Columnists George Prout Applied Marketing 101: 2013: The incipient arrival of the digital natives

Applied Marketing 101: 2013: The incipient arrival of the digital natives

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As the nineteenth century drew to a close, scientists could reflect with satisfaction that they had discovered pretty much all of the mysteries of the physical world: electricity, magnetism, gases, optics, acoustics, kinetics, and statistical mechanics, to name just a few, had fallen in order before them. If a thing could be oscillated, accelerated, perturbed, distilled, combined, weighed, or made gaseous they had done it, and in the process produced a body of Universal Laws so weighty and majestic that we still write them out in capital letters: the Electromagnetic Field Theory of Light, Richter’s Law of Reciprocal Proportions, Charles’s Law of Gases, the Law of Mass Actions, among many others. Indeed, there was general agreement that scientific inquiry had essentially reached its final stages, to the extent that Lord Kelvin famously asserted, “There is nothing new remaining to be discovered. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”

Well, maybe not…

Only five years later, a young patent clerk set the scientific community on its ear by establishing that nearly everything that every physicist believed was fundamentally wrong.  His name was Albert Einstein, and in one eventful year he submitted five papers to the German physics journal Annalen der Physik, of which three were arguably among the greatest in the history of science. What really set Einstein’s insights apart wasn’t the fact that he proved that everyone else’s theories were wrong (although to the academic physics community, you can bet it was a pretty big deal!). What Einstein established in those papers was that the very nature of the universe was fundamentally different from anyone else’s prior understanding.

Since theoretical physics is a favorite subject of mine, I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying this period in scientific history, and I’ve recently been repeatedly reminded of it when talking to jewelers about marketing. Many - especially the more successful ones - share a sense with me that we have all pretty much figured things out… that when it comes to the marketing of jewelry products, there might really not be much new to be discovered.

Well, maybe not…

It’s not that the fundamental principles driving our actions are wrong. Quite to the contrary, I know many jewelers who have demonstrated an extremely good working knowledge of how to create effective advertising plans, and there is no question that many of our customers have just experienced the best year, in terms of sales and profitability, in the history of their companies. This is no small feat, especially given the fact that so many jewelers are still struggling to succeed in what they perceive to be a very negative business climate. And in many cases, our customers are telling me that Gems One’s advertising vehicles were vital components in their record setting achievements. Hooray!

But I must still confess to a nagging sense that much of what we collectively think about what’s right and effective in the jewelry marketing arena is about to be proven wrong.  The primary driver for this change will be the arrival of a new wave of consumers with behavioral tendencies unlike any we have ever sold to before, as they reach the demographic critical mass point where they become, almost overnight, the next wave of bridal customers. And suddenly everything that you and I know about how to advertise bridal will become stunningly ineffective.

 I have no doubt that “experts” (who turned out to be wrong) have tried to tell you before that revolutionary changes were about to occur in our industry, so I don’t blame you for being a bit skeptical when I suggest the same. Take, for example, those who told you that the Internet would completely destroy the brick and mortar retailing model. Remember how Dotcoms with no understandable business model were literally swimming in cash from venture capitalists who couldn’t wait to fund crazy-sounding companies run by techno-geeks with no prior business experience? But the end of the world scenario didn’t happen, did it? And the reason it didn’t happen was that even though there were technological changes occurring at a frenzied pace, the fundamental attitudes of consumers didn’t change overnight, so their buying habits didn’t change either.

Even today, while there’s no doubt that the Internet is changing retail by becoming the primary place where people research the products they’re considering buying, the brick and mortar jewelry retailing model is alive and well, in spite of a nasty recession. And yes, the core product we sell has been substantially commoditized by the Internet, but the folks at Blue Nile haven’t exactly pushed either you or Sterling out of business yet, have they?

So I’m not talking about technological changes that will drastically alter the retailing landscape. Instead, what I see coming is a vastly different mind-set possessed by the next wave of consumers who are about to occupy the sweet spot for diamond purchasing: the bridal customer. And as the habits and perceptions of this new wave of bridal consumers change the consumption landscape, the methods you use to communicate with them will need to change as well.

In 2013, the average couple purchasing an engagement ring will consist of a 28 year old male and a 27 year old female, meaning that they were likely born sometime within about 18 months of July 1, 1985. This puts them in the middle of the generation that we generally refer to as “Millenials”: the first generation of consumers to reach adulthood in the twenty first century. But in a very important sense, they also represent the very first group of consumers who entered grade school in the personal computer era, so they qualify, in a psychographic sense, as the first “Digital Natives.”

In recent years, almost everyone you have sold a diamond engagement ring to was a “Digital Immigrant.” Yes, they knew how to use computers, but that’s because at some point, they migrated from the pre-digital world to the digital one by learning how to use one. In 2013, for the first time ever, you will suddenly see a vast shift, such that your bridal customers will nearly all come from a pool of Digital Natives, the entirely new wave of consumers who don’t remember learning how to use a computer because there was never a period in their conscious memory when a PC wasn’t existent in their home.

Digital Natives differ from Digital Immigrants in a variety of fascinating ways (several of which will be future topics for Applied Marketing 101), but the really, really big difference - the one that will require you to completely revamp your advertising strategy for bridal - is this: Digital Natives are unwilling to listen to interruptive advertising. They don’t watch TV ads, and to a surprisingly large extent, they are gravitating away from broadcast radio.

 You have no doubt already transitioned the portion of your advertising budget that you once spent on the yellow pages and in the newspaper to other forms of media. That set of actions probably occurred over a period of years, as it became increasingly clear that the paper and the phone book were no longer relevant.  But are you prepared to similarly transition the budget that you currently spend advertising bridal on radio and TV? And if so, to what new message delivery vehicle will you move those expenditures? And how will you adjust your company’s Unique Selling Proposition so that it resonates in a positive manner with this new target audience?

The generational shifts that we have witnessed in the past have been fairly gradual. This new one will take place over a much shorter span of just 18 to 24 months, and it will affect the most important area in your store. And while the vanguard of this new, very different consumer group entered their twenties seven to eight years ago, the delayed onset of engagement ring purchasing until these consumers hit their late twenties has had the effect of masking the generational change. Until now. Because this year, we will reach the tipping point. And if selling bridal is important to you, things are suddenly going to become very, very interesting.

Class Dismissed!

George Prout is Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Gems One Corporation, and can be reached via e-mail at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , or at Gems One’s New York office at 800-436-7787.

 
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