In 1938, the son of the founder of a famous global organization that traded in raw materials met with a young man, a former schoolteacher.
Harry Oppenheimer, the son of the founder of De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. asked the young man, Francis Wayland Ayer, to come up with a way to change people's perspective on diamonds and make Americans fall in love with engagement rings.
Ayer had founded an agency with his father and a $250 investment in 1869. He persuaded Oppenheimer to underwrite the cost to research people's attitudes in the U.S. market.
This was to be the last hope for realizing enormous profits out of an otherwise fairly common and plentiful stone that had been available by the bucketful since 1870, when huge diamond mines were discovered near the Orange River, in South Africa.
Creating demand was the answer. It meant building a new norm in culture, then making it pervasive. N.W. Ayer found that the most critical ways to influence the purchase of diamonds was to first create emotional and romantic feelings tied to diamonds.
Brand building is a long-term game. Its aim is to create a mental and physical availability among a large number of potential customers. It seeks to build emotional salience and recall of a few memorable, distinctive characteristics.
Building forever brands
It starts with a deep understanding of business. Ayer understood both the business De Beers intended to build and the business of advertising.
N.W. Ayer & Son had made a name for itself first as the compiler and publisher of the widely used American Newspaper Annual. The agency then revolutionized the advertising industry by pioneering the open contract. This allowed advertisers to pay a fixed commission for the volume of placements. Ayer introduced copywriting in 1888 and creative in 1898#.
The British businessmen behind the operations in South Africa started the De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd cartel, now known as De Beers. They had realized that for people to consider diamonds valuable, they needed to maintain an aura of mystery. Diamonds needed to be rare. De Beers moved to control both supply and demand. If you've ever tried to sell a diamond, you'll know (or suspect) there's much more to their commercial success#.
Marketing is about figuring out the commercial potential of an idea. Who benefits? Why does it matter? What's the appeal?
The building blocks are designed to answer those questions simply to prime people emotionally so that a number of them will act on the impulse. To have a small impact on a large number of people we also need an item to be available and easy to buy.
What does a powerful slogan do?
“Slogan” is a Scottish term that means “battle cry.” Businesses often consider the promotional part of marketing as the true conflict with competitors, where to win share of mind. Slogans are recognizable statements we associate with a brand in our minds.
If I say, “got milk?”, “just do it.”, “think different,” “where's the beef?”, “does she… or doesn't she?” “the pause that refreshes,” “have it your way,” many will visualize the respective brands. “Reach out and touch someone” was also quite popular at the time. It was AT&T's slogan, the work of N.W. Ayer & Son.
“A diamond is forever” is America’s most famous advertising slogan and today over 90 percent of American’s recognize it. Frances Gerety, one of Ayer’s young copywriters, was working late one night. The story goes that she put her head down on the table from exhaustion and pleaded for help. Just before she left work that night she scribbled the words “a diamond is forever” on a piece of paper. It was 1947.
Gerety colleagues in the copy department (all men) argued that the slogan didn’t really mean anything. Using “forever” wasn’t even grammatically correct, they said. But between 1948 and 2010, the slogan has appeared in every De Beers engagement ad.
The genius is in what the slogan sells—it was:
“the conception of a new form of advertising, which has been widely imitated ever since. There was no direct sale to be made. There was no brand name to be impressed on the public mind. There was simply an idea — the eternal emotional value surrounding the diamond.”
According to internal Ayer documents, the emphasis on both eternity and sentiment made the statement powerful. The slogan sold an ideal, it made an impression and created a new culture.
Selling the invisible
Ayer's marching orders where to sell a product for Oppenheimer and De Beers to mainstream Americans who (most likely) did not want it nor need.
How do you take something extravagant that only wealthy can afford, with declining sales for more than two decades, plummeting during the Great Depression, and make it a winner? You not only sell the emotional value of the idea, you also build a marketing campaign around it to sway opinion.
Marketing, advertising and public relations campaigns kept communicating the notion that diamonds are forever associated with love, luxury, strength, and emotion. Ayer enlisted jewelers, celebrities, magazines, lecturers, and entertainment to that end. In the nascent days of motion pictures, he had movie scripts and scenes changed to show the stars wearing, shopping, and yearning for diamonds.
In just three years, he reversed the trend of declining diamond sales—and sales were up over 50 percent. Brand building works on motivation and ability and gets measured in months, rather than weeks. Results accrue over longer periods of time—how many people did we attract over 18 months? (vs. this month)
The slogan didn't sell a specific make or ring, it sold the idea of commitment between two individuals. Communications conveyed the invisible—strength, durability, and achievement—appealing to men and women in slightly different ways.
Diamonds are the gift of love was the main message to young men, who bought 90 percent of engagement rings. The first campaign in 1939 emphasized the male's business savvy. No courtship is complete without a sparkling diamond was the main message to women.
Turning norms into culture
Only 5 percent of future brides had a diamond engagement ring in 1947. By 1981, about 60 percent had received one from their fiancé. A 55 percent market penetration made the De Beers marketing campaign a legend in marketing circles.
Edward Jay Epstein explains how the heavy marketing worked in a 1982 article for the Atlantic#:
Movie idols, the paragons of romance for the mass audience, would be given diamonds to use as their symbols of indestructible love. In addition, the agency suggested offering stories and society photographs to selected magazines and newspapers which would reinforce the link between diamonds and romance. Stories would stress the size of diamonds that celebrities presented to their loved ones, and photographs would conspicuously show the glittering stone on the hand of a well-known woman. Fashion designers would talk on radio programs about the “trend towards diamonds” that Ayer planned to start.
In its 1947 strategy plan, the advertising agency […] outlined a subtle program that included arranging for lecturers to visit high schools across the country. “All of these lectures revolve around the diamond engagement ring, and are reaching thousands of girls in their assemblies, classes and informal meetings in our leading educational institutions,” the agency explained in a memorandum to De Beers.
The agency had organized, in 1946, a weekly service called “Hollywood Personalities,” which provided 125 leading newspapers with descriptions of the diamonds worn by movie stars.
In 1947, the agency commissioned a series of portraits of “engaged socialites.” The idea was to create prestigious “role models” for the poorer middle-class wage-earners. The advertising agency explained, in its 1948 strategy paper, “We spread the word of diamonds worn by stars of screen and stage, by wives and daughters of political leaders, by any woman who can make the grocer's wife and the mechanic's sweetheart say 'I wish I had what she has.'”
From creating a new norm, De Beers’ famous slogan entered pop culture. It inspired books, songs, and even movies, like the James Bond spy movie “Diamonds Are Forever” (1971). The genius in the slogan is that it promotes the gesture and commitment to the relationship—and the object. Diamonds are to keep, not to re-sell.
Even today, it's impossible to reverse the trend. Articles, celebrity images, and mainstream stories continue to celebrate diamonds as a status symbol, and example of achievement. Welding the individual personal aim to the business goal of the company creates intrinsic value for an item that is otherwise difficult to re-sell at a profit, if not impossible.
Between 1939 and 1979, De Beers's wholesale diamond sales in the United States increased from $23 million to $2.1 billion. The company's ad budget went from $200,000 to $10 million a year in the same period. The investment allowed N.W. Ayer to turn an idea into cultural norm.
Building a brand in 2019
In a world increasingly run by technology and digital media, brands are still an asset that converts. Perception, recall, and attraction have become table stakes, the price of entry for consideration. Brands with a clear core value create a shortcut to reputation.
People’s value has now shifted more fully into relationship building and intelligence. You need reputation, the stuff of good brands, AND relationships, the stuff of good people, to generate revenue.
You can still build a valuable brand with shorter time frames and attention spans, even when the number of choices keeps growing. In this article I'm making the case of why it's important, especially when what you sell is not tangible—like a service—because we do buy experiences.
This is the topic of a new talk I'm developing based on the questions I've been answering over the last couple of years, including from enterprise brands, technology companies, and professional services organizations.