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How one Dubai startup is disrupting the market with cool contact lenses

Words by Rob Chilton

Taking on big pharma brands, ditching stigmas, and Icelandic pop music - Hopi's aim is “popping out from the noise”

Any contact lens wearer will have boxes of lenses piled up in a bathroom cabinet. The boxes are usually white and covered in lots of small numbers and text, plus, crucially, the brand name and logo of a pharmaceutical giant. One glance at the design tells you contact lenses are not meant to be fun.

But a new mail-order company in Dubai is aiming to disrupt this stuffy marketplace with contact lenses arriving at your door in brightly coloured packaging, with jokey marketing messages and a pricing system that blows the big boys out of the water. If you were in any doubt about the cool factor of this new brand then the fact that it gets its name from Hoppípolla, a song by Icelandic indie band Sigur Ros, should be all you need to know.

Kristian Stinson and Charles Wright, entrepreneurs from the UK, are the founders of Hopi. Fed up, not only with the stigma attached to wearing glasses and contact lenses, but with the domination of big corporate pharmaceutical brands, they sought to shake things up.

Kristian Stinson and Charles Wright

“As consumers, we were tired of overpaying for daily lenses and we knew that there had to be a better way of doing things,” says Wright. Stinson adds, “Big pharma brands have been controlling the contact lens market for decades, profiteering from insane mark-ups. Our direct-to-consumer model means no middlemen and no greedy mark-ups on our lenses.”

For a one-month supply of 60 daily lenses, Hopi charges AED 200. Grand Optics in Mall of the Emirates charges AED 314 for 60 Alcon lenses while for 60 Bausch & Lomb lenses at E-Optics in The Greens the cost is AED 330.

Boxes in colours you’re more used to seeing on a pair of Paul Smith socks are a clear sign of Hopi’s intent to stand out from the crowd. “Our packaging is a far cry from the boring white medicinal boxes typically found on opticians’ shelves,” says Stinson. Inspired by disruptive brands such as Away (luggage), Warby Parker (glasses), Harry’s (razors) and Brooklinen (bedding), Stinson and Wright worked with branding expert Neil Baker who told them, ‘You gotta pop out from the noise’.

Packaging that stands out from the crowd

Stinson continues, “We’re not boring old men in white coats who are here to make you feel defective for wearing lenses. The problem lies in the lexicon of the eyecare industry. You have ‘poor’ or ‘bad’ eyesight for which you need ‘corrective’ lenses. It’s savage and we’ve been conditioned to believe our eyes are inferior. It’s time to change the narrative on eyecare.”

Stinson, 34, admits Hopi was largely borne out of “having the guts to take on an established industry. Taking on big pharma? Getting into manufacturing? You must be nuts! Maybe we are, but we’re totally here for it.”

Talking to their customers told the two men that people wore contact lenses for reasons other than just eyesight. “It went much deeper than that,” explains Wright. “People told us they wear contact lenses because they were bullied at school for wearing glasses, or because ‘I don’t feel ugly’, or, ‘I wanted to look my best on my wedding day.’ That’s when we had our ‘aha!’ moment. Disrupting big pharma on contact lenses was not only a price game but a branding opportunity too.”

They spent a year researching the best lenses and discovered Pegavision, a premium supplier in Taiwan. Wright, 30, says proudly, “They’re like a spa day for your corneas.” Then came the marketing language found on the website and emails that tell customers who place an order they are now ‘part of the Hopi gang.’ After ordering, customers are informed the Hopi warehouse staff would, ‘Remove box from the cryogenic, sterilised frozen chamber, (don’t wake up the alien) and warm it up with a hug.’

Hopi is taking on big pharma brands

“We wanted to flip the script,” says Stinson. “We talk to our customers as real people. Many local e-commerce platforms are so generic with their script: ‘Thank you for your order, here’s a boring email to confirm it.’ We know we can do this better. It’s not for everyone, but then again, our lenses are not meant to be. If we’re going to disrupt, we have to disrupt on every platform, hence the humour and the brand.”

The wit was also designed to make people feel good about themselves. Stinson continues, “During our research, one customer told us when getting her -8 and -10 prescription filled, her optician quipped, ‘Ooh, that’s bad!’ How brutal is that to hear from the person who is meant to be helping you?”

Were they worried the jokes might deter customers from taking Hopi seriously? After all, this is a company selling you a product that sits on your eyeball all day. “Absolutely not,” says Stinson. “We’re backed by science and that’s the most important thing. We’ve gone hard to make sure our lenses are the best quality. We’re not flippant about it either - we have the humour and positive vibes because that’s what we stand for. Why do we have to be sterile and medicinal?”

Last year, Wright and Stinson both read Little Black Stretchy Pants, the story of yoga wear brand Lululemon, written by its founder, billionaire businessman Chip Wilson. “He keeps it real,” smiles Wright. “It taught us both about how to grow an empire while remaining a stand-up bloke at the same time. Business is one thing, enjoying life, being a good dad and husband is another.”

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