Rockin’ Into the 21st Century With Robbins Diamonds

Jerry Robbins of Robbins Diamonds in Philadelphia says he’s too old to race full speed into the future with his successful jewelry business. But at the age of 69, that’s exactly what he’s doing.

In May he opened a 5,600-square-foot superstore to go along with his four other stores—including two superstores—in the tristate region of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. (Superstores are designed to generate $5 million to $10 million in annual sales.) The business is also changing direction from bridal specialist to full-service jeweler. But the most obvious change to the people in the Philadelphia region will be a new adaptation of the store’s famous advertising campaign.

For more than 30 years, that campaign featured Jerry Robbins and his brother, Ron (who retired a few years ago), backed by the ’60s pop group the Dovells, singing and dancing to hit songs of the 1950s such as “Little Darlin’” and “Rockin’ Robin,” with lyrics changed to identify the songs with the jeweler. The ads ran on radio and television and turned Robbins Eighth and Walnut (the jeweler’s original location) into a household name.

The finishing touch to the campaign—which raised Jerry to iconic status—was attaching a diamond to his beard, which he wears in public and in the commercials. It helped propel the business into one of the highest volume-per-square-foot jewelry operations in the United States.

The campaign, which began in the 1970s, has been updated with animation. Jerry Robbins has become “Li’l Jerry,” a cartoon character who sings and dances, speaks in familiar rhythmic cadences, and sports a diamond in his beard. Along with the televised animation, the campaign includes serious radio spots, Internet advertising, informational podcasts, and a 7-foot Li’l Jerry mascot that entertains at events.

One reason for turning Jerry into Li’l Jerry is to attract a younger demographic and take advantage of the Internet as a broadcast medium. The other reason is to help maintain Jerry’s youthful image. “All we did was change me into a cartoon character,” Robbins says. “It’s cute. The man with the diamond in his beard is an icon. But let’s face it, I don’t look like I did 25 years ago. The cartoon is a rendition of what I used to look like.

Robbins Diamonds has a new media buyer, MayoSeitz Media, whose clients include Greater Philadelphia Tourism, Hershey Entertainment & Resorts, Sunoco, and the Philadelphia Phillies. The total “buy” for the advertising campaign on TV, radio, and the Internet is about $1.6 million.

The cartoon campaign, written and produced by Jerry and his son Gordon, started in February. Targeting a male 25–34 demographic, it covers the Greater Philadelphia broadcast market as well as Comcast Spotlight. (Comcast is the major cable provider for the region, reaching nearly 2 million homes across nine counties—87 percent of all cable households and 71 percent of all TV homes in the market.)

The cable buy means the company can advertise on every cable television station supplied by Comcast, from Comcast Sports Network (a regional sports channel) to national cable channels such as CNN, A&E, and Comedy Central. One channel of particular interest is Spike TV, intended for males in Robbins’s target age range.

“We took a lot of our money that we normally spent on radio and converted it to TV and used the cartoon character as the hook,” Robbins says. “The interesting thing about the commercial is it doesn’t sell anything. It’s an image type thing.”

Robbins also entered into a cooperative arrangement with Scott Kay for television spots and plans to partner with other jewelry brands in cooperative ads.

The expansion into high-tech and new media includes radio—specifically, Internet streaming commitments with WIP-AM, a Philadelphia sports talk station, as well as WHFS-FM in Baltimore. In addition, the buy includes an endorsement deal with Jody McDonald on WPEN-AM (a new sports talk station in Philadelphia), to take advantage of McDonald’s huge following in the Philadelphia market, as well as exclusive jewelry endorsements and product placement with the “Free Beer and Hot Wings” show on 97.5 “The Hawk” (WTHK Trenton) and endorsements with WMMR’s Pierre Robert (one of the city’s best-known DJs).

Robbins says he takes a more serious approach with the radio spots. In one ad he relates a story about being on the beach and talking to a couple celebrating their anniversary, hearing about the sentimental value of their engagement and wedding rings, and learning during the conversation that the rings were purchased at his store.

On the Internet, in addition to the streaming broadcast, the company is using Internet billboard ads on philly.com, the Web site for the city’s two major daily newspapers (the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News) and on bridal Web sites.

“We’re doing a lot of technological things that are cutting-edge advertising,” Robbins says. “I have a podcast of me speaking for 15 minutes, talking to you as if you are my best friend’s son—just some down-home advice, not a commercial. I put one out every month. Anyone can subscribe to it free of charge and can even download the podcast into an iPod. The thing I’m working on now is a video podcast, and it’s going to be me. Not because I’m egotistic, but because my voice and the guy with the diamond in his beard are well known. So if you have something like that going for you, you don’t change. We’ve been very successful with what we’re doing, and I think we’re going to be doing this same type of approach because it works for us.”

A PHILOSOPHICAL CHANGE

Robbins Diamonds made its mark as a bridal specialist, a concept that Jerry says he and his brother pioneered. The stores specialized in diamond engagement rings and wedding bands and not much else. Since the customers generally don’t return, the business depended on new ones. With 50,000 marriages each year, the Philadelphia area—the nation’s fourth-largest bridal market—supplied them.

“Normal jewelers treasure every single customer they get and want to keep them for life, and they depend on it,” Robbins explains. “The bridal specialist can be compared to a bridal specialist that sells bridal gowns. If there are 50,000 weddings in the Philadelphia market, 50,000 bridal gowns are purchased. … The odds are limited for return visits.”

He says his stores supply bridal jewelry for 10,000 couples each year, 20 percent of the market. But that number is shrinking.

“I get an actual count of marriage licenses issued since 1993—50,000 per year, that hasn’t changed. Where are they going? I don’t know. It’s a combination of things. The jewelry industry has promoted bridal as the savior of the jewelry business, so more jewelers are getting into bridal. There’s also Zales, Kay, Wal-Mart, Costco, and the dreaded Internet. We’re losing some business.”

In response, Robbins Diamonds is stocking designer brands such as Bergio, John Hardy, and Scott Kay. The company also invested in a point-of-service automated management system to retrieve customer data.

“I’m not getting out of the bridal business,” Robbins says. “I’m going to do it better than I did before. We are striving to provide the service that others can’t provide, can’t get from an Internet company or from some mall jewelry store where people are not experienced.”

Even though Robbins says he’s trying to wind down his responsibilities with Robbins Diamonds, he says loyalty to his family and some longtime employees, along with his love for the business, keep him going.

“I’m pushing 70. While I’m not ready to retire, I have no great desire to make a lot of money,” he says. “I have three sons in the business and key staff members, and they want to see this thing continue, and they want to make more money. I’m with them 100 percent. … I have a lot of faith with my people and what I’m doing.”

In September, JCK will feature Robbins Diamonds’ new store in Allentown, Pa.