Just Friends?: Good Feet's Doug Zarkin Offers Brand Love Advice

Do consumers really “love” their brands? According to Havas’ ongoing Meaningful Brands surveys, most of us believe that three quarters of the brands we use could be easily replaced tomorrow. So what does this “brand love” mean, really? Longtime brand leader at Luxottica’s Pearle Vision, and newly installed Chief Brand Officer at Good Feet Holdings Doug Zarkin has been thinking hard on the topic and even wrote a book. Moving Your Brand Out of the Friend Zone came out last month just two days after he was named CBO at Good Feet. He joined us this week on Brand Insider to make his case for “love.” You can listen to the entire podcast at this link.



MediaPost: In your book you distinguish between brand friendship and love. Is love really the right word? What is brand love, really?

Doug Zarkin: Very few brands understand that to create brand love what you're really doing is building a passionate and trusted relationship with your consumer. And more often than not, marketers are focusing so much on the transaction that they're not necessarily as focused on the lifetime value/relationship that they need to be. Why brands become commodities, why brands end up in the friend zone? That’s when marketers and businesses misunderstand sales for loyalty.

And there are so many brands in the ecosystem that actually sell product or services that have no relationship with their consumer. I can think of four or five different businesses that really consumers hate the business, but they actually sell a lot of product, or they have a lot of subscribers to sell their service out of necessity. Brand love is really the notion of thinking about your relationship with the consumer as a relationship taking a long-term value proposition, and most importantly, focusing your communication, not on the transaction but really in building that passionate and trusted relationship over time.

MP: Well, does BOGO positioning actually undermine brand in the sense that it's essentially a transactional relationship?

Zarkin: It establishes you as a transactional relationship. It positions you as a commodity price, while we may not believe it actually is an indicator sub textually of quality. Consumers start processing that brand value equation emotionally. And for us, we recognized at Pearle Vision that if we were going to get rid of, buy one, get one free, we needed to do remarkably different things in the exam lane and on the retail floor to show, not tell them that we were committed to them and their care.

MP: Did consumers really fall in love with their eyeglass provider and what did that look like? What KPIs indicated that, if not sales?

Zarkin: We were able to move Pearle Vision out of the friend zone, because we understood how the notion of trust was really built in that business model, and it was built over a series of small moments of care and connection that began in the exam lane and continued through the retail experience. Look, getting prescription eyewear is a medical procedure, it's a medical device. As we started to reinforce that commitment to care, we saw a tremendous opportunity to reinforce at Pearle the notion that our people care about the people behind the eyes, not necessarily focusing on what we're going to sell you, but how we're going to guide you into the perfect pair. And the reason I can say that we were successful is two-fold. Number one, we looked at our patient growth. Year over year, where we are seeing more people in the exam lane that obviously translated into top line sales. But number two, we stripped out of that business model the engine that drove 20 years of growth, which was, buy one, get one free. We completely took it out of the business. And when you do something like that, when 40 to 45% of your sales are through a particular offer, and you take it out, if you're not strengthening something else, you're going to lose business. And one of the concepts that I talk about in the book is the brand value equation, which is the core to building brand love. 

Brand value equals experience as your numerator divided by price as your denominator. If I deliver an amazing experience, I can charge a premium price and still have a positive brand value equation. When we took discounting down, price went up. But our quality-of-care commitment was incrementally higher than the price we were charging, so we had a very strong, positive brand value equation. 

MP: What were a couple of things that you did at that retail experience level that you think really were key?

Zarkin: That epiphany moment of when you need a pair of glasses could come at any point during the year, during every two years. And so, we created an online scheduling portal that allowed consumers to connect with their neighborhood Pearle Vision and book an exam appointment. But we recognize that eye health is more than a singular issue. It's genetic. We recognize that we should make it so that somebody could book an entire appointment for their family at one click. That is a small but meaningful thing.

The second thing that we did is we really reinforced with our Doctor of Optometry the importance of focusing on the person behind the eyes. Doctor quality has nothing to do with where you went to school, and it has very little to do with the equipment that you have in the exam lane. Those were the cost of entries. It had to be done, and we did some research to support this one. Are you open to answering questions? And are you good at asking questions? So, getting lifestyle cues, just simply talking to that patient as a human being and engaging with them on their level brings down the tension point that anybody has in any kind of medical experience. And it became more of a conversation, and remarkably our doctors were able to learn more about their patients vision needs by having a conversation about their lifestyle, and that went through on the retail floor.

We also started to use technology as a means to reinforce that quality-of-care commitment. One of the things that we introduced was digital fit technology, which isn't a replacement for the opticians that are providing you that great eyewear experience, but gave you that peace of mind to know that if a millimeter of fit is the difference between seeing clearly and having a massive headache, we were providing you with access to that tech that was supporting the fact that your prescription was going to be perfect for you. Those small things, and then our entire CRM journey including, but not limited to our thank you emails, free cleanings and fittings. The fact that you can come in for a tune-up and a comprehensive cleaning at no cost shows the consumer that we're providing value to them. These are all some of the small marginal gains that add up to feeling like these people really care about you.

MP: I know you're just literally a week or two into Good Feet.  And you have a bit of a reputation as a brand fixer. What is the core challenge at Good Feet? Is there something that needs to be solved here?

Zarkin: I think it's opportunity. Part of the reason I wanted to join this company was that it shares a lot of the same DNA as Pearle, which is, it's a mission driven organization. It is a brand that provides a product and service that does good for people. No pun intended, good feet does good for people. It actually does great for people.

The transformative effect of helping to alleviate foot pain, knee pain, hip pain, back pain, when almost nothing else has worked simply by bringing your body into that perfect kinetic alignment. It all begins with your feet. I'm learning so much as I am onboarded. But what I've learned most is by watching people go through the experience of getting fitted for their personalized arch support solution. And it transforms a lot of people from a place of desperation to solve their pain to that moment of recognizing that they can regain control over their life. Bringing that full circle to answer your question, the opportunity that I see is how to continue to accelerate the growth of the brand by ensuring clarity of communication an advocacy for what we're doing as a solution for so many that are suffering from what I would call annoying or chronic pain.

MP: What are some of the processes that you put in place internally that worked. At Pearle the research arc was long and involved. What is the time horizon for a process like this at a major brand like Good Feet?

Zarkin: For me, the process starts with people, human capital. You cannot move a brand forward efficiently or at all if you don't have the right people in the right seats and the right resourcing. Obviously in week three, I’m still in the process of getting to know my team, remembering their names. Understanding where our competencies lie, and frankly, where there are voids that we need to figure out how we're going to tackle. I'm really in the human capital assessment mode right now.

One of the early things that I've already put in is cross functional engagement. Oftentimes in a business of this size, or really business of any rapidly growing brand, you could get very siloed because everybody's focusing on getting it done. And so I've already put into place, a cross-functional weekly status meeting to bring media and creative and brand strategy, not just for the Good Feet store, but for the entire Good Feet holdings organization together. A great idea can come from anywhere. And given that we have a number of different businesses under the portfolio, I want to be able to take best practices from one and share them.

MP: Now, one of the things that I noticed about your career arc is that you've tended to be at major brands, legacy brands. A lot of upstart DTC brands have competed against you, especially in segments like eyewear. They aimed specifically at brand dissatisfaction. What have we learned pro and con about their strengths and weaknesses?

Zarkin: I give tremendous credit to challenger brands. Challenger brands are brands that have identified a niche in the marketplace and have seized it with a product and service opportunity to differentiate themselves. One of the biggest misnomers is that niche means small. Niche doesn't mean small at all. Niche means opportunity. And they think those businesses that have identified a niche in taking advantage of it should be applauded. I think the challenge comes when they start to step out of their lane. If you have a brand that is marketing itself as a low-cost solution, don't try to market yourself as a high-quality solution. Embrace that you're a low-quality solution. You do get what you pay for, especially in products that are in the medical world. You are truly getting a lower cost solution that, depending on your particular need, may be right. Not everybody wants to spend $1000 on a suit. Doesn't mean that a $300 suit is a bad suit. It just means it's a $300 suit and if I'm going to wear it once, okay, great, then it satisfies my need. I think maintaining that humility to recognize why you exist, your brand positioning, is a continued exercise to continue to scale. Some of those brands are scaling quite rapidly because they're staying true to their brand positioning. They're not trying to, for argument's sake, be a brand that made itself in selling chicken, and all of a sudden now is selling pizza.

Marketing is about positioning. Positioning is about the art of sacrifice. And trying to be everything to everybody means you're going to be nothing to nobody, so I think these niche brands have done quite a good job, and I think they will so long as they stay disciplined.



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