How Pearle Vision Regained its Sight

How Doug Zarkin reinvigorated Pearle Vision’s commitment to neighborhood eye care

In a minute-long TV spot, a young boy struggles with things like going up stairs, reading sheet music, or pouring orange juice into a cup. He keeps having to lift a pair of oversized glasses away from his eyes, or pick them up off the floor after they fall off. His concerned parents take him to Pearle Vision for an eye exam. During the visit, the boy shows the optician a photo of him and his late grandfather, wearing the same eyeglasses he has now. Even though the child doesn’t have a vision issue, the doctor changes out his grandfather’s prescription to blank lenses so he can see clearly and keep wearing those cherished frames. “It isn’t just about vision,” the narrator says. “It’s about care.”

Doug Zarkin, VP and chief marketing officer of Pearle Vision, created this commercial in partnership with advertising agency Energy BBDO to kick off the company’s Small Moments campaign. The initiative is dedicated to ensuring that customers come for the eye care but stay for the relationship.

Zarkin came to Pearle Vision in 2012 with an extensive consumer marketing background. He was charged with differentiating Pearle Vision from its big-box competitors. Instead of doing what all large eye care centers do—slash prices and advertise flash promotions—Zarkin went back to the company’s roots to rediscover what made the brand so great.

He realized that Pearle Vision had lost focus—and much of its aging customer base—along with it. “We were drinking a bit too much from the hose of promotions,” he explains. So, he honed in on the company’s initial positioning: genuine eye care with a commitment to local communities. “We wanted to make sure our growth was driven by quality of care, not promotion,” he says. “It’s about understanding that trust is earned through a series of small gestures. Big gestures curry favor; small gestures earn loyalty.”

Zarkin shifted the company’s narrative from its efforts to keep up with the prices of national competitors to the little things that initially made the brand successful. And the Small Moments campaign was born.

Pearle Vision opened its doors in 1961 in Savannah, Georgia. Dr. Stanley Pearle founded Pearle Optical, as it was known then, in a small office with five employees and a focus on eye care in a comfortable, neighborhood setting. More than fifty-five years later, nearly six hundred stores in North America bear his name.

Zarkin knew that eye care customers were not interested in the impersonal, corporate feel of national chains. Data from a recent consumer trust survey showed that doctor quality and trust were the factors that mattered most to Pearle Vision customers. “We recognized that we needed to be even more emphatic about reinforcing that this is not fast-food, big-box eye care,” he says. “This is truly the same quality caliber, if not even better, than what you would find from Dr. Fred down the street who’s hanging a shingle.”

Part of the brand’s commitment to the communities it serves is a program called Community Outreach Reinforcement of Neighborhood Eye Care Activation, or CORNEA. It debuted in 2013 as a way to get Pearle Vision’s eye care experts outside of their offices and interacting with their neighbors. So, CORNEA set up booths at small events such as school football games or church health fairs to offer complimentary screenings, eyeglass cleanings, adjustments, and appointment scheduling. Last year alone, Pearle Vision representatives attended more than four hundred events.

Zarkin also spearheaded efforts to renovate the company’s physical exam and retail spaces. What were once sterile, uninviting brick-and-mortar spaces are now warm, welcoming, and modern—with more of an apothecary feel, he says. Each eye care center has a wall dedicated to the community, with a sign that reads, “Welcome to your neighborhood Pearle Vision.” There’s an area to showcase Polaroids of happy customers and thank-you notes. Shopping for frames is easier and more convenient, too, with products divided by gender and brand, and new merchandising that takes frames off the wall to better showcase eye candy—the artistry along the temples of the glasses.

All of these changes were made to appease Pearle’s target consumer, whom Zarkin calls the chief health officer (CHO). The CHO is typically the female head of household, the one making health and wellness decisions for her family. What’s important to Zarkin is ensuring that the brand satisfies this customer’s intellectual and emotional needs at every step of the eye care process. Catering to this particular audience was not a new
challenge for Zarkin. He has plenty of experience working for companies that care about women, including marketing stints at Avon, Victoria’s Secret PINK, and Calvin Klein Intimates. Those years spent marketing makeup and brassieres have helped him understand his current audience, he says.

The Small Moments campaign case study earned Pearle a silver Effie Award, which recognizes effectiveness in marketing, in 2015. The past few years have seen a significant increase in eye exams, Zarkin says. Online exam scheduling has seen double-digit growth for the past three years as well, he says.

The improvements are exciting, certainly, but Zarkin doesn’t want to be the proverbial hare in the industry race anymore. He says that Pearle Vision’s next step is to become consistent, something he says you don’t see in many brands. “Finding, identifying, and anticipating small moments is where we can earn trust,” he says. “Nobody cares for eyes more than Pearle, and nobody cares about the brand more than we do.”