Back From The Brink — Ray Ban
Lucky Ray-Ban. When companies cut prices to reach the “affordable luxury” market, few high-end businesses survive.
S Vejay Anand
John Jacob Bausch, a German immigrant, and Henry Lomb, an American investor, established Bausch & Lomb in New York in 1863. By the time World War One broke out, Bausch & Lomb had already positioned themselves to capitalise on the surging demand for military optical instruments like weapons sights, periscopes, and the like, having specialised in the import and manufacture of eyeglasses, microscopes, binoculars, and telescopes, and soon expanding into photographic lenses.
Since Bausch & Lomb had already proven itself to be a reliable supplier to the US military by the end of World War I, the US Air Force turned to them in the 1930s when its pilots needed protection from the sun's harsh rays during their high-altitude missions. The business came up with the Anti-Glare, a pair of dark green plastic-framed spectacles in a teardrop shape to shield the pilot’s face from the sun while he isn’t wearing his helmet and mask. In 1937, wire-framed versions of these ‘Aviator-style’ spectacles were released to the public; the original name, ‘Anti-Glare,’ was dropped in favour of the more memorable ‘Ray-Ban.’ Someone became legendary.
Before the 1920s, sunglasses didn’t even exist, but by 1938, the United States was selling 20 million pairs annually, with many of them bearing the Ray-Ban name. With the Aviator's economic success, variations aimed at hunters (the Outdoorsman) and marksmen quickly followed.
Ray-Ban made gradient lenses so that pilots can protect their eyes from the sun without losing their ability to see the instruments in the cockpit. These glasses can also be used by drivers.
During World War II, many dashing Allied pilots wore Aviators, and high-ranking officers like General Douglas MacArthur also wore them. This helped the sunglasses become seen as heroic by the general public.
The sales of Ray-Ban’s fashion hit, the Wayfarer model, which debuted in 1956, was propelled mostly by the implicit endorsement of famous people. John F. Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, Muhammad Ali, Bob Dylan, and Marilyn Monroe were just some of the midcentury celebrities who wore a pair of Wayfarers. Its curvy shape was evocative of winged 1950s vehicles, and its manufacture heralded the “great future in plastics.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, big designer glasses were popular, and Ray-Ban slowly lost ground. It wasn’t until 1983, when Tom Cruise donned a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers in the film Risky Business, that the company’s sales increased by more than 50% and propelled them back to the forefront of the industry.
Ray Ban sunglasses were seen on the faces of musical luminaries including Debbie Harry, Elvis Costello, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, and Madonna in iconic 1980s movies and TV shows like Miami Vice.
By 1999, however, the company’s once-groundbreaking products were being sold for just $19 at a wide variety of gas stations and convenience shops, and the brand was in tatters. Worse still, Ray-Bans were cheap and made using outdated equipment.
Luxottica, an Italian eyeglasses powerhouse, paid $640 million in 1999 to acquire the eyewear brands of Bausch & Lomb, with Ray-Ban being the deal’s crown jewel.
Ray-Ban’s frames were breaking at a rate four times that of Luxottica’s other brands. Luxottica relocated its manufacturing from four ageing factories in various locations around the world to a brand new plant in Italy in the year 2000. The region of northeast Italy is well-known as a centre for high-end eyeglasses because of its convenient location in relation to reliable component manufacturers.
If you’re trying to impress others with your sophistication, convenience shops and gas stations aren’t the ideal places to hang out. In the early 2000s, Luxottica made the difficult choice to close 13,000 retail locations, foregoing short-term profits for the sake of long-term success. Since it produced eyewear for high-end brands like Bulgari, Chanel, and Armani, the firm had connections to upscale retail. In 2004, because of Ray-revitalized Ban’s status, Luxottica was once again able to charge premium rates for the sunglasses it sold at Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.
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S Vejay Anand
CXO, mentor, consultant, entrepreneur, executive, columnist, husband, father, son, politically aware and neutral, herbivore, pro animal life