in The Business of Jewelry on September 15, 2016
How did a diamond became forever?
The answer lies in the brilliant, multifaceted, marketing strategy designed and executed by the ad agency N.W. Ayer for their client De Beers.
N.W. Ayer was called in to turn a failing market into a psychological necessity. This all started during a period of war and economic turmoil. It only took a couple of decades to turn everything around.
In South Africa, diamonds were first found in 1866, although they were not identified as such until 1867. By 1872, the output of the diamond mines exceeded one million carats per year. The diamond discovery, along with the creation of the Tiffany & Co. six-prong solitaire setting in 1886, catapulted diamonds into the ring of choice among the aristocracy. It was during this time that the diamond miners realized that if they did not increase demand, diamond output would saturate the market. So, in 1888, they set out to accomplish two very big goals:
- Monopolize diamond prices. They succeeded by creating De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. They stockpiled diamonds and sold them strategically to control price by cultivating a network of wholesalers around the world.
- They stabilized the market. De Beers figured out a way to control both supply and demand. They also decided they needed marketing help to achieve this.
When De Beers began looking for an ad agency, the global economy was suffering and Europe was under threat of war. Their challenge was to figure out which country or countries had the most potential to support a growing diamond market, and then to hire an agency to implement a marketing campaign in those countries. Because of Europe’s preoccupation with the oncoming war, the U.S. was chosen – even though the total number of diamonds in the U.S. had declined by nearly 50% since the end of World War I.
De Beers hired Philadelphia ad agency N.W. Ayer in 1938.
In 1938, De Beers began a marketing campaign that would have a major impact on engagement rings. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the price of diamonds collapsed. At the same time, market research indicated that engagement rings were going out of style with the younger generation. While the first phase of the marketing campaign consisted of market research, the advertising phase began in 1939. One of the first elements of this campaign was to educate the public about the 4 Cs (cut, carat, color, and clarity). De Beers also began an aggressive marketing campaign using photographs of glamorous movie stars swathed in diamonds. Within three years, the sales of diamonds had increased by 50 percent.
N.W. Ayer wanted it to look like diamonds were everywhere by using celebrities in the media. “The big ones sell the little ones,” said Dorothy Dignam, (see below) a publicist for De Beers at N.W. Ayer. N.W. Ayer’s publicists wrote newspaper columns and magazine stories about celebrity proposals with diamond rings featuring the type, the size, and the worth of their diamonds. Fashion designers talked about the new diamond trend on radio shows.
N.W. Ayer did exhaustive market research to figure out exactly what Americans thought about diamonds in the late 1930s. What they found was that diamonds were considered a luxury reserved only for the super wealthy, and that Americans were spending their money on other things like cars and appliances. To sell more and bigger diamonds, Ayer would have to market to consumers at varying income levels.
So, how do they get more people to buy big diamonds in a bad economy? They needed to figure out a way to link diamonds with something emotional. Add to that the fact that diamonds weren’t worth much inherently, so they also had to keep people from ever reselling them. What was emotional, socially valuable, and eternal? Love and marriage. Yep, that was the plank that everything was built upon.
N.W. Ayer’s game plan was “to create a situation where almost every person pledging marriage feels compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring.”
Because De Beers controlled the world supply of rough diamonds, antitrust laws prohibited the company from doing business in the United States. The ads could not promote De Beers, or even show pictures of jewelry, so to get around this, the agency commissioned bold paintings by artists like André Derain and purchased pre-existing works by Dalí and Picasso.
N.W. Ayer wrote: “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.” Their story was about the people who gave diamonds or were given diamonds, and how happy and loved those diamonds made them feel. Each ad featured an educational tip on how to buy a diamond. The slogan was “Ask about color, clarity and cutting – for these determine a diamond’s quality, contribute to its beauty and value. Choose a fine stone and you’ll always be proud of it, no matter what its size.”
In 1947 the slogan “a diamond is forever” was introduced and the campaign was successful for 25 years. Those four little words appeared for years in every De Beers ad. AdAge named it the #1 slogan of the century in 1999. Ultimately, the De Beers campaign sought to persuade the consumer that an engagement ring is indispensable, and that a diamond is the only acceptable stone for an engagement ring. The idea that a man should spend a significant fraction of his annual income for an engagement ring originated from De Beers marketing materials in the mid-20th century in an effort to increase the sale of diamonds. In the 1930s, they suggested that a man should spend the equivalent of one month’s income in the engagement ring; later they suggested that he should spend two months’ income on it
Who came up with the famous slogan?
When Ms. Gerety applied to work at the Philadelphia advertising agency N.W. Ayer & Son in 1943, she was told that her timing was perfect: the agency had just lost a female copywriter. At the time, women were usually hired to write for women’s products only. Her main account would be De Beers. For the next 25 years, she wrote all of the company’s ads.
Frances Gerety and A Diamond is Forever ad. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.
As Ms. Gerety recalled in a 1988 interview with a co-worker, Howard Davis, she had just finished a series of ads and was headed to bed when she realized that she had forgotten to create a signature line. Exhausted, she said “Dear God, send me a line,” and scribbled something on a slip of paper. When she woke up and saw what she had written, she thought it was just O.K. A few hours later, she presented her idea at a meeting. According to her, “nobody jumped.”
Ms. Gerety’s only female counterpart at N.W. Ayer’s was in publicity, a Miss Dorothy Dignam (see above). Neither Ms. Gerety nor Ms. Dignam ever married.
For whatever reason, the slogan was chosen and it stuck. Even now, the URL www.adiamondisforever.com takes you to De Beers’ main website.
What do you think? Were you ever influenced by the De Beers ads? I was always smitten by De Beers. I wanted to work for them. I wanted to mine diamonds in South Africa! I bought into the romance of the whole thing!