CMO of the Week: Pearle Vision's VP-CMO Doug Zarkin

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When Doug Zarkin joined Luxottica’s Pearle Vision brand nine years ago his first initiative was to clarify the brand’s position in a hyper-commoditized category. 

When Doug Zarkin joined Luxottica’s Pearle Vision brand nine years ago his first initiative was to clarify the brand’s position in a hyper-commoditized category. 

“Optical retail is incredibly competitive and there is a wide variety of players big and small, high end and low end,” says Zarkin. “What Pearle Vision is really anchored on is the strategic premise of genuine eye care from your neighborhood doctor. And that really emanates back to the vision of our founder Dr. Stanley Pearle and what he believed Pearle Vision offered that was unique at the time in 1961 when he started the business. This approach has proven itself very relevant in today’s market, which is a best-in-class doctor which an unmatched commitment to care from the exam room to the retail floor, combining state-of-the art selection of frames and lens right in the community in which they live.” 

Pearle Vision’s position to become the neighborhood destination that people trust and their commitment to care seems to be working. Fast forward to today, the brand is celebrating its 60th anniversary by leading the optical category and is the No. 32 franchise brand within Entrepreneur's Top 500 list. Pearle Vision counts almost 600 EyeCare Centers across the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico and has experienced record growth in the last 24 months – faster than it has grown in its entire history. 

This week, Pearle Vision launched the latest installment in its Small Moments campaign that aims to connect with families as kids head back to school. The campaign centers on a short film called “Maya,” in which an Indian teenager overcomes her shyness and gains confidence with the help of a Pearle Vision eye care expert. 

“Maya is the embodiment of not only the brand’s commitment to care, but a brand’s understanding during our retail experience about the people behind the eyes,” says Zarkin. “It is the story of a young woman of Indian descent who, like most teenagers, is struggling with her identity as she enters the school year. Feeling that you are different is hard, especially a teenage girl. The message of “Maya” is that it is ok to celebrate who you are, your heritage and be proud of it. This message could not come at a more prolific point in society. A brand that celebrates people, a brand that celebrates diversity, and importantly a brand that also helps a young woman feel confident with herself is unbelievably relevant in today’s day and age.”

The latest effort is a continuation of “Small Moments” that aim to showcase trusting relationships between the brand’s eye care experts and their patients. The platform’s “Ben’s Glasses” video earned a 2017 Silver Clio Award and North American Effie Award for Health Care Services Marketing. The ongoing effort kicked off at the Super Bowl Sunday 2017, based on data that found that personal connections help establish patient trust with eye doctors. Tennis icon Billie Jean King starred in the 2018 film “Olivia” and the execution was recognized with multiple North American Effie Awards in 2019 and again in 2020. Ben’s Glasses, Olivia and Maya were developed with partner Energy BBDO. 

With the release of Maya, Pearle Vision will also launch “Eyes On The Prize,” a two-part social media web series featuring parenting expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa, best selling author Kelle Hampton and actress Tia Mowery for a live conversation about the stresses of upcoming school year. The panel will share advice for parents on how to deal with the return to school after 18 months of virtual learning and the importance of annual wellness checkups including eye exams. 

Part 1 of the web series will be live on Instagram on September 9th, 2021, at 5pm EST with Dr. Gilboa talking to Kelle Hampton. Access to the live event can be found on either Dr. Gilboa (@askdrg) or Kelle Hampton’s (@etst) Instagram accounts. Part 2 of the web-series will be live on Instagram on September 14th 2021, at 5pm EST with Dr. Gilboa talking to Tia Mowry.  (Access to the live event can be found on either Dr. Gilboa (@askdrg) or Tia Mowry’s Instagram accounts (@TiaMowry).)

Brand Innovators caught up with Zarkin from his home in New York to discuss the new campaign and the evolution of the brand. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you talk about the Small Moments platform and “Eyes On The Prize”?

Small Moments has been at the heart of our equity and marketing platform since 2017. It came out of some proprietary research that gave us a comprehensive understanding of the decision-making process related to doctor quality, which is at the heart of a brand that has positioned itself as the premier neighborhood eye care destination. It came down to that notion of caring about the people behind the eyes, taking the time to guide a patient through the eye care experience, but also and most importantly, listen to the questions they have and be attentive to the cues they give while they are getting their eyes examined..

The notion of caring about the people behind the eyes is behind the social media web series called “Eyes On The Prize.” Our target went through a lot this year. The last 18 months have intensified the evergreen issues that kids have whenever they return to school. It has now made it to the point where the intensity of things like social anxiety that kids are feeling, the intensity of moving back into classrooms from virtual classrooms is bigger than it ever has been before because they have to relearn what there school is every single day, and how the experience of everyday school is maybe different than it was a few years ago. 

We wanted to bring a team of experts togethers to allow our target to simply have a safe space to ask the questions that they maybe were afraid to ask and know that they are not alone in feeling the anxiety and stress that comes with bringing their kids back into a school year post-pandemic. “Eyes On The Prize” really is about caring for our kids and unlocking the possibilities. Part of that is a return to health and wellness visits including making sure that kids have their eyes checked. Eighty percent of what a child learns is through their eyes and one out of four has an undiagnosed vision issue. So if you are not seeing clearly, you are really not tapping your potential. 

The pandemic has shifted consumers to shopping more online. How has Pearle Vision adapted to consumer demand for digital experiences?

Eight years ago we introduced a real focus towards online patient scheduling into the Pearle Vision system and over the last five years really foreseeing a trend that more and more when a patient determines that now is the time for them to schedule their annual eye exam, they don't want to have to wait until business hours to call the eye care center and schedule an appointment. They want to be able to go online, find their nearest eye care center and find the time that works for them. Do research on the doctor and schedule the appointment from the comfort of their own homes or mobile device. 

We have really committed ourselves to an online patient acquisition strategy that is best in class. That proved for us very successful navigating through the pandemic and out of the pandemic as there is a much larger degree of intentionality in people’s retail experiences today. Even though people are flocking back to bricks-and-mortar, they are planning more. And eye care is not an impulsive decision, it is a planned decision. 

Our online portal has been an incredibly valuable source of patient growth. Online patient scheduling is up nearly 40% on a two year basis and has been up well over 20% per annum over the last seven years.

It really has allowed us to service the needs of our community by making access to our services easier. They are still going to their neighborhood Pearle Vision  for their appointment, but they are making the appointment online. The idea of knowing that next Tuesday at 3 you have an appointment and you can schedule that at 11pm at night, is a great advantage for us. It has led to incredibly strong digital patient growth, year-over-year.

Prior to your nine years at Luxottica, you held leadership roles at Victoria’s Secret and Avon and worked in the agency world. What did you bring from your past experiences to this role leading Pearle Vision?

What I think I bring is a brand leadership by listening approach when it comes to tapping into the midset of our consumers. In many of my client-side roles, I worked on businesses where I was not the primary target. At Avon, it was the beauty business. At Victoria’s Secret, it was the intimate apparel business. So I was forced to really understand the concept of mindset marketing, through asking good questions and brand leadership by listening. 

In our business, especially one that is driven by franchises e 80% owned franchisees- if you are not listening in order to lead then all you are really doing is talking to yourself. I have brought that mindset to this role which has helped galvanize the community behind our brand platform.

I also bring a relentless pursuit of a human customer-first approach to understanding brand value. The formula that I use in really driving human brand value is a pretty simple one. Human Brand Value equals experience divided by price (HBV=E/P). If you deliver an amazing human-focused brand experience (your numerator) you can charge a premium price and still deliver a positive value equation. And whether you are targeting consumers that make $50,000 or $500,000 a year, consumers are seeking brand value. I have approached the rejuvenation of the Pearle Vision brand with that formula in mind. 

The last thing that I bring to the table is an understanding of the decision-making process that consumers bring to the table. It is my belief that consumers make emotional decisions before they make rational choices. Emotional decisions lead to trust which lead to the choice on our brand system to schedule an exam on a Thursday. 

When consumers talk about brands, they use emotional terms - “I love it.” “Oh I can’t live without it.” It’s the best.” These are all emotive responses. So as we thought hard about how to rejuvenate the Pearle Vision brand, we really doubled down on the idea of an emotionally led conversation that allows a consumer to start building trust with the brand from a series of small moments from the exam room to the retail floor. That has led us to be that neighborhood choice for eye care and eye wear.

Can you talk about how you approach customer relationships?

We look at our CRM platform as a tennis match. It is the psychology that you are not trying to win the point on every stroke. The CRM platform is not designed to throw offers at you to get you to come back. It is designed to provide you with valuable information about the health and wellness of eyes. At best we are seeing our patients once every 12 months, if we are lucky. Most patients are somewhere between 12 and 18 months, so how do you maintain a strong relationship? You have got to create brand value. How do you create brand value? You have got to create a very strong experience. That experience in CRM is really about information and access. Whether it is the change of the seasons and the impact of allergies on your eyes to educating parents about facts that 1 out of 4 school aged kids has a vision issue and that 80% of what a child learns is through their eyes. So making parents aware that as early as age five, you really should be taking your child in for a comprehensive eye exam. 

If you are being sold you are not an active participant. What it really is about is asking questions to the person behind the eyes. Are you athletic?Do you do indoor and outdoor activities? Are you somebody who wears their glasses all day? How much driving do you do? There is so much technology especially in the world of lenses that really create a lifestyle approach to finding that perfect pair. These are points of interest that you are only getting by having a conversation beyond what their prescription is. We really take the time to truly understand the person behind the eyes.

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