Selling By Storytelling: A New Approach To PR

Anyone who has shopped for an engagement ring knows it can be an arduous and impersonal experience. Stress can run high. Luxury brands are posting some of their steepest declines in years (Tiffany’s value has declined by 18% over the past six months).

More middle-market jewelry stores have closed in the last year than ever in history, and even the discounters, such as Blue Nile, are suffering financial declines.

You might think the fine jewelry industry is doomed. But in this very market, a Harvard Business School graduate, Zameer Kassam, has found a way to differentiate his offerings among fine jewelry brands. The result: PR coverage in publications such as VOGUE and New York Post and double digit quarterly revenue growth.

Kassam’s love affair with fine jewelry began in his teens, as he worked in his family’s jewelry store. But as life progressed, he decided to make his mark in traditional business. He spent several years with McKinsey & Company followed by a Harvard MBA. It was Harvard professor Rob Kaplan, a former Vice Chairman of Goldman Sachs, who compelled him to follow his greatest passion, no matter where it led.

Zameer Kassam’s fine jewelry business has required an entirely new approach to PR (Image courtesy of Dennis Kwan, DennisKwanWeddings.com)

With his MBA in hand he joined DeBeers Louis Vuitton as head of the Bridal and Classic division. He loved learning about the diamond industry, but missed the process of working with clients. Feeling adrift, he moved to New York and reconnected with former classmates. Increasingly, friends began asking his help in designing their rings.

One led to another and 10 requests eventually grew to 100. Since the formation of ZKFJ in 2011, he and his team have filled more than 600 custom requests for a myriad of customers, but most especially for millennials. These are clients, he’s discovered, who are unwilling to trust a decision as important as their engagement ring to a commodity market, no matter how fine the quality and workmanship a standard design might provide.

So how do you create PR around a one-off/entirely custom approach to a product that has traditionally been viewed as a commodity, especially when the cost is exceptionally high and the prospects of repeat business are slim? While diamonds may be “forever,” industry experts note that emotions run high in engagement ring purchases.

The typical client is not thinking about investment value, but about selecting something “they will wear for the rest of their lives.” (Interestingly, however, industry data shows it is not untypical for tastes and circumstances to change over time. Some jewelers bank at least a portion of their revenue on the fact that at least some percentage of couples will change or upgrade their wedding rings every 10–15 years.)

Rejecting Traditional Industry Models

“There is a seismic shift today in the way millennial men think about engagement rings,” Kassam says. “They want something personal, meaningful, and experiential — a little blue box is no longer enough.” To meet these needs, Kassam rejected the traditional industry models. He has no stores with expensive inventory, no ecommerce, and beyond his website does no traditional marketing. Instead, Kassam and his team have adopted a “storytelling” approach. They meet with clients one by one to learn about their love story and to infuse the details of the story into the design of the ring.

Perhaps the design may incorporate a hidden gemstone that tells of the moment the couple met, or a tiny carving could signify an important part of her heritage or a clandestine code could celebrate the moment he knew she was the one. This process — which “takes ‘bespoke’ to a new level” McKinsey & Company has remarked — ranges from three weeks to three months. Each piece is hand-fabricated in New York City. The results are resonating strongly with his largely millennial customer base.

Most recently, Kassam has expanded his business beyond engagement rings. At present, some 25% of current sales are from people celebrating milestones other than marriage such as the birth of a child, a major anniversary or a personal achievement such as making partner at a firm.

Here are Kassam’s top three tips for PR in cases where a business and its process are entirely unique:

1. Reimagine the business model with the client at the center.

Forget about how things have always been done, he says, and instead imagine how to deliver on your clients’ needs more deeply in completely new ways. Without the costly overhead associated with a traditional store, for example, Kassam invests in the client experience instead. Whether traversing the globe to meet clients in-person, or sending gemologists to scout for exceptional gemstones directly from the mines (and therefore at a better value), or providing coaching sessions so clients can determine what their would-be fiancé might like in a ring without spoiling the surprise, Kassam does all in his power to go far beyond the traditional jewelry buying experience.

“If we had stores, we would be sitting around all day waiting for people to walk in. Instead, we spend every hour we can with clients, teaching them about diamonds and helping them create something special for the one they love.” And what if she does not like it? Kassam and his team assure clients they will not stop until they get it right, however, in more than 600 pieces completed he has yet to encounter a less than happy result. “In a referral-based business, every single client has to be elated with our product,” he says. “If we must someday remake a ring, we are happy to do so.”

2. Leverage the power of storytelling to connect with your target audience.

Kassam captures the storytelling process for each client through a combination of photo and video, often hiring top creative talent such as the editorial and creative resources he met when he was featured in VOGUE. This content not only helps the client show the various details in the ring during the proposal, it provides an opportunity to engage with new customers as well.

“We empower our clients to share their story across their social networks, which is how most new clients hear about our approach. Ten years ago, a client might have told five friends about us; now, in a world where millennials are constantly sharing their stories on social media, it can be five thousand.”

3. Be yourself.

An untraditional approach to marketing is bound to be met with opposition. If any aspect of your marketing doesn’t feel right — or even if it starts to feel less exciting and fun than it used to be — stop. Get back to being yourself. “We considered opportunities to create collections for several luxury brands, but I realized after some soul-searching that it wouldn’t fit my personal passions,” said Kassam. “Working directly with someone to bring their story to life is a wonderful way to live. This is a very conscious decision.”

By reinventing his business and marketing model around a passion for storytelling, Kassam is making waves in the millennial market, but others have noticed as well. In 2015, ZKFJ entered into a partnership with the De Beers’ Forevermark brand of rare and responsibly-sourced diamonds. Together they have launched a new site to share some of Kassam’s bespoke rings and his clients’ stories as a means of expanding his reach to additional customers.

With creative PR and marketing, perhaps there is a sparkle of hope for the fine jewelry industry after all.