develop a marketing strategy into a tradition?
The story of how De Beers invented the diamond engagement ring tradition
Getting engaged typically involves an expensive diamond ring, while popping the question during an orchestrated, surprise proposal. A tradition as old as time, or is it? What many don’t realize is that it's all part of a smart marketing strategy developed not so long ago, by the world's biggest diamond company.
Diamonds are a girl's best friend. Diamonds are forever. Two of the many famous slogans that establish diamonds as the ultimate token of love.
We all know that diamond rings are quintessential to engagement proposals. How serious can you be showing up with anything less? We’re talking about true love here!
And even though it takes the average Joe a good couple of months (or years) to save up for a decent diamond, nobody really seems to question this expensive tradition.
It all started roughly a century ago, when De Beers hired advertising agency N.W. Ayer to revive a declining diamond industry, following a period of worldwide war and economic depression.
How do you manipulate product demand?
Before the engagement ring trend, any family heirloom or a nice piece of jewelry was an appropriate proposal gift. A select few received a sparkling ring, but it was far from the norm. Diamonds were a rarity, mainly worn by royals and the super-rich.
In 1902, De Beers already controlled 80% of the mining and trading of diamonds, which only took place in India and Brazil. However, huge mines were later also discovered in South Africa.
De Beers managed to buy up most of them, but diamond scarcity had changed. A high number of diamonds flooding the market would dramatically kill demand.
Already the biggest player in the industry, De Beers created a global network of wholesalers that distributors were very keen to join. They all shared the same interest; to control the supply of diamonds, and thus the price.
The move maintained the company’s monopoly position, but they had to find a way to manipulate demand for diamonds too. Especially when sales fell to an all-time low during the Great Depression between 1929 and 1939.
How could they make diamonds popular again? They needed a marketing strategy, and this is exactly where ad agency N.W. Ayer came in.
Research showed that Americans considered diamonds a luxury product for the upper class, and people with a modest income would rather invest in a TV or car during the recovering economy.
A strategy had to be designed to make diamonds appealing to consumers with different income levels.
N.W. Ayer ended up inventing a campaign that gave diamonds the strong emotional value they still hold today, making them an emotional necessity.
How do you increase the emotional value of an invaluable product?
Now that diamonds were no longer a true rarity, the goal was to increase the emotional value of diamonds so they could still be sold at luxury price points. N.W. Ayer came up with the idea to link them to something socially valuable to everyone; love and marriage.
A very smart idea, as practically everyone aspires to get married (perhaps less so in modern-day times), regardless of their level of income. Besides, tying the knot is supposedly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so saving up for an expensive diamond seems totally worth it.
N.W. Ayer created campaigns presenting diamonds as the perfect engagement gift, convincing people that the high cost of the sparkling stones is proof that a man really loves his fiancée, and will be able to provide for her during the marriage.
Various ads and slogans were developed to solidify diamonds as the unquestionable proposal gift, and the symbol of true love. These sleek ads showed elegant women wearing diamond rings, along with phrases emulating the emotional importance of receiving them.
Some examples are “She’s marrying you for richer or poorer. Let her know how it’s going”, and “Show your bride-to-be what the future will be like” The most effective of all was the “A diamond is forever” campaign from 1947, which became the company slogan.
The motto almost single-handedly invented the diamond engagement ring tradition, with all the other customs surrounding it.
How do you invent traditions with your messaging?
The concept of a surprise proposal, with the man down on one knee presenting a pretty ring box, was completely invented by De Beers, as was the sentiment that the size of the rock showed how much a man loved his bride-to-be.
They were even thoughtful enough to create guides about how much was appropriate for men to spend on a diamond in relation to their salary. The conclusion: two months of salary, communicated through the campaign “How can you make two months’ salary last forever?”.
De Beers also made sure these engagement customs were portrayed in romantic movies, featuring famous Hollywood starlets wearing their diamonds.
Most notably Marilyn Monroe, who sang the hit “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in the 1953 motion picture “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, one of the earliest examples of product placement.
The strategy worked. Approximately 10% of American women in 1940 received diamond rings for their engagement, in contrast to 80% by 1990. Wholesale diamond sales in the US increased from $23 million to a whopping $2.1 billion between 1939 and 1979.
Rolling out Internationally, the strategy created behavioral change in many other regions too. You could sure say this campaign was a masterpiece.
How do you adapt your strategy to survive controversy?
De Beers weathered a fair share of scrutiny throughout the years. Human rights organizations frequently raised awareness about the unethical labor conditions of mineworkers, with reports of the diamond trade funding civil wars in conflict areas.
The negative terms “blood diamond” and “conflict diamond” became widely used, with the 2006 movie “Blood Diamond” shocking audiences with a fictionalized storyline about the issues surrounding the industry.
In reaction, an anti-conflict certification system was invented, promising consumers that certified diamonds were followed from mine to market, and had not funded any wars.
However, it’s unclear how this can be guaranteed as diamonds travel through the hands of multiple wholesalers.
While demand for ethical and sustainable jewelry increased, interest in lab-grown synthetic diamonds grew.
De Beers was originally against lab-grown diamonds, which look identical to the naked eye but cost just a fraction of the price. Considered a threat to their monopoly position, the “Real is Rare” ads were meant to remind people of the value of natural diamonds.
However, De Beers had to change its stance and embrace synthetic diamonds in order to stay relevant and compete with other brands. Their lab-grown Lightbox collection was launched in 2018.
Despite their efforts, lab-grown diamonds have yet to reach the level of popularity that traditional diamonds once had, with consumers still opting for the timeless appeal and historical significance of mined diamonds.
Nevertheless, De Beers' shift towards lab-grown diamonds shows their willingness to adapt to the changing market trends and their commitment to meeting the needs of consumers.
Perhaps it’s just time for another genius marketing campaign…