The Warby Parker Of … ?: The Rise of Industry Underdogs

An interesting phrase has started to pop up in my Instagram ads: a caption will deem a new company “The Warby Parker of (insert industry here)”. The label seemed indulgent at first, but it made me think more carefully about the dynamics behind Warby Parker’s success and the success of companies in different markets but similar positions. Beyond Instagram ubiquity, these companies (think Glossier for makeup, Casper for mattresses, and Harry’s Shave Club for razors) have been attracting tons of buzz in their respective industries: Glossier recently raised an additional 52 million in funding this past February, and Warby Parker topped that with 75 million in a Series E round. Even across disparate retail segments, companies like Warby Parker, Glossier, Casper, and Harry’s define a unique market group that share a host of defining features largely responsible for their success. Through design, emphasis on customer values, and “underdog” positions, these new companies are emerging as strong forces looking to redefine the market share across industries, as well as the nature of consumption itself.

Intelligent use of design in product definition is one of the most important features of this category; marketing is another one. These companies, rather than introduce cutting-edge technologies or fashions that can easily be hit or miss, instead focus on creating newer, better versions of common products used everyday: your toothbrush, your daily moisturizer, your reading glasses, even your mattress. Here, design plays a crucial role in elevating these basics from commonplace to exciting or even aspirational. Not only are these product designs thoughtful compared to industry standards, but their marketing campaigns further fuel the excitement and atmosphere of style behind these brands. Glossier’s pink pouch and black-on-white packaging is distinctive and is as large a part of its hype as the product itself; Quip’s sleek, metallic look makes even brushing your teeth something to look forward to. These companies use platforms like Instagram or Twitter to further extend these meticulously and vividly designed brand personas.

A third distinguishing characteristic of these companies is their strong appeal to consumer values, which broadly fall in the categories of philanthropy, wellness, and sustainability. Warby Parker, for example, has a pledge to donate one pair of glasses for every pair purchased; Glossier’s motto is an emphatic and health-focused “Skin first, makeup second”; and Everlane’s pledge to use top-quality materials made in the “the best ethical factories around the world” with fair wages, along with production transparency and lower prices, reflects an acknowledgement of consumers’ growing interest in corporate social responsibility, wellness and sustainability. This emphasis on consumer values not only gives these companies the moral edge but also resonates more strongly to the consumer, who is now (more than ever before) concerned about the social, environmental, and health implications of their products. A 2010 study showed that over 88% of consumers believed companies should balance business goals with improving society and the environment, and 83% that philanthropy was essential for companies to practice as well.

Finally, these companies emphasize and celebrate their position as industry underdogs. Rather than compete to be the next Maybelline, Gillette, or Mattress King, these companies forge their own product definition and sales method, typically opting for a direct-to-consumer approach through online sales, in addition to a couple of brick-and-mortar flagship stores for show. This directly-to-consumers approach gives the companies even more control over the consumer experience, allowing them to make the process of purchasing a product more exciting and personalized than a trip to the mall. By embracing their unique underdog identity buoyed by an emphasis on design and values, these companies position themselves as the better alternative to larger companies that in turn seem more conventional and stagnant. The process of buying simple household items is transformed from a chore or a default selection into a deliberate choice that resonates ethically, aesthetically, and personally.  

While these companies are on the rise, many of them still have a ways to go before establishing themselves as clear market leaders. However, with skyrocketing sales and growth (some examples are Glossier , Harry’s, and Casper, among others) pointing to wide and ever-increasing consumer interest, it’s clear that these companies are a force to be reckoned with in their respective industries.