The Grape Soda Test

This month’s cover story highlights some of the findings of JCK‘s exclusive new consumer study, done jointly with the Harrison Group, a leading market research firm with extensive experience in both the affluent market and the jewelry space.

The survey was conducted online and, with 77 questions, yielded a mind-boggling amount of information. Some of the findings were unsurprising—they confirmed what we suspected or were consistent with other research—but some were startling.

One revelation that surprised me was consumers’ lack of recognition of jewelry brand names. When I joined JCK, fine jewelry typically was unbranded, and even some of today’s biggest names (David Yurman, Steven Lagos) showed their designs at the Jewelers of America show in single booths at the back of the Sheraton in New York. (This was before the show moved from the Hilton and Sheraton hotels to the Javits Center.) Indeed, it was only in 1977 that JA’s Mort Abelson brought “designer jewelry” into the mainstream consciousness, when he established a special area for it in the JA show. Prior to that, anyone looking for designer jewelry had to trek to the craft shows in Rhinebeck, N.Y.—tents, mud, and all.

By the time I became JCK‘s fashion editor in 1991, designer jewelry as a product had gained acceptance, but jewelers still were reluctant to promote any name but their own. Forget asking them to advertise a designer brand—they didn’t even want a name sign in the case! Watches were another story—brands have always mattered. But in the jewelry sector, there was Mikimoto, Keepsake, ArtCarved, and a few others, but nothing like today’s choices. Most articles about designer jewelry focused on whether or not to present it as a collection and promote the designer name or the store name.

Then something changed. Instead of fighting the designers, upscale stores suddenly began clamoring to have them. Though I can’t point to a seminal moment that prompted retailers to do an about-face, I saw a sea change in the mid-’90s. By the end of the decade, articles about designer jewelry had moved from the “whose name” debate—largely settled now, as the answer is both—to how best to attract design-seeking customers.

The great change, I cringe to admit, was more than 13 years ago. Thirteen years of retailers promoting these brands, advertising these brands, and insisting that these brands spend a lot of money to advertise in consumer fashion and lifestyle magazines. Some designers even began thinking and acting like fashion brands, with tremendous ad spends, exclusive distribution, their own branded stores, high minimum purchase requirements, and strict presentation requirements for authorized retailers.

You might think consumer recognition of branded jewelry would have skyrocketed since JCK‘s last consumer study in 1999. It’s risen but it hasn’t rocketed. And no jewelry brand has become familiar enough to be top of mind without prompting.

Why is that?

Let’s compare branded jewelry to grape soda. An odd comparison, to be sure, but think about this: Grape soda isn’t widely advertised, nor is it the first beverage choice of a thirsty public. I’d bet that most people can’t remember the last time they drank it—but they can name two brands off the top of their heads without being prompted. (An informal survey of JCK staffers not only confirmed my suspicions but also yielded eight brands of grape soda.)

So why, when jewelry brands seemingly do more advertising than Fanta or Nehi, can’t consumers remember any names without being prompted?

Our research indicates it’s because jewelry shoppers still identify with the retailer first. With the exception of two watch brands and De Beers, the top 10 “jewelry brands” that survey respondents remembered without being prompted were retail names, suggesting that they think first about where to buy jewelry and then about what jewelry to buy.

This is wonderful news. Even with the onslaught of the Internet, it proves that the jeweler still reigns. Perhaps that’s why, when so many other retail categories have consolidated into a national duopoly, jewelry has not.

Retailers can’t get complacent—our research shows this industry has some serious issues to address, and today’s consumers are fickle. But at least we’re still in a position to address those concerns proactively, rather than after it’s too late. So as you read this month’s survey excerpts and more in months to come, grab a can of grape soda and a pencil and paper and start listing all the ways you can position your store to thrive!