Seeing Your Way to the Right Positioning

CMO Spotlight: Doug Zarkin, Pearle Vision

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Doug Zarkin, CMO, Pearle Vision.
Doug Zarkin, CMO, Pearle Vision. Credit: Pearle Vision

When Doug Zarkin grabbed the reins as CMO of Pearle Vision five and a half years ago, he found a 55-year old brand that was "stuck in the death spiral of where brands never want to live -- in the middle." By Zarkin's count, the brand had gone through 10 different positions, 10 different reasons to believe -- none of which caught hold in the preceding decade. He was also greeted with a letter from a franchise owner that said, "Dear Doug: Welcome to Pearle Vision, I hope you suck less than the last person who had your job!" In our interview below, you'll see how Zarkin rose to the challenge and helped guide Pearle Vision into a clear positioning and a winning execution.

When you first got to Pearle Vision and recognized the need for a new positioning, how long did you give yourself?

If you know anything about retail, there's a sense of urgency. I essentially had six months to crack the code. In fact, when I joined the company, my predecessor actually remained on the team to essentially keep the business going while I was working on crafting the future state. Within six months, we had to find what the brand was going to stand for. We identified that we needed to update the entire visual iconography, that we needed to update the store design. And we began the journey. But by no means does the journey begin and end in six months -- it's a journey that you have to continually press on, every day.

You had three months to research and three months to execute. What positioning did you land on?

The positioning of "genuine eye care from your neighborhood doctor" came about from a philosophy that I learned from my first client-side job at Avon ... [that] you have to go out in the field. Any marketer worth his salt knows that a positioning that doesn't make for great execution is just words on paper. And so, looking inward to what we stood for as a brand required me to look outward from the boardroom, and get into our locations, talk to our doctors, talk to our franchisees, understand what we really were embodying in a three dimensional way, and then bringing that back and looking at what we as a brand could really own.

As a brand founded by a doctor, Dr. Stanley Pearle in 1961, we had a heritage that we could stand for -- genuine eye care. We needed to do it in a way that was authentic. We wanted to be that premier optical brand that owned the neighborhood, that could win the battle for patients at the community level. And so, every part of 'genuine eye care from my neighborhood doctor' means something. It most importantly means the art of sacrifice. There's a lot of things we shouldn't do.

Talk about how that positioning got executed. How did you align this at the local level?

First off, we refer to both our doctors and opticians as eye care experts. Our locations are often in strip malls next to a nail salon or a Chipotle, for example. So we don't even call them stores anymore. They're EyeCare centers. We don't have "customers" -- we treat everyone as a patient. When you talk to somebody, and you think of them as a patient, it automatically denotes an expectation and delivery of an experience of a higher level of care. These seem like really small things, but in the spirit of the sum of marginal gains, all of these nuances have allowed us to embrace the DNA of the brand and the new positioning.

You mentioned sacrifice. What did you give up?

I go back to what my first boss taught me: that marketing is the art of positioning, which is the art of sacrifice. There are a lot of things you could say, but what are the opportunities where you believe you can win? Being owned by Luxottica, who owns brand like Ray Ban and Oakley, and holds the optical license for well over a dozen premier fashion brands, we carry the best-in-class assortment of frames.

And we could talk at length about the amazing product we carry -- and we do in some channels -- but we knew that alone wasn't going to meaningfully distinguish us in a growing, competitive and commoditized category. So we had to look at what was going to allow us to win.

Let's turn to execution. How have you turned this positioning into a story with emotional appeal?

Among a host of things, we revived the iconic tagline, "Nobody cares for eyes more than Pearle." The magic in those words is that it basically sets us up as the standard bearer for what quality of care in this category should be. What we've realized is, if we focused on earning your trust through a series of small moments of listening for your eye care needs, you'll be more receptive to trust us to help guide you into that perfect pair, or pairs, of eyeglasses. On average, we're converting more than 70% of the people who visit one of our doctors into a eye wear customer. They're trusting us, from the exam room to the retail floor. That's the goal. That is a very different type of consumer focus than aiming your message at someone who's making an eye care or eye wear destination decision primarily by responding to an ad offering three pairs for $99. It takes it from [being a] commodity decision into a care-based decision.

How has this impacted the business?

I can honestly say that we are a brand with a stronger degree trust than we had 5 or even 10 years ago. From a consumer perspective, when we look at things like doctor quality perception, we're up consistently double digits per annum. When we're looking at exam comps, we are consistently doing well above plus 3, which means we're on the right track. When we look at net promoter score, we are doing better than we ever have done. Earning trust from those people in the neighborhood around each of our EyeCare centers, that's how we know we can continue.

And the progress in the area of trust can be felt from our franchisees as well. Trust earned through provocation and collaboration. A team of local doctor and optician owner-operators that are equally passionate and committed to Pearle Vision as the premier neighborhood eye care business.

Has it affected your business in other ways?

Our biggest success is that, as a system, we are truly growing. The latest edition of Entrepreneur Magazine named us the #24 franchise opportunity, which was up from 115 from a year ago, ahead of some of premier franchise brands in a host of categories. 2016 was a record year of growth, and 2017 will shatter those achievements in the area of growth and development. Pearle Vision is back where it belongs, and our formula for the future is simple ... stay focused as a brand of people caring for people.

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