Jenny Chan 陳詠欣
Apr 28, 2014

Tiffany's APAC marketing head: Passionate about the blue box

THE FACE BEHIND THE BRAND: Tiffany’s Erica Kerner talks about the connection between the iconic brand and feelings of celebration.

Erica Kerner
Erica Kerner

Customers buy into a dream as much, if not more than, a piece of jewellery, especially in the case of Tiffany & Co. Erica Kerner, who likes to be known as ‘Erica from Tiffany’, was one such customer before she joined the company.

To be sure, one of the retailer’s strengths is that it has products for all of life’s occasions — whether that means a charm bracelet, open-heart silver necklace or 10-carat diamond ring. But it’s the packaging, and the mystique around it, that draws people in and makes some, like Kerner, lifelong fans. The Tiffany Blue Box is synonymous with the 177-year-old brand, which bases its whole identity on the glamour and style associated with New York City. The brand’s heritage gives it a point of difference from competitors, the majority of which are European.

“New York does give a more modern ring to the brand, and the magic of the distinctive Tiffany Blue colour is so strong around the world that I think we’ve definitely helped in popularising the trend of the engagement culture. No matter what’s inside the blue box, you’re going to like it,” she claims. 

Tiffany’s blue is a bespoke colour produced under Pantone’s matching system number 1837, wich derives from the year of Tiffany’s foundation. Cartier also has its bold red box, but to Kerner that brings watches to mind rather than jewellery. She describes Tiffany as single-minded in building associations of anticipation and excitement around its products, which are invariably presented in the same way. 

The idea of a man down on one knee proposing with a ring is still very much a Western concept, she says. In much of Asia, engagement rings are recognised, and sometimes expected, but not yet as prevalent. Kerner hopes young couples will consider a Tiffany engagement ring as essential when they get married (as opposed to going straight for the wedding band). Customs are changing. More couples are now opting for diamond wedding bands, not just plain ones, she says. Even older couples, who might not have bought an engagement ring when they married, are buying anniversary bands. Not surprisingly, Kerner sees “every anniversary as a diamond anniversary [that] deserves a diamond ring”.

Asian consumers are for the most part still learning about Tiffany. Although the brand has the same product line globally, it does modify its offering slightly to satisfy regional tastes. In Asia, people have a preference for rose gold, yellow diamonds and bridal collections, simply because the colour of rose gold suits Asian skin tones; yellow diamonds are appealing due to their associations with rarity and wealth; and the bridal market is booming. 

Early on in her career, Kerner worked on diamonds for JWT’s De Beers account. The advertising centred on how ‘a diamond is forever’ — an enduring message. But the Tiffany brand itself is equally strong. One consumer at Tiffany in Hong Kong recently told Campaign Asia-Pacific that she found De Beers to have more value for money than Tiffany as its diamonds are “more brilliantly cut”, but still chose Tiffany in the end.  

One may attribute that to the power of the blue box, or the claim that Tiffany uses stricter diamond standards beyond the simplified 4Cs, as Kerner emphasises. The ‘4Cs’ of diamonds (cut, clarity, colour and carat weight) can be confusing, and Tiffany provides education via seminars, personal consultations, and a mobile app called the ‘engagement ring finder’ to browse ring styles, view carat weights, determine ring sizes, or virtually try on a ring. Other diamond brands tout the GIA certificate, but “that’s just a certificate”, she says. Tiffany’s own certificate is backed by a lifetime guarantee for every stone. which also covers trade-ups to bigger stones. 

After JWT, Kerner ventured into sports and fashion. “I didn’t think I’d get to spend all day looking at diamonds, strategising about buying cycles or purchase intent in a professional capacity, but Tiffany is one of the brands I have had the longest relationship with in my life with as a consumer,” she recalls. “When I was born, my first baby gift was a Tiffany silver rattle. When I graduated from middle school, I was given a Tiffany silver keychain. I remember I was living in London (and single then) at one point in my life, and I wanted to buy myself a gift on Valentine’s Day because I felt I deserved it. I walked into Tiffany’s and bought a gold key.” 

This connection between rewarding oneself and the Tiffany brand stems from growing up in New York, she says. “I think the Tiffany flagship store on Fifth Avenue and the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s formed the celebration culture in my family. When I had the opportunity to interview for this job, I felt it was something that was meant to be. It was a marketing dream, as diamonds are such a  rich topic.” 

In terms of consumer segments, Kerner lists every-one from couples, to working women who are self-purchasers, to male gift-givers. On the topic of gifting, the corruption clampdown in China, Tiffany’s key market, does not seem to be affecting business. “One reason is we have such a female product focus right now, and so much of gifting tends to be for men, like watches and alcohol. The other reason is that our product designs are timeless and classic instead of being logo-driven, which would be favoured by gift-givers.” 

PROFESSIONAL CV

  • 2013 VP, marketing and communications Asia-Pacific, Tiffany & Co
  • 2011 VP, marketing and communications Asia-Pacific, Ralph Lauren
  • 2009 Global Olympic Games director, adidas
  • 2004 Head of Beijing 2008 Olympic programme, adidas

PERSONAL CV

  • Education Tufts university
  • Hobbies Scuba diving, adventure travel, tennis 

What did affect business, in a positive way, was when a magnificent 128-carat Tiffany yellow diamond arrived from New York to be displayed in China for the first time at a black-tie, celebrity-studded event in January. Kerner calls it a great brand-building exercise, noting that Tiffany entered China 12 years ago, after many European brands had already established themselves there.

Asia-Pacific drove the company’s sales growth last year as demand in Greater China offset declines in other markets. “The marketing we’ve invested in China is paying off well, but we will need more resources,” she says. 

In the past, Tiffany has done all advertising in-house, but Kerner feels as the world becomes more competitive, the brand needed to work with some of the world’s most creative minds. Tiffany decided to align itself with Ogilvy & Mather in March. In China, it already works with Wieden + Kennedy for social media marketing. “A creative idea can be a universal one, but the execution has to be localised to fit subtleties in local cultures,” she explains. 

Tiffany’s pieces appearing in the recent film The Great Gatsby was also “a real positive” for the brand. Kerner says Catherine Martin, the film’s costume designer, approached Tiffany to use its archival designs from the 1920s that were representative of the jewellery aesthetics at the time that the film was set in. Tiffany launched its Ziegfeld Collection based on those designs. 

Apart from measuring brand awareness and affinity metrics, Kerner also tracks store sales to directly monitor the ROI of campaigns, be it direct-mail, PR, or advertising. “In reality, we’re competing against all luxury products, not just the Cartiers, Bulgaris and Van Cleefs, but also the Diors, Chanels and Hermes — anywhere that takes the consumer’s money.” To open up a bigger market for themselves, some other luxury jewellers have started to push their lower-priced collections, but Kerner states that it is the reverse for Tiffany. “We are focusing more on the higher-end and diamond-intensive pieces.” 

Kerner, who is dressed from head to toe in Ralph Lauren (from her previous role) and Tiffany pieces for the interview and photo shoot, notes that it’s easy to be passionate about consumer-driven products and in turn market them by relying on her own instincts. “Try enthusing a target consumer that is very different from you. When I was working in the sports industry [Nike, adidas], that target was teenage boys. I’m not a teenage boy and I will never be one, but learning how to market to [them] really helped me to be a better marketer.”

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