearle Vision, not only within the organization but our outside agency partners as well. Um, but I would tell you that the leadership team of Pearle Vision is the reason why Pearle is successful. I contribute to that. Sure. Marketing has made some great strides. But without my fellow leaders in operations, product finance, um, human resources, we would not be able, I have been able to make the step changes that we need needed to holistically to make the difference. A brand is the sum of all parts. As I mentioned, a brand is nothing more than a group of people with a shared set of beliefs, those beliefs permeate a lot more than, than a lot deeper than just from what a marketing campaign is. It really is the essence of not just what you do but how you do it.
Adam: Well, great thoughts all and uh, you folks, if, uh, if you are, you know, if you are currently a patient of, of an eyecare facility or you need something you know in that in that vein would surely recommend that you check out the places that are owned by doctors themselves. Like Pearle Vision. Uh, Doug Zarkin thank you so much for, for your time and your insight here. I can't wait to see what the brand has coming up later this year and further into the future. And for now. Thanks for coming on the show.
Doug: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.