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Exit Interview With De Beers Exec Stephen Lussier


Last week, Stephen Lussier (pictured), De Beers’ longtime head of marketing, announced he was retiring after 37 years with the company. (He’ll remain a consultant to De Beers and chair of the Natural Diamond Council.)

Here, he talks with JCK about lessons he’s learned during his tenure at De Beers; how he helped build major diamond markets in Japan, China, and elsewhere; and how the three-stone ring was like ketchup with barbecue sauce.

What reaction have you gotten to your retirement?

I’ve heard from people all over the world. It’s one thing about our industry that’s so extraordinary, you have a lot of family companies and so people stay involved for generations and decades. Even people who worked in consumer marketing 20 or 30 years ago still feel connected to our world.

It was a little bittersweet. I’m 100% clear that it’s not only the right thing, but it’s the perfect time both for me but also for De Beers. There aren’t many people who get to pick their time of leaving and even the manner of leaving. I’m very fortunate in that regard.

But when you start to tell your teams, you realize what you’ll be losing, which is your regular engagement with people. That’s the bit you won’t be able to get back quite like you did before. That makes you feel a lot of mixed emotions.

Let’s start at the beginning of your career. Did you always plan to go into advertising?

I attended Boston College and then I went straight to Columbia Business School because I didn’t know what else to do. I finished Columbia on a Friday, and I started work at [ad agency] N.W. Ayer on Monday.

I studied psychology at undergrad, and I was always fascinated by it, but I knew I didn’t want to be psychologist. I decided if I merged my interest in people’s motivations—which is what psychology is largely about—with marketing, I got advertising. That’s always impacted my approach because I’ve always been very focused on the consumer motivation aspect and needs and desires. And that’s why the diamond account was a perfect home for me, because if you look at other [product advertising], it’s about a 10% discount coupon on your food purchases.

It’s strange how life turns on the most random events, because when I joined Ayer, I was a management trainee. And that Monday morning, an executive vice president assigned me to the De Beers account. I think now: What if he assigned me to the Kraft macaroni and cheese account? Life would have been different, beyond recognition.

I did other accounts, but I was always fascinated by diamonds. I was fascinated by the global nature of the business. I was really interested in meeting people from all over the world and from different cultures.

It felt to me like I was doing something important that was meaningful to people. I could never get that excited about some of the accounts I was working on at Ayer, where we’d have three-week-long meetings about what words to say on the packaging.

And eventually you went to De Beers in London.

I think the reason they [recruited me] was that communicating with America was very difficult back then, and they couldn’t travel to America [for antitrust reasons], and America was their most important market. They wanted to have somebody on their marketing team who had a greater sense of how our marketing worked in America. I could feel it a bit more firsthand than they could. It wasn’t that I was the most senior executive, it was just I was available, and at the right place at the right time.

What was your impression of the culture there?

De Beers today is unrecognizable compared to when I arrived there. There are some things that make me smile now. You had to have a suit that was blue or gray. You had to keep your jacket on at all times if you were outside of your office.

It was all very stratified. There were five different luncheon rooms, and your level depended on which one you could have access to. If you went to the executive floor, you had to be escorted by these guys in long black tailcoats, like they have at Buckingham Palace. It was a very traditional English formal environment. I was from New York, and thought, ‘this is very different.’ It just fascinated me.…

In that era, it was a class-based world in Britain, and they were always trying to work out where you sat in their world. When they used to say, ‘What school did you go to?’ they didn’t mean university, they meant high school. And in America, that didn’t really work. So I could pass in and out of any of those structures. In a way, being American gave me a great freedom.

Did it feel different being the client?

It’s very different having to recommend something than having to decide whether you want to do it. They don’t seem so different, but they are. Because when you approve or agree to something, then you own it.

One thing I’ve learned is that if you don’t inspire your ad agencies to want to do great things for you, they won’t. I’ve always been a believer that clients get the best work by inspiring their agency teams and making the task for the agencies fun and giving them the sense that they can do great things. It doesn’t mean you approve everything. But even when you don’t, you have to recognize that, for creative people, their work is like their children, and they’ve invested themselves in it. And you have to be careful how you criticize people because they’re very defensive of it.

Eventually you headed the Asia account. How was that different?

The thing about diamonds is that the core message is the same everywhere. It’s a universal message. Back then, marriages in Japan were largely arranged, and if you’re having an arranged marriage, it’s a slightly different feeling, and you had to market it in a slightly different way. That marketing was always a little less emotional, and it was more about having a diamond perceived as the correct symbol for getting married. And we built that engagement ring tradition from zero to close to 70% of all brides in a relatively short period of time.

And then you turned your attention to China.

Back in 1991, China was just beginning to open to the world, and there were all these stories in the business press that it was the next big market. I thought, we ought to go have a look. When I got there, I thought we were way too early. There were no stores at all to buy a piece of diamond jewelry. There was really no distribution channel, and there was no real knowledge amongst consumers about diamonds.

But if you looked at places like Taiwan or Hong Kong or Singapore, diamonds were highly prized as something small and valuable and precious. We thought there could be some kind of connection within Chinese culture to own diamonds. We met the big chain of broadcasters, and for 100 grand, we bought ads every day on the highest rated news program, reaching billions of people. We thought it was worth the effort. And “A Diamond Is Forever” still has 97% awareness from those early campaigns.

In 2000, De Beers had to refashion its model with Supplier of Choice.

[Former chairman] Nicky Oppenheimer used to have a very accurate saying that De Beers is like a chameleon, and every now and then we need to shed our skin and grow another. And if we don’t do that, you’ll end up as a dead chameleon. Even in the last two years, we’ve been doing it again and rethinking things in a significant and transformative way.

When De Beers launched Supplier of Choice, you were a big advocate for the industry to become more marketing oriented. Do you think that happened?

Yes, because of the competition from both hard and soft luxury goods players, who are in many ways copying the original De Beers model. De Beers was one of the first companies in the luxury sector to use marketing tools to scale the business model to have mass luxury. [LVMH chairman] Bernard Arnault has used the same tools, but he’s scaled them more than anyone could have dreamed.

We knew there had to be a transformation in the way in which diamonds were brought to market to engage consumers more. If you ask Americans now about branded engagement rings, a majority of young people say they want a branded one. Whereas 10 years ago, the figure was about 6% or something.  The reason that’s so important is that brands bring consumer differentiation and marketing beyond what De Beers and the Natural Diamond Council can do on their own. It has taken a long time to get there, but the impact has happened, and I think that’s contributing to some of the success we’re seeing now.

Anything you are particularly proud of?

I think probably the biggest thing that we did in America is that we turned America from a market where people generally got one diamond when they got engaged, into a market where heavy owners own more than five pieces of diamond jewelry.

That was a marketing strategy we thought about, almost like the typical packaged-goods strategy. We thought: We have a brand—the diamond engagement ring—that stands for love and commitment. What’s the brand extension? It’s like you have a ketchup, you make ketchup with barbecue sauce under the same brand.

We took this idea of the diamond engagement ring and extended it to other products and occasions. You had the three-stone ring, the anniversary band—they took that core idea of commitment but extended it to different products and different occasions and built on the positive feeling of giving and receiving diamonds. We called them “beacons” and “big ideas,” but they were really classic marketing brand extensions.

Your wife is a member of the Oppenheimer family, which once owned De Beers but sold its interest in 2011. How are they doing?

I see [former De Beers director and Lussier’s father-in-law] Anthony Oppenheimer regularly. I see Nicky less regularly. I think De Beers was so much a part of [the Oppenheimers’] lives that it was quite hard for them when they left. The easiest thing for them in some ways was to make that break really strong, and that’s what they’ve done. When I see them, they don’t ask how things are going at De Beers. Their focus is really on creating new opportunities both for southern Africa but also investment opportunities that will help the development of that region.

You will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from Jewelers of America in March. But before that, any message you want to leave readers with?

What’s motivated me and hopefully motivates people all over the jewelry industry is this concept of the diamond dream. It’s diamonds’ ability to represent commitment and love and to make you feel like a different person when you’re wearing them. They’re inherently precious, and your grandchildren will probably be wearing your diamonds.

If there’s any sort of inspiration or insight I can provide, the most important thing we all have to do is to keep that dream alive and make it as powerful for the new generation as it was for prior ones. That’s entirely within our collective power to achieve because the product itself is so beautiful. so precious, and inherently a special thing. But it takes effort to do that, a collective effort, and my call to arms for the industry is to never forget that.

Top: Stephen Lussier speaking at the 2021 Luxury show (photo by Camilla Sjodin)

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By: Rob Bates

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