Women self-purchasers are driving the industry — and marketing efforts need to catch up with that reality, says the Natural Diamond Council’s David Kellie.
Midway through our interview, David Kellie pauses to apologize.
“I’m sorry if you feel like my counselor,” he laughs. “But sometimes I need one.”
He says it in jest, but the truth is that the chief executive of the Natural Diamond Council (NDC) is frustrated. Kellie has been charged with championing a market that he believes is “a massive growth industry,” but he feels jewelers are failing to capitalize on this.
The problem, he says, is marketing — particularly when it comes to a female clientele.
“We still have outdated notions about who the consumer is, and it affects everything we do,” explains the New York-based executive, who spent 15 years heading up Ralph Lauren’s marketing and advertising departments before taking a job with Watches of Switzerland. He then moved to the NDC at the end of 2019. “She is the consumer. It’s not she with him. Even if he’s with her when she’s buying it, she’s the consumer, she’s the decision-maker, she’s got her own money.”
In addition, he believes, bridal is not the be-all and end-all category many in the industry think it is. “The biggest uplift by a long way over the last two years is [the woman] buying diamonds for herself. That’s been the big growth here. When no one was getting married [during the pandemic] but the market was still booming, it’s because she was buying diamonds for herself. So we’ve started this, [and] now we’ve just got to keep it rolling.”
The reason the industry is lagging behind other sectors, such as fashion, is that it “has got too many old men in it,” Kellie asserts. “There aren’t enough people who understand the consumer.”
Of course, he recognizes the irony of this sermon coming from the mouth of a “middle-aged guy” like himself. To counterbalance this, he actively surrounds himself with an all-female team of social media-savvy millennials and Gen Z-ers who can tap into the zeitgeist in a natural way. And he takes what they report back seriously. “We read social media like a retailer would read daily sales.”
The role of the NDC has evolved since it first launched as the Diamond Producers Association (DPA) in 2015. Initially, it took on the role of advertiser, funded by the world’s top diamond miners. Two years ago, it switched tactics — as well as its name — and became a publisher, producing diamond-focused content that targets consumers.
“That’s been way more successful than we anticipated,” says Kellie, a self-confessed “spreadsheet guy” who loves nothing more than drilling down into the data. “We never anticipated it would take off so quickly. What we post gets very high engagement rates — three, four, five times what a fashion company would get. That’s why I know our consumer loves our industry.”
While Kellie’s team has been enjoying success on social media, he believes the industry is underrepresented in general on platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and TikTok. “We’re not on any of these platforms where [the consumer] is spending her time. She’s not watching cable TV. I get people in the industry going, ‘David, I never see us on cable TV anymore.’ Well, why would we be?”
When retailers do engage with social media, it tends to be focused on quick wins, through Google Ads or Facebook, rather than investing in long-term brand-building campaigns, he continues. “CFOs don’t like investing in TikTok and Instagram, because you don’t get an immediate return on investment…but that’s where she is, and that’s where she’s getting her influences from.”
Roles and resources
Today’s consumer is “unrecognizable” from the diamond jewelry consumers of a few decades ago, Kellie declares: “Who she is, how she digests media, what she responds to is completely different.” Yet the industry at large hasn’t changed the way it markets diamond jewelry. That’s partly because it hasn’t had to, he suggests, as many have relied on the “paternal father of De Beers” to do the job for them with glossy global campaigns and iconic slogans.
But isn’t the NDC just stepping into the De Beers role? With its celebrity ambassadors — the latest being British actress Lily James — as well as its active social presence and slick advertising — such as the popular “Thank You, By the Way” campaign to highlight the good diamonds do — one could argue that the NDC is perpetuating the problem.
“There is that,” Kellie admits, “but we don’t have the financial resources [to do it in the same way as De Beers]; we have a fraction of the resources that De Beers used to have.” His marketing budget, he reveals, is about a tenth of a national jewelry retailer’s or a major global jewelry brand’s.
Compounding these constraints is the loss of Alrosa’s contributions to the NDC. The Russian miner suspended itself from the group following the invasion of Ukraine, and the repercussions will hit the NDC’s cash flow in 2023. Kellie is looking to the diamond industry for support: “At this stage, we would usually be talking about [raising] a lot more [capital through investment from brands and stores], but now the biggest priority is filling the funding gap that has been left by Alrosa.”
A call to action
What the NDC lacks in finances, it makes up for in vision. Its future-focused marketing model seeks out connections in street fashion, youth and queer culture, hip-hop, TikTok, and the Metaverse — a field the council is “interested in,” says Kellie, adding that “we’ve got a close relationship with key players.” The NDC also looks toward traditional luxury haunts like the red carpet. What it needs to go truly stratospheric, though, is collaboration with — and action from — the trade.
“In this industry, we talk like it’s fate, what’s going to happen to us. [We say it depends] on the economy [as far as] what the market’s going to do next year, it depends on something outside of our control,” argues Kellie. “I say to them, can you imagine the board of directors at LVMH saying, ‘We don’t know what next year’s going to do, we’re going to wait and see based on everything outside of our control’? It can’t possibly be. It’s up to us. Either we’re leaders, or we’re not. Either we’re going to take control of this industry and build it, or we’re going to sit back and let fate govern our future.”
And the opportunity is there, he stresses. “There is no industry better positioned culturally and emotionally than diamond jewelry. Not bags, not shoes, not any other consumer luxury product that fits into this culture like diamond jewelry.” Just imagine the possibilities, he says, if the trade gets it right.
Image: Natural Diamond Council