How Zenni drives record numbers through partnerships with Chicago Bulls, Iris Apfel, Rashida Jones, & more

May 13, 2024
Emmy Liederman
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Zenni Optical is everywhere. 

Its gorgeous glasses light up social media, with hundreds of Creators praising Zenni’s name. Its frames rest on the faces of celebs like Rashida Jones and Iris Apfel. Zenni’s logo is even on the Chicago Bulls jerseys.

The rise in popularity of an optical brand, founded by two scientists and has only been around since 2003 begs the following question. 

How did Zenni snowball and become such a powerhouse in the optical and ecomm worlds?

As a loyal Zenni customer and an e-commerce and marketing enthusiast, I couldn’t help but dig a little deeper. So I reached out to Zenni’s marketing team to ask them more about their winning e-commerce strategy. 

Primarily, I wanted to know how Zenni builds such successful and prestigious brand partnerships. The Bulls. The 49ers. The Red Sox. Iris Apfel. Rashida Jones. Cynthia Rowley. The list goes on.

I spoke with Sean Pate, Brand Marketing and Communications Officer, Michelle Ticknor, Senior Brand Communications Manager, and Deanna Dawson, Head of Social and Content Marketing. 

Here’s what we discussed.

Sean Pate on how Zenni develops brand partnerships with prestigious sports teams and esports leagues

“Zenni believes strongly in introducing, promoting, and reinforcing its brand through partnerships after many years of focusing its resources elsewhere. I advise the ‘walk before you run’ mentality for a much younger company.” -Sean Pate, Brand Marketing and Communications Officer at Zenni

How did Zenni go about building partnerships with large sports teams like the Chicago Bulls? 

The Chicago Bulls partnership came first in 2018. It was an extraordinary and uniquely timed opportunity that helped us begin our efforts in sports marketing.

It was a bit of an inverse strategy as we took advantage of a golden opportunity to partner up with one of the most recognized sports franchises in the world in the most visible way possible–on the team’s jersey. 

This partnership was quite the sonic marketing boom within our quiet industry and a significant investment for us. But that said, the visibility provided the legitimacy our brand wanted after having 15 years of booming business but very little mindshare. 

That single relationship with the Chicago Bulls sounded the alarms of the business development teams of every sports franchise in America. And, it gave us a greenfield of opportunity, especially as eyewear was a new partner category for effectively every sports team. 

This partnership eventually led to us working with the most iconic, successful, and widely recognized franchises in each of the major pro sports—the Red Sox, the 49ers, etc. It helped to diversify us regionally but also allowed us to speak to a national audience of fans.

What do you look for when partnering with a sports team?

We’ve been very thoughtful about the sports teams we sponsor. We make sure the teams’ followings are wider-reaching than a local, regional team. 

As a Bay Area-based company, we appreciate speaking to the fans of the 49ers. However, we chose the 49ers because the team carries a strong legion of fans in markets around the country—all who consume the 49ers’ messaging and marketing.

Partnering with the 49ers, for example, provides Zenni with the opportunity to significantly extend the reach of the sponsorship beyond traditional marketing territories. 

The same applies to the Bulls, who have one of the largest social followings in team sports, and the Red Sox, who coined the term “Nation” for its fans base over the last two decades of success.

What did your growth path in terms of esports sponsorships look like?

Our path in sponsorship in the esports realm has been tiered, starting in 2019 with a single team partner in the Golden Guardians. 

Then in 2020, amid the pandemic climate and with only esports in competition, we added more team partners in many game titles, still at modest investments. We also added some smaller influencers. 

But, with the success demonstrated to promote our Blokz blue light lenses, we finally decided to “go big,” so to speak, and become the official eyewear of the Call of Duty League starting with the 2021 season. 

The Call of Duty League is one of the most well-known entities in the exponentially growing world of esports and the perfect partnership for our Blokz blue light glasses.

How can smaller DTC brands get started with partnership opportunities?

The route Zenni took in pro sports is certainly not for the startup level or performance-focused marketing budget. 

However, Zenni believes strongly in introducing, promoting, and reinforcing its brand through partnerships after many years of focusing its resources elsewhere. 

I advise the “walk before you run” mentality for a much younger company, except for when once-in-a-lifetime opportunities come around like the Bulls jersey patch was for Zenni. 

Michelle Ticknor on building relationships with celebrities and brands

“I recommend that smaller brands start by aligning themselves with fans who have audiences that are synergistic with theirs. This will help you gain a proper understanding of who you want to speak to.” -Michelle Ticknor, Senior Brand Communications Manager at Zenni

How did you build celebrity partnerships with Iris Apfel, Rashida Jones, and Cynthia Rowley?

Our partnerships unfold in many ways, from agents approaching us to our team reaching out to designers directly. We also work through our agencies, which are always looking for notable glasses wearers to become brand ambassadors.

We also listen to our fans about who they would love to see design for us. Iris Apfel was a crowd favorite among our Zennistas.

The most successful partnerships are ones when the partner is already a fan of our brand and understands our values. Generally, we start conversations by sharing mutual goals and determining whether a curation or design path is the better fit. 

Once we decide which path is the best fit, we hammer out the agreement details, including timeline, product, marketing, PR, and how involved the partner will create the overall collection and campaign. We remain in close touch with our partners throughout the whole process.

How do you leverage your relationships with partners to build brand awareness? 

We have a multi-pronged approach to promoting and marketing our partnerships, and each campaign is customized. 

We focus on a mix of earned media, multi-faceted digital marketing, email, mobile advertising, out-of-home, and more. 

For example, you’ll currently see our Iris Apfel X Zenni partnership on a billboard at the entrance of JFK airport, on the heels of a Times Square digital billboard, and you’ll reencounter Apfel in most in-flight magazines.

How has building these celebrity partnerships boosted sales?

Over the past four years, we’ve focused much more on brand building and brand awareness, and our partnerships are a terrific way to reach new audiences. 

With customers’ increased comfort in buying eyewear online, many more DTC brands have emerged. Though we’ve been in business for 18 years, partnerships have enabled us to connect with diverse audiences, from sports to fashion to entertainment and, most recently, esports. 

This diversified approach is working well for us. We believe these partnerships have also played a significant role in increasing our overall sales. 

This year, Zenni has sold over 40 million pairs of glasses since its start in 2003. In 2020 alone, Zenni sold 7 million pairs of glasses.

How have your curated celebrity and fashion collections affected sales and brand awareness?

Our curated celebrity and fashion collections lend unique points of view on style and drive sales across the entire site, increase brand awareness, and lend a halo effect to the overall Zenni brand. 

For example, partner collections often entice customers to step out of their comfort zone to try bolder styles or colors or even consider building an eyewear wardrobe based on our partners’ recommendations. 

Our partnerships were a significant factor in helping Zenni achieve $329 million in gross revenue in 2020, a 29 percent increase in growth year-over-year.

Have Cynthia Rowley, Rashida, and Iris played a role in designing any of your frames? What does that process look like?

We work closely with our partners to curate and design their collections. While each partner is unique, we start by getting to know each takespartner and hearing their inspiration. 

For instance, Cynthia Rowley’s collections are directly influenced by her runway apparel patterns, her passion for surfing and nature, and her exuberant femininity. 

Iris Apfel showed us some of her treasured, collected vintage frames, jewelry, and home décor. And, of course, we talked about her favorite colors and textures. She told us, “In the right shade, I’ve never met a color I didn’t like.”

Rashida Jones drew on her personal experience struggling to find bold frames that complemented petite faces. 

Our eyewear designers then share styles, materials, and embellishments. Once we have our partners’ feedback, we create the assortment and the content surrounding it for more extensive, integrated campaigns.

Tell me more about your partnership with Coco & Breezy.

Zenni also has partnered with the twin DJs/producers and premium eyewear designers, Coco and Breezy on “Planet CB by Coco and Breezy X Zenni.” Yes, the same Coco and Breezy who designed Prince’s famous “third eye” sunglasses. Planet CB is a capsule collection of eyewear for conscious kids. 

This was the first time Zenni partnered with another eyewear brand, and the partnership was and continues to support a great cause. 

The collaboration focused on giving back to children and their overall mental health—a passion for Coco and Breezy, and Zenni. 

Together with Coco and Breezy, Zenni donates a portion of proceeds from the Planet CB by Coco and Breezy X Zenni purchases to the Child Mind Institute’s Healthy Brain Network. This network helps the youth of Black communities get greater access to mental health services and resources. 

The funds are also being contributed to a landmark study to understand mental health in children worldwide.

How can smaller DTC companies get started with celebrity and prestigious brand partnerships?

I recommend that smaller brands start by aligning themselves with fans who have audiences that are synergistic with theirs. This will help you gain a proper understanding of who you want to speak to. It’s an important step to help you bring in new customers and provide freshness to your core audience base.

I also recommend choosing partners your brand can grow with. You want the possibility of a long-lasting relationship, especially considering the amount of work that goes into building partnerships digitally and in real life. Once you create the first collection with a partner, it’s much easier to launch new capsules or add new styles to popular collections a few times a year. 

I also strongly suggest choosing partners that are invested in the relationship with your brand, and that will engage their audiences through their channels in fun and creative ways. The more collaborative the relationship, the better the marketing and PR will be.

Deanna Dawson on integrating user-generated content (UGC) into Zenni’s online presence and building relationships with influencers

“We find that UGC gets the highest engagement rates in our organic social channels.” - Deanna Dawson, Head of Social and Content Marketing at Zenni

How do you integrate user-generated content into your e-commerce strategy?

User-generated content is an integral part of our e-commerce strategy. We use user-generated content in so many facets of our business. 

When you are an eyewear brand, you are blessed with a lot of outstanding UGC, especially since one of the first things a person will do when they get a new pair of glasses is take a selfie and share it across social media.

We find that UGC gets the highest engagement rates in our organic social channels. So we also further our strategy by repurposing UGC—with permission—for digital paid opportunities.

What is the importance of UGC for DTC brands?

With so many social channels—each having different content variations (e.g., video, live, posts, carousels, etc.), we need UGC and the help of influencers to serve up the great content that we could not possibly create with our teams alone.

We also feel that authenticity is essential, and we want people who can speak from their own experiences to share their stories on social media. For example, a woodworker who uses Zenni products can better represent the need for quality protective eyewear than a marketer could.

When it comes to UGC, we want representation from all age groups, including seniors and kids. We want members of these age groups to talk about the products that serve them best. 

We also rely on UGC from channel experts (e.g., YouTube and TikTok influencers) because they understand the medium they use every day best.

Do you think there is value for DTC brands to start by developing relationships with micro-influencers?

The team here at Zenni works with a lot of micro-influencers who already love our brand, and we often find them ourselves. We find that working with these micro-influencers yields positive results.

Micro-influencers tend to be more loyal and engaged than many high-end influencers, who are representing a different brand every week. Additionally, micro-influencers often have the highest engagement rates. As such, building relationships with micro-influencers is extremely valuable for any brand, large or small. 

Developing relationships with micro-influencers is an excellent way for brands that are just getting started with influencer marketing. And, if you don’t have a big budget, you can sometimes begin by exchanging products for traffic, which benefits both parties.

If you want to grow your influencer program, keep in mind that it requires a lot of management. I’d recommend working with an agency or a platform, so you can handle many requests vs. trying to start with one-to-one management. 

What strategies have worked well for Zenni to develop an ongoing and mutually beneficial partnership?

Influencers are people, not resources. I always want to know what our partners value, what drives them, and what makes them suitable for a specific campaign. It’s vital to make values a part of the initial conversion.

I feel so lucky that Zenni sells a product that people from every age, location, and occupation need. Because of this, our team gets to work with such a wonderfully diverse group of influencers.

My team and I love coming to work and seeing what fantastic content both influencers and customers have created and how that expression lifts our brand and business.

Promoting mutual excitement and appreciation translates into influencers who want to work with your brand more than once. We love fostering that authentic relationship. 

What advice would you give to other ecomm brands about partnering with influencers and managing the relationship? 

I value authentic content and recommend that brands do everything in their power to promote the creation of genuine content. It’s clear to me when a brand has written the message vs. when the influencer is speaking from their point of view. I think their audiences can feel it as well.

When working with influencers, I recommend smaller brands start by communicating the minimum requirements they expect from influencers, such as “please mention the brand in the first 5 seconds and use the following hashtags.” Then, other than offering basic requirements, let the influencers deliver their “magic” and do what they do best—create excellent content.

It’s also imperative for small brands to consider the details. In other words, it’s crucial to negotiate usage rights from the beginning. At Zenni, we like to white label great content and put money behind it. So it’s essential to make sure usage rights are clearly defined in the contract so we don’t run into problems later down the line.

When starting a new relationship, it also makes sense to ask the influencer what their processes are for creating some of the best content you see on their channels. 

You want to know if the respective influencer used a particular photographer or a specific process. Then, when you know what they have done to create the content that drew you to them in the first place, you can request that the influencer uses that same process when creating your brand’s content.

After all, the last thing you want to do is find out that the influencers created their best content in the studio, but they will be shooting outside with fewer resources for your content. Instead, you want to make sure the Creator can deliver their best content before you sign a contract.

It would help if you also considered how to manage the relationship effectively. One of the most complex parts of influencer partnerships is getting the timing right, including giving products to the influencer on time and synching content delivery dates. It takes a lot of time and effort, which can be challenging, especially when you’re first starting. Consider using tools that will help you manage the relationship.

Finally, consider the fee structure. Ask yourself if you want to pay more for time spent on quality content creation, name recognition, number of channels, or a specific medium where you need representation.

Different influencer marketing platforms have varying pay structures to help you manage your influencer marketing budget and relationships. For example, you can set the price on some platforms, and only influencers who agree on the price will apply, which is a structure that works for many new brands.

At Zenni, we never want to underpay someone for their value. Instead, we always strive to start in good faith, build a healthy relationship, and structure our payments accordingly.

So, how did Zenni become so widely known and successful?

After speaking with the marketing team at Zenni, the answer is clear—Zenni drives record numbers because they know how to build and maintain relationships.

Zenni doesn’t leave marketing solely up to a small in-house team of professionals. Instead, Zenni’s teams reach out to the people who wear their glasses, including major sports teams, gamers, celebrities, designers, micro-influencers, and customers.

Then, Zenni builds ongoing and mutually beneficial relationships with these partners to help spread the Zenni word, create valuable content, curate beautiful collections, and foster the Zenni mission to offer the most affordable eyeglasses to people all over the world.

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