De Beers Gets the Millennium Bug

Don’t look now, but the year 2000 is just around the corner. And along with talk of computer bugs, New Year’s blow-outs, and would-be apocalypses, be prepared for a tidal wave of hype.

But where many of us just see a big date change, De Beers senses a unique opportunity. The company is sinking millions of dollars – exactly how many has yet to be determined – into a “Diamonds for the Millennium” campaign. The expense will be above its normal advertising outlay.

At first, such a campaign sounds trite, similar to M&Ms’ pitch for “candy for the next millennium.” But De Beers executives argue that diamonds are uniquely positioned to benefit from the big calendar flip. After all, not many products have been around since the last millennium, as diamonds have. “The millennium is a unique opportunity for diamonds and De Beers,” notes Mary Walsh, marketing director for the United States and Canada. “No other product is as appropriate as a diamond to take advantage of the moment.”

Gambling on psychology. It all comes down to the psychology of the moment. Today, most people think that New Year’s Eve 1999 will simply mean the party to end all parties. But De Beers is gambling that it will also be a time of serious reflection. Traditionally, New Year’s Day is when people take stock of their lives and make resolutions for change. And what will the millennium be but the ultimate New Year’s?

“People will think: ‘Here I am. What’s the value of my life?’ ” says Cheryl Silberg of the Diamond Promotion Service. “And for most people, what’s of value to them is the people they care about. And if they happen to see a diamond commercial around that time, they’ll realize there’s no better way of expressing that feeling than with diamonds.”

In fact, De Beers thinks the link is so strong that the company plans a “fast-forward strategy,” hoping that consumers will move up their diamond purchases in time for the big year. “Why buy a diamond in 2001 or 2002 when 2000 is such a significant time?” Silberg says. “When a woman wears a piece of jewelry that was bought in the year 2000, it will have more meaning.” And, as usual, De Beers wants consumers to “trade up” their purchases and is hoping the once-in-a-lifetime nature of the event will prod consumers to spend more. “People will think: ‘Maybe I should get a piece that will really make a statement,’ ” Silberg says.

Fall campaign. The planned millennium campaign will take two forms. The first will debut at the end of this year, with a TV commercial and male- and female-oriented print ads, backed up with an extensive public relations campaign. All will drive home the message that “diamonds are the best way to commemorate this special moment in history.”

The second phase, planned for the year 2000, will be more specific – suggesting occasions that could be marked by diamonds. Among the options being considered: giving diamonds as part of an inheritance (such as grandparent to grandchild), as a “reaffirmation” of love, for a milestone birthday or anniversary, or as a self-reward.

As upbeat as De Beers executives are, there is also a sense that this campaign may need more conceptualizing than others. De Beers’ focus groups have discovered that millennium awareness hasn’t hit most consumers yet, making research difficult. But the real risk is fatigue. The millennium is such an auspicious – and overwhelming – event that De Beers won’t be the only company trying to cash in on it. And while now the big day isn’t high on most people’s minds, that could change quickly; in fact, some worry that, by ball-dropping time, consumers may be as tired of the phrase “new millennium” as they are now of the words “Monica Lewinsky.”

“There’s is always the risk of a clutter of millennium messages,” Walsh says. “The challenge is to set diamonds above all the opportunities people will have to spend money for the millennium.”

De Beers plans to do this in several ways. First, it will stress that diamonds’ ancient pedigree make them a uniquely appropriate millennial gift. Because they’ve been around so long, “diamonds have more of a claim to millennium dollars than other product,” Walsh says. “As one of the copywriters said, ‘We couldn’t do this with other things. Not cars, not anything.’ ”

Plus, the pitch will be made in the classic De Beers style: with dignity, restraint, and a clear link between diamonds and romance. “It won’t be a hard sell,” says Andrea Halberstadt, De Beers’ marketing manager. “It will be an emotional appeal that puts diamonds on a pedestal.”

In fact, the company is so worried about millennial burn-out that the new ads may not even utter the “M” word. “When we do Christmas advertising, we don’t have to tell people it’s Christmas,” Walsh says. “The same may be true of the millennium.”

So how can a jeweler take advantage of De Beers’ promotion? De Beers pledges an extensive array of retailing support materials. The trade campaign will be launched with a breakfast at the JCK Show in Orlando in early February. “The key to making this work is grass-roots support from jewelers,” Silberg says. And so DPS plans to inundate the industry with millennial messages. “It’s going to be like Chinese water torture – a steady ‘drip, drip, drip’ of messages,” she promises. “If anyone comes to me in September and says, ‘Is De Beers doing something about the millennium?’ I’ll be very surprised.”

‘Millennium’ Idea Rattles Diamond Dealers

De Beers’ plan to inscribe 20,000 stones as “Millennium Diamonds” has raised suspicions in the diamond industry that it’s a dry run for the company’s branding effort. De Beers is currently testing public demand for its branded stones at a retail chain in England.

Officially, De Beers officials deny a link, though there are similarities. As in “branding,” the Millennium inscriptions will be offered only to sightholders. De Beers won’t manufacture the stones but will simply give sightholders the ability to have their stones inscribed.

Many sightholders like the Millennium stones, viewing them as a chance to get something exclusive. But others are less happy, since De Beers plans to offer the Millennium inscriptions only to a limited number of its 170 clients – possibly as few as 10 or 20. This has led to some jockeying for position to get the magic box.

De Beers apparently wants to winnow the field by having the sightholders market the stones themselves. At a recent sight, it asked clients to submit formal proposals on marketing. “It’s a way to see who can really step to the plate,” says one sightholder. Some sightholders have contacted retailers about the plan but so far have received a mixed reaction.

“People see it as De Beers trying to enter the U.S. market,” says one sightholder. Others don’t like the idea that De Beers won’t support the stones with its own advertising.

Diamond Houses

The millennium campaign isn’t the only way De Beers plans to end this century with a bang. This summer, De Beers is planning “Diamond Houses,” a “haute couture” charity party shaping up as one of the biggest and most notable events it’s ever staged.

The London gala will feature a diamond jewelry fashion show as well as an impressive array of jewelry-adorned models. “It will bring together the world’s finest diamond jewelry retailers, each exhibiting his most spectacular pieces,” says Joan Parker of the Diamond Information Center. The event should raise millions for charity and generate enough publicity to give the millennium campaign a strong kick-off.