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What the hell is Ray-Ban thinking hitching its brand to Facebook?

The brand image trade-off in the multiyear deal between Facebook and Ray-Ban parent EssilorLuxottica is as lopsided as a pair of busted glasses.

What the hell is Ray-Ban thinking hitching its brand to Facebook?
[Photo: Brian Lundquist/Unsplash]

When Mark Zuckerberg came on screen to launch the Facebook Connect virtual conference last week, he outlined the company’s goals when it came to the innovation and proliferation of virtual and augmented reality. In fact, he announced a whole new division called Facebook Reality Labs that would oversee Facebook’s charge toward a future in which we literally never log off.

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Part of that was announcing the impending launch of its first pair of smart glasses—not yet augmented reality glasses, but as Zuck said, “They’re on the road there.” Having watched the mixed reviews and adoption of products such as Google Glass, Amazon’s Echo Frames, and Snap Spectacles, Facebook has clearly identified design as a contender to differentiate itself here.

Not just design, but design brand association.

So instead of trying to convince people to buy Facebook glasses, he decided to find the most popular glasses brands on Earth, and put Facebook tech inside them.

That’s when he announced a multiyear partnership with Milan-based EssilorLuxottica, parent company to both Ray-Ban and Oakley, as well as a producer of glasses for such fashion brands as Armani and Versace. But the first product, set to hit the market sometime in 2021, will be a co-branded effort between Ray-Ban and the social network.

For some people, this is exciting technology, and to pair it with the classic style of a brand such as Ray-Ban is a no-brainer.

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They’d be right.

From a Facebook perspective, this makes total sense. The fashionable halo that would hover on the decades-long reputation and popularity of Wayfarers and Aviators could give any new venture a substantial boost. Facebook is tapping into decades of accumulated cool built by everyone from Bob Dylan to Andy Warhol to Debbie Harry to Madonna to Tom Cruise.

But what, exactly, is in it for Ray-Ban?

The best brand collaborations take two strong names and products and combine them in a way that is unique, surprising, and frankly, awesome. Think Taco Bell and Doritos. Stranger Things and Coke (or Stranger Things plus Baskin Robbins or Levi’s). Travis Scott and pretty much anything (see: McDonald’s, Nike, Fortnite, Mattel).

Even KFC and Crocs had a fun ring to it.

Point is, each had something to offer the other, and both traded in the currency of brand image quid pro quo. Between Facebook and Ray-Ban right now? The brand lift is a one-way street.

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One is associated with James Dean, JFK, and as comfortable in a hipster wardrobe as it is on Joe Biden, and pretty much everywhere in between.

Classic.

Facebook? A Jekyll and Hyde of brand behavior. Is it the friendly platform where you see pics of your aunt’s pandemic bread-baking progression or buy a dresser from a neighbor? Yep. Is it a cesspool of misinformation that threatens the health and safety of both actual people and democratic institutions? Uh-huh. Within a week of this new deal being announced, a former Facebook data scientist’s 6,600-word memo—published by BuzzFeed—outlined the avalanche of fake accounts around the world that she had to try to shut down. It also mentioned the potential spread of COVID-19 misinformation to American users, linked to a ring of 672,000 accounts in Spain.

Oh, and then reports emerged that the FTC was preparing an antitrust lawsuit against the company.

[Video: Facebook]
Going back a whole month, to August, the advocacy group Avaaz reported that misleading health content had garnered an estimated 3.8 billion views on Facebook over the past year, peaking during the pandemic. The report said that content from 10 “superspreader” sites sharing health misinformation had almost four times as many Facebook views in April as equivalent content from the sites of 10 leading health institutions, such as the World Health Organization and the CDC.

Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, the brand released a sweet short film about how a beloved New York neighborhood restaurant called Coogan’s had to shut down during the pandemic. Shot by an Oscar-nominated cinematographer, it featured a soft emo cover of “I Will Survive” by Lykke Li and was absolutely made to pluck your heartstrings. As well as remind you of all the wonderful things Facebook does for small businesses, especially during this challenging time. The same pandemic all that misinformation is undoubtedly affecting, and may or may not encourage people to do things like marching through Target to protest masks like some sort of Freedom Fighter for unobstructed faces.

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Even in the best of times, a brand partnership with Facebook on a product you expect people to actually spend money on is a roll of the dice. It is not a beloved company. It is generally tolerated. Between personal security breaches, ever-encroaching advertising, and the weaponization of information, people are wary of trusting it with a pic of their dinner.

Now you want them to put Facebook on their face?

Note: This is before the election. What do you think the dialogue around Facebook and disinformation will be in November and the aftermath of what’s expected to be a contentious fight?

Smart glasses and augmented reality are the future, and every major tech giant has had a lab full of people tinkering away at it for years. Maybe Ray-Ban and its parent company saw an opportunity to get in early, and a chance not to miss out on a wearable gold mine, like how so many watch brands have ceded their own place to Apple.

Any chain-smoker outside a betting parlor will tell you that picking the right horse is a tough racket. It gets even tougher when your horse is being blamed for the downfall of democracy.

At least they’ll be able to recycle the tagline Ray-Ban used for almost a decade: “Never Hide.”

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Though now it has a rather ominous new meaning.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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