ROUNDTABLE: How to build brands & influence people

The round table discussions took part at The Hospital Club in London in November.

Eight leading jewellers discuss brand building with PJ and QVC.

Eight leading jewellery designers joined Professional Jeweller and QVC in November for the magazine’s first round table event. Liz Stokes was at The Hospital Club in London as the group of established and up-and-coming jewellers swapped branding strategies.

Creating a brand is the strongest marketing tool any business has. From giving a company a strong back story to ensuring its products are seen on the right people, it’s no longer solely about the product but about the lifestyle sold with it.

At the first Professional Jeweller round table event, held in association with QVC, 12 of the biggest and brightest names in the business gathered to discuss how the industry is tackling brand awareness.

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The basics of business states that any company must make more than it spends in order to stay afloat but in a time when thrifting and underground scenes are in vogue, it was universally agreed that commercialism is no longer cool. Jewellery designer Andrew Geoghegan said he felt as though profit is now a “dirty word”, a feeling echoed around the table.

Comparing the jewellery industry to other sectors, jewellery designer Alex Monroe highlighted the differences in celebration of financial success. “Someone like Damian Hirst is a perfect example,”
he said. “In comparison in the jewellery industry if you’re just coming out of the education system it’s slightly dirty to have commercial success.”

Securing a nationwide distribution on the high street is every aspiring entrepreneurs dream, but it is an appalling thought for most young jewellery designers who have been influenced by the fierce anti-commercialism movement.

While young designers are wary of losing artistic credibility by becoming too commercial, there are also emotional barriers with many designers finding it difficult to deliver a hard sell on jewellery they have poured their hearts into.

Jewellery designer Jessica Poole, who set up her own business two years ago, explained how she found it difficult to approach buyers. “I’m a creative person, not a business person,” she said. “I find learning the business and money side of things more difficult than anything. It’s hard because you are connected to this piece, it’s personal and putting a price on it is one of the hardest things.”

Geoghegan wholeheartedly concurred, adding it was only this year, after a decade in business, he has felt comfortable asking a retailer what their budget is.

But it’s not a new problem, Stephen Webster PR and marketing director Assia Webster assured. She said: “It’s very normal. It’s very difficult for a creative person to be a business person as well. When I first met Stephen we used to go to meetings and people would ask ‘how much is that ring’ and he would just reply ‘how much do you want to pay for it?’ From then on we let him meet clients but he wasn’t allowed to discuss prices again.”

Webster had a stark piece of advice for the designers round the table. “You just need to get over it,” she urged.

By setting a price point, a brand creates its audience. For the designers around the table, knowing where to place themselves had been a tough task. John Pearce of Johnny Rocket had gone through the same issue and had some advice. “Just don’t let that side of the business go,” he said. “Learn that side of the business. Pricing jewellery and getting the price right is hard but at the end of the day you’re selling your creativity.”

But once material costs and labour time are covered, design pieces don’t come with a simple mark-up margin, and even if they did would a young designer know how calculate it? The table agreed that more needs to be done by educational institutes to help young designers with the commercial side of the business.

Monroe said: “We are producing a lot of great designers with fantastic ideas but they don’t know how to take that product and turn it into profit.”

The table also agreed that there is too much emphasis by universities put on being conceptual and that making commercial pieces are almost frowned upon.

Former Links of London creative director Elizabeth Galton shared with the table an encounter she had recently had with a student who came to her for help after being told by her tutors that her designs were “too commercial”.

Pearce added that with universities soon being able to charge up to £9,000 for fees they “need to up their game on training”. He said: “I see such great talent coming out of Central St Martin’s, London Guildhall University and Edinburgh but none of these kids know how to run a business. Getting the price of the product right is vital.”

SHO Fine Jewellery creative director Sarah Ho spoke of her time at university and explained that her course had been “all about thinking outside the box and creating crazy out-there pieces”. She added: “Then the minute you start running your own company, you wonder why nothing is selling?”

From learning how to brand pieces for the commercial market to understanding how to find their selling point, marketing was clearly identified by the table as a trial-and-error process, but deciding where to sell came out as an even more difficult task.

In a digital age where footfall is declining, being a successful brand means being accessible, which these days means selling online. But not all jewellers round the table were keen to embrace e-tail.

The Johnny Rocket brand has been built on one-to-one client relationships and for this reason it does not have an ecommerce website. “We use our website as bait,” said Pearce. “We get a 100 percent return when people come in and talk to us. It gives us a chance to sell our personality and give our customers the right information. I find it crazy that someone would spend several thousand pounds on a bespoke item without the bespoke service.”

While Pearce argued that his shoppers prefer a personal service, QVC merchandising director Judy Deuchar told the table that of its more than 1 million customers, 80 percent choose to use the digital ordering system, preferring not to speak to anyone.

Webster has similar feelings to Pearce about the prospect of selling directly online. She said she felt that Stephen Webster couldn’t sell online due the detailed nature of its jewellery. She added: “How can a website do justice to something like our Crab ring? Something that is so intricate and interesting should be looked at and held. It is part of the buying process.”

Aside from the buying experience and personal touch, both Webster and Pearce said they believe that the internet fuels the industry’s plague of forgeries. Pearce said: “We’d love to be a selling website but we’re not doing it because within two weeks someone has already got those designs in China and put them on some website or you find them in Manhattan next to the Rolexes.”

The problem of jewellery being copied has been prevalent for years. Galton explained that the issue has been the thorn in the side of Links of London. “We’ve had instances where there are products that haven’t been launched but are already on the counterfeit market,” she said.

But are Stephen Webster and Johnny Rocket missing out on the biggest marketing tool of the 21st century? Tateossian chief executive Robert Tateossian thinks so. He described it as “doing your brand a huge disfavour”.

Tateossian rubbished claims selling online makes it easier for jewellery copycats. “The thing is, people can still go into Harrods and pick up one of your pieces and then copy it,” he said. “By being online you’re out there and the bottom line is it’s the way of the future. I’d advise anybody starting out to do it. It’s a lot more difficult to go out and meet with buyers and try to shift your products. A website is a great way to make a bit of money and start to get known without having to face all the rejection.”

Such rejection, as spoken of by Tateossian, was a hotly discussed topic round the table. It can be intensely daunting for designers to face buyers who often show little regard for the creator of a product if they don’t like it.

Each designer round the table had faced crushing rejection from retail buyers and all deemed it an inevitable step in the ladder to building a great brand and said that young designers should not allow it to defeat them.

“It doesn’t matter what they throw at you,” said Tateossian. “You just have to let it slide down because that is the only way to survive.”

From the focus of jewellery education on design not business to the difficulty faced in separating emotion from cold, hard business sense and the buyer battlefield, it was decided by everyone at the table that making a living as a jewellery designer is tough. And while it might be uncool to be commercial, it is also startlingly difficult to be commercial for those who are keen to buck the anti-commercialism trend.

As the designers battled it out to come up with commercially minded solutions for those setting out in the business, Deuchar chipped in with a suggestion.

QVC has been nurturing and investing in jewellery brands over the past few years, with great results. The TV retailer has already worked with cutting-edge jewellers such as Ana De Costa, Tomasz Donocik and round table attendee SHO Fine Jewellery.

The TV retailer has been determined to work with British jewellery brands but realising that its shopper figures would create a demand too great for most jewellers’ manufacturing capabilities, it has created a scheme to allow it to work with brands both big and small – it works with designers on a collaborative collection.

QVC’s in-house design team will work with jewellers to create a collection that retains the designer’s stamp but is tailored
to be more commercial. The designs are fully approved by the jewellery designers and Deuchar explained that they can spend as long as three years working to get the collection just right.

QVC then covers the manufacturing costs and gives the designer or brand a percentage of the sales.

The scheme is an ideal commercial boost for up-and-coming designers. With no financial outlay, once the designer has worked with QVC on the design process and appeared on the channel to promote the range, they can then sit back and enjoy the financial and PR rewards of working with QVC.

Deuchar addressed the concerns raised by Pearce about losing that personal touch by selling outside his brick-and-mortar shop and offered QVC as an alternative. She said that by appearing on air, designers have an opportunity to speak directly to the customer base, talk through the designs and educate them on the brand’s history.

Ho, who has worked with QVC, confirmed Deuchar’s claims and explained how the channel had given SHO Fine Jewellery
massive exposure and how having the time on air had given her a “priceless” way to express her personality.

While some jewellery designers have been hesitant to work with QVC because they feel it is outside their traditional market, Deuchar said that the knock-on effects for brand’s own websites and high street retail stockists are “incredible”. She told the table how one major department store actually approaches QVC with brands that it wants to stock but wants QVC to “launch into the market” first.

If one of the biggest department stores in the country needs a little help to be commercially effective, it is no wonder that jewellers need a leg up. There are options available such as the scheme offered by QVC, but a lot of it is down to working smart.

As Tateossian said, building a slick website can do a lot for an unknown brand and open up discussions with retail buyers. Or jewellers can take the brand concept one stage further and, like Johnny Rocket and Stephen Webster, trade on personality, although Pearce warns that as a result it can bring with it a lot of “unwanted attention”.

Despite the anti-commercialism movement, jewellery designers go into business to make money. Whatever they might say, if they didn’t then they would be happy just to make jewellery on the weekends for friends and family.

Once a jeweller has established a direction for their brand, a strong product range and is ready to break into the market, then it is essential to take on the commercial aspects of the business and not shy away from strategies and figures. Jewellers may feel unprepared by educational institutes and frightened of talking shop with buyers, but in order to succeed, in the words of Assia Webster, it’s time to get over it.

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