Marketing to the toe ring generation
Booming Birks turns to television to broaden market share.

Birks wants you to "think inside the box." That's the slogan they are using in their brand building campaign, which this year has gone beyond print and catalogue production to encompass television for the first time.

"Birks is at the higher end of the jewelry market, not just in term of price but also quality," said Diane Oliver senior vice-president (marketing) at the Montreal-based jewelry retailer. "(Delivering) an intense message with a lot of emotional content is much easier through television."

The new ads, which have been running for two weeks, are abstract representations of people wearing jewelry in life-like situations. The box-like props, the blue coloring in the set background and the slogan recall the trademark Birks gift box, making the ad remarkably effective.

The young actors, one of which is depicted wearing a toe ring, are designed to broaden Birks's appeal to a younger generation of gift givers. "Our typical customer has been someone about 45 years old, with a family income of around $70,000," Oliver said. "But we have product lines that appeal to younger buyers between 30 and 40 years old as well."

Selling jewelry is as tough a marketing challenge as you will find. It's not easy to convince someone to spend a couple of grand, on a something that loses half its value the minute the customer walks out the door.

The Birks campaign was timed to coincide with the Christmas season, which is big for many retailers, but huge for the gift industry. Jewelry in particular, which rides the economy, is on an upswing.

"The luxury industry is booming in Canada and the U.S.," said Carol Besler, editor of Canadian Jeweler, who has been following the industry for close to two decades. "Birks has really beefed up its product line. I used to never see anything near the quality jewelry here in Canada that I saw in Europe. But that's not the case anymore."

Jewelry, such as diamonds, gold and pearls form about 60 per cent of Birks's sales, with the balance coming from time pieces, crystal, smaller gift items and the service department.

Wedding bands continue to be a big draw. According to a study by De Beers, Canadian women are among the world's biggest buyers of diamond wedding bands. But not all that business is going to De Beers, since Birks recently began selling its own line of Canadian mined diamonds.

Unlike several decades ago, women in their mid-thirties are now more likely to be working, have more disposable income and to marry later and are thus buying more of their own jewelry. There is even an industry term "right-hand-rings," to describe the phenomenon.

Baby boomers are now smack in the middle of Birks target client age group and earning demographic. Many boomers are winding up their house payments at the same time they are entering peak salary years. This gives them a lot of loose cash to throw around. Many are taking the opportunity to spoil themselves a bit.

The payoff has been considerable, with Birks racking up sales increases of 10 per cent last year and a projected 20 per cent in 2000, giving the retailer the extra cash to invest in its brand.

Much of that money has been devoted to women. The television campaign has an initial budget of $500,000. Of this, $200,000 is for the ad production, and the balance is to buy media time. Specialty channels targeting women, such as Home and Garden, Life Network and Woman's television are a big component of this program.

But it was another not so successful ride in the economy -- this one the downturn of the early 1990s - that almost put an end to Birks 121 year old name. In 1993 the retailer slipped into insolvency and was sold to Iniziativa Regaluxe, which is now Birks's Italian parent. But the jeweler's fortunes have rebounded, and its remaining 36 stores -- spread across the country -- are performing well.


Photo caption: Birks new ad features a woman wearing a toe ring, as part of its "think inside the box" campaign targeted at younger buyers.

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