Lincoln's stovepipehat, Churchill's cigar, Alma Adams’ fantastic hat collection – sometimes signature symbols become synonymous with great leaders. While we are just at the birth of the Biden presidency, the always fashionable gold-rimmed Ray-Ban Aviators favored by America’s new president perfectly accentuate his signature style.
But the story of these sunglasses is also a parable about the invaluable role that international companies can play in revitalizing iconic American brands.
“I’ve been wearing aviators since I was a freshman in college as a lifeguard,” President Biden once remarked. It is a look that stuck, showing up on a variety of campaign accoutrements: mugs, buttons, social media avatars – heck, even kids’ coloring pages. In fact they were the focal point (literally) of the President’s first Instagram post back in 2014.
Ray-Ban Aviators first became popular post-World War II, as American GI’s were featured in magazines and newspapers wearing the classic frames, originally designed for pilots. In the following years, Ray-Ban built its brand as high-end with superior materials and quality, a strategy that led to booming sales in the United States for decades.
The immense popularity continued to grow through the 1970s and 80s as celebrities such as Michael Jackson at the 1984 Grammys and Tom Cruise in Top Gun in 1986 sported the classic aviator shades. Aviators were characterized as the “cool” accessory and a need of every teen.
But by the 1990s, the owners of the Ray-Ban brand traded quality and craftsmanship for market saturation of its sunglasses, incorporating cheaper materials to drive the cost toward convenience-store-spinning-display prices. The result was a predictable public retreat.
As the sun all but set on this once-great brand, an Italian eyewear giant saw potential for revival. In 1999, Luxottica acquired the Ray-Ban brand for $630 million to return it to its premium past glory. This multi-million-dollar capital infusion not only saved Ray-Ban but restored its rightful place as one of the world’s most popular sunglass brands.
Luxottica’s investment also brought back Ray-Ban’s original reputation for high-quality manufacturing and savvy marketing. Customizable products were introduced at the same time, and in 2007, Luxottica launched a massive marketing campaign, “Never Hide,” that emphasized that Ray-Bans were for everyone. This rebranding turned the shades into a must-have accessory that is still one of the best-selling sunglass styles of all time.
So, the next time you see “Cool Joe” sporting his timeless American shades, remember that it was only made possible thanks to an Italian company’s timely foreign direct investment.