John Tan and his wife Melissa, owners of Little John’s Derby Jewelry & Pawn, are retail rebels of sorts. They manage and market their Louisville, Kentucky-based jewelry store in ways that are counter-culture to the steadfast advice of retail jewelry experts. Chief among their nonconformist tendencies are positioning their store’s merchandise by price points and airing TV commercials that are unconventional to say the least.
Like Batman and Robin, the dynamic duo hit on a winning formula of airing calculatingly cheesy and cheeky TV commercials that have made “Little John” (he’s 5’-2” and weighs 98 pounds) a household name in Louisville. The couple opened their jewelry store and pawnshop 10 years ago, incrementally building their business through the secondary market by buying gold and diamonds from the public. In those early years as a business owner John was extraordinarily skeptical about spending money on advertising.
That mind-set changed forever five years ago when gold reached historic levels of nearly $2,000 an ounce. John and Melissa decided then it was time to hit the Kentucky market hard with the messages of “don’t mail it [gold] in, bring it in and get your cash today.” Through their irreverent TV commercials, John quickly and firmly established himself as Louisville’s “local gold broker.”
As John would soon discover his “commercial conversion” was just beginning. Never spending a thin dime on advertising in the formative years of their store, John thought Melissa’s ideas for TV commercials were “wacky” and “crazy” when he first reviewed her creative work.
“I thought my wife was out of her mind,” John said.
With the housing asset bubble rapidly deflating, the nation’s economy in recession and America at war in the Middle East, gold prices were at an all-time high. The time was ripe to promote the store’s gold buying policy. The couple’s first gold-buying commercial aired in early January 2009 at a 4:00 PM time slot. John remembers the day perfectly.
“We watched the 30-second commercial in the store that afternoon,” says John. “By 4:01, the phone started ringing. And, later that day, and into the evening hours, people kept coming to the store. It was crazy busy that day and has been ever since.”
Kentucky residents learned that day they had a gold buying outlet that paid top dollar on the spot. Driving home these key points in their first-ever TV commercial was illustrated when an actor depicting an elderly woman experienced difficulties stuffing all of her old gold jewelry into a plastic bag. The commercial took an obvious swipe at the mail-in merchants of the day advertising heavily in print with ready-to-mail plastic bags, and online with easy-to-remember company branded web addresses. It was hefty competition, but John and Melissa were up for the challenge.
Melissa got the idea for the commercial by praying for some creative inspiration. Those prayers were answered when the idea struck her to create a TV commercial that was comfortably in the “so bad its good” category.
Business quickly started to build for the couple after the first TV commercial. John was among the converted on TV advertising and was ready for the next ad. The second TV commercial would soon become the couple’s most successful campaign. Although John had become the main spokesperson for the store, Melissa wanted to create a central character for the store’s gold-buying commercials. Capitalizing on popularity meant creating brand equity. And, who better to help with this Herculean marketing effort than a super hero named “Super Gold Man.”
“We’ve created many [gold-buying] TV commercials in the last five years, but Super Gold Man is by far the most popular and the most memorable for people,” says John.
As with all super hero story lines, Super Gold Man rescues unwitting sellers of unwanted gold jewelry from other gold-buying outlets and takes them to Little John’s Derby Jewelry & Pawn. With metallic rimmed sunglasses worthy of an Elvis impersonator, a gold cape, and matching boots, John’s Man of Steel is a man of gold with a large “Super Gold Man” gold colored decal on the precious metal super hero’s chest.
With the overwhelmingly positive market reaction to Super Gold Man TV commercials, John was off to the races with advertising. “We aggressively advertised for about two-and-half years after that,” says John. “At the peak, our yearly advertising budget was around $220,000.”
Melissa and John’s TV commercials that followed the first commercial and Super Gold Man took on a variety of well-known media and music figures from Michael Jackson, the Village People and Richie Rich to most recently Marilyn Monroe.
Another success to John and Melissa’s marketing messages is establishing their store for everyday folks looking to get a good bargain on good jewelry. The couple’s selection of actors in their TV commercials reinforces that central message. Gregg Terry, also known as Super Gold Man, is a retired police officer who also sings in his commercials (Gregg also appeared in the Village People and Christmas elves commercials). Jim Enslow, who also played a role in the Christmas elves TV commercial, is a former Navy SEAL.
John and Melissa have grown their business exponentially in the last five years by being counterintuitive, but they have fallen in line with the marketing mantra of making sure a promotional message has more than one life. As with most successful TV commercials, the couple’s TV ads found expanded audiences on YouTube.
Numerous video uploads from Jeff Pile, John and Melissa’s production coordinator, have resulted in thousands of unique views. YouTube viewers have even uploaded their own spoofs and video recordings of John’s TV commercials, further expanding the store’s search engine optimization on the internet and popularity on YouTube.
Other commercials include seasonal fun with Christmas elves singing the praises of selling gold to Little John’s in a Jingle Bells-inspired jingle. John has also done less whimsical TV commercials of him prompting viewers to come in for Valentine’s Day gifts.
The glory days of a huge advertising budget dropped in tandem with the price of gold. In 2013, John and Melissa allocated a fraction of their heyday promotional budget, spending less than $15,000 last year. Although the zany spirit of those ads is still with the couple, John and Melissa have new goals for their business.
After a successful run on buying gold, John and Melissa are now buying more diamonds and estate jewelry from the public. He’s also attending the industry’s leading trade shows looking to identify trending jewelry designers for the “regular jewelry store” he hopes to open in the near future.
“Millennials, today’s chief jewelry buyers - especially bridal - want breaking trends,” says John. “Identifying leading jewelry designers is my main mission at this year’s JCK Las Vegas Show.”
Success for John and Melissa may not just be measured with a burgeoning business and a planned store transformation. A Los Angeles-based production company is currently producing a pilot program to determine if viewing audiences might be interested in a reality show about the day-to-day operations that makes Little John’s Derby Jewelry & Pawn such an attraction for Kentucky residents.
For now, John is enjoying the notoriety and success that comes with a jewelry store owner that’s also a sub-culture media super hero. John is often asked to pose for pictures and sign autographs when he’s conducting business or running personal errands around Kentucky. And, he’s come to realize that he and his wife struck gold when they started buying gold.