Defiant 25 Profile: Zenni
How D2C eyewear brand Zenni unknowingly prepared for the year 2020.
By Jake Hellenschmidt
- In the March to May 2020 timeline, eyewear was not in demand in the way that athleisure or home goods were. Yet, much of the hard work that Zenni did, and the tough decisions they made, in the years leading up to 2020, positioned this company for overwhelming growth.
- Over the past 24 months, Zenni’s major investments in offline advertising, celebrity endorsements, and professional sports partnerships did as much to build brand awareness as they did to build credibility.
- “Because we have worked with this vision of mass scale for so long, our production was able to keep pace with the demand, producing around 20,000 pairs of glasses a day… Outside of some shipping delays that were out of our control, we really didn’t miss a beat.”
The Lead’s Defiant 25 list recognizes the brand and retail organizations that made tough choices and smart investments in the years leading up to 2020 — which positioned them well for the year’s unprecedented events. Zenni, one of the Defiant 25, is a D2C eyewear brand that we have been tracking for years. They have also been selected to The Foremost 50 list twice and they embody much of what the Defiant 25 stands for.
In this article, we look closely at Zenni and the actions they took to strengthen their business in recent years — and more specifically, what positioned them to thrive in March, April, and May, when 100% of the demand shifted online. We spoke with Sean Pate, Zenni’s Brand Marketing and Communications Officer, about the company’s investments in the online customer experience, their long term strategy to build brand awareness, attention, and trust, and, ultimately, making the investments to be able to deliver during a pandemic.
INVESTING IN THE ONLINE CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE
As a “tried and true” D2C brand, Zenni purposefully invested in creating a seamless shopping experience for buying prescription glasses online from day one. From their virtual try-on tool to intuitive buying guides, Zenni successfully translated the high-touch in-person discovery and fit process to digital. So when COVID hit and consumers could no longer buy glasses in person, they were in a winning position to take share from traditional retailers. As Pate put it, “We were effectively perfectly positioned to survive a pandemic.”
BRAND AWARENESS, ATTENTION, AND TRUST
With most of the effort going to developing and enhancing the online channel, Zenni took resources that otherwise may have been allocated to retail or wholesale, and instead utilized them for elevating, publicizing, and educating around the brand. In fact, over the past 24 months, major investments in offline advertising, celebrity endorsements, and professional sports partnerships did as much to build brand awareness as they did to build credibility. And on the back of this ‘trust-building’, a major investment in publicity served to validate the brand further. Finally, the focus on branding was the key piece in the effort. Creating a brand experience that can speak to all customers, rather than a narrow set of customers, is what enabled Zenni to truly grow. At the end of the day, when a customer arrives at the site, they are welcomed with a relatable brand, a story that inspires trust, and a sense of confidence. From March to May 2020, this mix was crucial in converting new customers and building market share.
BEING ABLE TO DELIVER
Staying disciplined to the business model and building trust and awareness were indeed essential key to amassing new customers during the lockdown. Being able to deliver on those orders was a feat of its own. In Q2, Zenni saw a nearly 100% increase in sales — which indeed could have put stress on any manufacturing operation, especially one largely based in China. However, and though Pate swears they don’t have a crystal ball that foresaw a 2020 lived solely online, Zenni was prepared. “We were ready for it, we certainly weren’t waiting for it, but it has been part of our model to be able to continue to scale. Because we have worked with this vision of mass scale for so long, our production was able to keep pace with the demand, producing around 20,000 pairs of glasses a day, which is an amazing number. Outside of some shipping delays that were out of our control, we really didn’t miss a beat.”
Although they were able to keep up with demand, Zenni — in true Defiant 25 fashion — did not ignore the alternative scenarios they could have encountered had China not re-opened so quickly. And as luck would have it, they had been planning to open a US-based facility for years (there’s that crystal ball again) and the pandemic gave Zenni “every reason to move forward with what had been ongoing conversations,” said Pate. The facility, being built in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, will not only cut delivery times from 7 days to 40 hours but will provide flexibility and the opportunity to further scale domestically.
BLOKZ & MORE
When creating the Defiant 25 List, one of our criteria was to select companies whose products did not have an implicit advantage in the time of COVID. For example, we downgraded some of Lululemon’s success because of the high demand for athletic apparel/loungewear and boosted certain companies in the formalwear or bridal space, as demand had dropped for these categories. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that Zenni had been investing in and promoting blue light blocking lenses for years. Zenni’s ‘Blokz’ (as they are branded) were indeed in the right place at the right time —so much so that for the first time, blue blocking lenses surpassed regular lens orders. The demand has also transcended individual orders and employers are placing bulk orders to send to their employees.
In the March to May 2020 timeline, eyewear was not in demand in the way that athleisure or home goods were. Yet, much of the hard work that Zenni did, and the tough decisions they made in the years leading up to 2020 positioned this company for overwhelming growth. We still can’t rule out the crystal ball of course.
A big thanks to Sean Pate and the Zenni team for sitting down with us for this article.