Cubitts: Challenging the experience in eyewear

Tom Broughton is the founder of Cubitts, a new emerging challenger in eyewear offering modestly priced spectacles and sunglasses in classic British styles. The UK's optical goods market is worth an estimated £2Bn with three major companies: Specsavers, Boots and Vision Express, collectively controlling over two thirds of the market.

Despite many independents in the industry being squeezed out by these three brands, Cubitts quickly established a strong and loyal following, and since being awarded The Guardian’s 'start-up of the year' in 2014 they reported a 300% increase in sales the following year. We went down to Cubitts' second London workshop in Borough to better understand how they’ve built the brand since launching in 2013.

What did you see as the opportunity in eyewear? What needed fixing?

I just had so many experiences where I’d go into a brightly lit, clinical, plasticky environment, get thrown through an eye test, and have a whole bunch of numbers and terminology that I didn’t understand imposed on me. I was then expected to make a purchase decision which may cost me £500, without understanding any of the context. "Do you want an anti-scratch coating?  Or an anti-glare coating?  Or UV coating?  Or do you want a higher index lens?".

Whenever leaving those experiences, I always felt perplexed at what had just happened. None of it was enjoyable, there was always a niggling doubt that I’d been up-sold. So I just thought: It shouldn’t be like this.

What do you stand for as a brand? What is Cubitts challenging?

When we first started the company, we wrote down the very principles of how we would market and sell our product, one of which was that we would never unnecessarily up-sell, ever. All of our coatings are included in the price so every frame we sell has anti-scratch and anti-glare.  We don’t even give people the option.

We’re really challenging the whole customer experience of buying frames.

We’ll also choose an index of a lens based on what the customer I think cares about, which are lenses that don't pop out of the frame and look like milk bottles. So we, as the professionals, would make these decisions in the customer’s best interest and not ours. What we're really challenging is the whole customer experience of buying frames.

Choice is a funny thing. People like it, but they don’t like too much.

How did you approach reinventing this customer experience?

Before we launched we did a bunch of consumer research amongst spectacle wearers. It became quickly apparent that during the purchase process there were consistent pinch points that people didn’t like.

They didn’t like the up-selling, but also the relationship with choice. Choice is a funny thing; people like it but they don’t like too much. People value freedom from choice, and they would tell us their experiences of big High Street opticians where they were faced with a bank of frames, in no real order and no guide to navigate through it.

We wanted to devise a new experience, which would address these concerns.

Firstly, we agreed we would only ever offer 20 shapes in both optical and sunglasses, and that when we introduce new styles we’d retire some older ones.

We would then try and get to a point where every frame was available in every colour so people could approach it like a grid, with three key elements: shape, size and colour. People understand it this way. We provide choice but not too much.

It’s understanding that a consumer, when they buy something, has a whole bunch of decisions. Some of which they enjoy making, some of which they don’t. So if you take away the ones they don’t and simplify their options, they can focus on the fun stuff, like trying frames on in different colours.

The other thing we learned from our research was this sense of pressure. That you’re making a really important purchase decision, often on your own with a sales assistant peering over your shoulder. So we thought let’s do it a differently, which has manifested itself in various ways.

Originally, when we were just an online business it was our home trial service: sending four frames to customers to try free of charge for five days, ask their friends etc. and that’s worked really well. Again, it’s just another way for people to touch and feel the product.

What’s your relationship with King's Cross? Why does this form such a large part of the brand's identity?

I thought that specific area of London represented some of the principles that I cared about as a brand. Somewhere that is authentic, and not too showy in a Chelsea or Knightsbridge kind of way. Perhaps King’s Cross is a little bit of rough around the edges, but it feels like London. Proper, working London.

It's quite a specific cachet isn't it? Not like a brand using London or Paris etc...

That specific area of London had the sort of characteristics we felt best represented what we wanted to convey. It was a very traditional part of London which historically hasn’t always been looked upon favourably. At the start of the industrial revolution King’s Cross was the artery for all goods coming from the North of England. It was sat quietly, whilst serving and booming this whole city. That’s kind of how we wanted to be as a brand.

It was important for us to have this consistency and relevance running right through the brand and our product.

I’m not sure that every customer will be going around wearing a Cubitts frame thinking "this is a reference to King's Cross", but it was important for us to have this consistency and relevance running right through the brand and our product.

What are some of the ways this idea is manifested?

The main thing is the shape of our rivet: the butterfly rivet. If you walk around King's Cross Station, particularly Granary Square, and look down at the pavement you’ll notice the original wrought iron keystones. The purpose of these was to hold large granite blocks together upon which sat the cranes carrying goods from the canal before they were loaded onto little trains that went into the goods yard.

They were interesting geometrically but the fact was that form followed function. The reason they’re in this butterfly shape was that in order to support the cranes using bricks and mortar alone would just crumble under their weight. I thought: That’s a really neat principle to carry through our frames, thus all of our acetate frames are held together by this very rivet. 

Our logo features the  silhouette of  the butterfly shape, split vertically in half to represent K and X of King's Cross. All Cubitts’ frames are then named after streets around King's Cross, many of which were developed by the Cubitt Brothers, so we try to have touch points which always reference the area.

We heard in an interview recently that consumers are increasingly voting with their spend. Generally, being more conscientious about which brands they give their money to. Why do you think this is happening now?

I was speaking to somebody about this the other day, but he was talking more specifically about how fashion retail goes in these ten year cycles, for example, how the 90s was all about brand. The brands then defined who we were  like t-shirts with big Prada and Gucci logos on them, and frames also with obvious logos emblazoned on the side. The 2000s became about a movement from kind of seasonal to fast fashion with the emergence of The Inditex Group, H&M and this new breed of fashion retailers.

Then his belief, which I definitely agree with, is that now it’s become much more about having a direct relationship with individual brands for specific products. It’s about caring more about the the story of the brand, its heritage, that thing of value floods to scarcity.

Yes, you can go online and buy something on Amazon in ten seconds and it can be delivered for delivery that day, but people are now seeking something which feels more scarce, and more rare, and brands that have some real depth to them.

What’s the ambition for the brand? What does success look like for you?

We want to be a global brand. I think that is hugely important for a British spectacles brand. Given that the first pair of spectacles was made in London in the 1700s and for hundreds of years the UK led the way in frame and particularly lens design, it just seems crazy that there isn’t an internationally recognised British eyewear brand.

It’s kind of crazy right now. I regularly see people wearing our frames that I remember being just a little sketch on a notepad.

How big a brand do we want to be? Who knows. Two years ago we didn’t exist and now we have two shops and an ever growing customer base so only time will tell. It’s kind of crazy right now. I regularly see people wearing our frames that I remember being just a little sketch on a notepad.


Tom Broughton on creating an amazing brand experience.

1.    Do your consumer research. Understand what needs fixing.

2.    Think about the small things - collectively they can change the way a customer thinks about an experience.

3.    Recognise that the context is as important as the product.