I am a Jamaican, Greek, British guy living in Amsterdam. As a result my identity has always been front and centre. People adamantly want me to be from somewhere else. To be something particularly different to them. I’m from Brighton, UK. But that’s not enough. People want more heritage. Why am I brown? Where are my parents from? So, when I mention I’m half Jamaican, that normally satisfies. Which is cool with me. I’m proud of that side of me and my identity. But that’s not all of me, there are many sides of me. Like my loud Greek side (thanks Grandma!). Or my Queen’s English British side (thanks Grandad!). Then there are the sides of me that are made up of all the places, experiences and people that have rubbed off on me.
However, there is a side of my identity that has never occured to me as worth exploring any further. My eyewear identity. As a four-eyed Dyslexic-Jamaican-Greek-English kid growing up, being four eyed was an identity facet too far. I tried designer frames as soon as I could afford them, but when the first pair of eye wateringly expensive prescription frames started to fall apart and go out of fashion, I quickly moved on. I converted to contact lens as soon as I found the bravery to embrace poking myself in the eye everyday for the rest of my life.
Recently WE ARE Pi, the agency I co-founded, got a call from Ace & Tate, a young, stylish Amsterdam eyewear brand with trendy shops all over town. They have memorable bags with ampersands and throw parties attracting the cool young Amsterdam crowd with many more Instagram followers than me. Having recently run out of contact lens, I found myself sat in a meeting wearing my scratched old designer frames, playing the part of “glasses wearer”. Problem was, my glasses, although ‘art director’ style, were basically, a bit shit. The result? An offer of a discount on new glasses from friendly, (pitying) marketing director — to help with our consumer research— plus the chance to develop a global brand communications strategy. Ace!
Weeks passed. I began developing the strategy. I didn’t take up the kind offer of a discount, because at the beginning, it was only a brand strategy project. Then as time went on, as a glasses wearer I realised it was about more than strategy. I came around to the reality that I personally had become sensitive about my eyewear identity because the importance getting it right affected my overall self confidence. I started to imagine letting go of that fear, having the confidence to express myself as freely as I do with different outfits, sneakers, hats, jackets and jazzy pants. I started to imagine an eyewear identity diverse as I am. Loud, quiet, cool, calm, creative, intelligent, silly, fun, bright, summer, winter — and everything in between.
As I looked out at the world and read consumer research reports, I was pleased to see there is a whole generation by the name of ‘Z’, for whom for many of them, embracing identity diversity and fluidity is as normal as me embracing peanut butter and jam sandwiches (still!). So, surely today’s eyewear consumers are jumping at the chance to experiment with their eyewear identity? Nope. Turns out, like me, most prescription glasses wearers, despite broader normalization of diverse and fluid identities, are still very conservative with perspeciption eyewear. Maybe, like me, because the growth from a four-eyed geek to a ‘creative class consumer’ left a legacy something deeper wanting — acceptance.
My gut instinct lead me down the garden path to discover my eyewear identity fears were fuelling an entire industry. I was paying over the odds to look somewhat stylish, because I wanted to fit in. Eyewear brands has been getting away with being absurdly overpriced for a reason. Beyond vanity, eyewear is a major part of identity. It takes a lot of thought, time, trying, failing and commitment before the average style conscious glasses buyer selects ‘the right pair’ for him or her. For decades the industry has been dominated by a couple of manufacturers who own the license to most designer frame brands, as well as most of the high-street optician brands. Thank god for two for one at Specsavers — but surely there is another way for style conscious hipsters on a budget? Then, a few years ago a clever couple of American entrepreneurs spotted an opportunity to disrupt the oligopoly by developing affordable stylish eyewear and selling online. That brand, Warby Parker. The rest is history. Well, not quite. At a similar time over the pond, another smart glasses-wearing fella spotted a gap in the Dutch market too. Why are people still spending a small fortune on designer frames? His own indignation inspired Mark De Lang to build a business to address the problem. Several years later Ace & Tate is one of the most successful eyewear brand in Europe, with over 30 stores across the continent. That’s where they were at when my team at WE ARE Pi were invited to work on a new brand strategy and creative idea to reinforce Ace & Tate brand values and identify an authentic positioning that would help them grow as new upstart competitors were realising the market opportunity.
At its core, the task is always to sell more people, more stuff. Yet, here the real opportunity was to empower glasses wearers, like me, to go a step further and experiment with eyewear. Eyewear that allows us to express all aspects of our complex and very individual personalities. And at less than 100 Euros for stylish frames and prescription lenses, the functional offer was attractive. I wanted to take it further, give the decision deeper emotional meaning. More affordable eyewear, with different frames that suits each facet of my personality.
For those like me, for whom Eyewear is a big part of their identity, I saw an opportunity to encourage a new perspective. Emotional freedom to change your Eyewear as often as you change your style, seasonal, occasion, or simple to express a different side of you. I was in the flow. It was exciting to imagine people overcoming this age old Eyewear barrier, while also encouraging a bit more diversity in identity. Because none of us are just one sided. We all have different sides of ‘me’. Then, one day, while feeling energized by the project, I looked up and caught myself in a reflection still wearing my wonky old overpriced designer frames. I couldn’t quite place which side of my identity they represented, but eventually settled on them representing my ‘my-contact-lenses-have-run-out-and-I still-need-eyesight’ side. I found myself taking them off, grabbing my bike and cycling down to the closest Ace & Tate store, discount code scribbled on the back of a post-it. I don’t recommend cycling half blind across icy winter canals to anyone, it’s probably illegal. But I do recommend the liberation of reframing your eyewear identity.
Today, I can’t believe I spent so many years with dry contact lens eyes, far too embarrassed by my expensive old frames to try something new. I have ordered my second pair of frames for spring, to compliment my new jazzy pants. The global brand idea and campaign we develop for Ace & Tate is named “Me, Myself and I” championing identity eyewear fluidity across billboards, social, content and (trendy) stores. It dropped a few weeks ago, and although it’s too early to say if we will change consumer behaviour, one thing is for sure — I just wrote a brand strategy that changed my own behaviour.