When Baltimore’s Smyth Jewelers first opened the doors of its Howard Street location in 1914, the Victorian rules of engagement still applied. According to Victoriana Magazine, there were rules like: “…no young lady is allowed to drive alone with her fiancé — there must be a servant in attendance. No young lady must visit the family of her fiancé, unless he has a mother to receive her. Nor is she allowed to go to the theatre alone with him, or to travel under his escort, to stop at the same hotel, or to relax one of those rigid rules which a severe chaperon would enforce.”
My – how times have changed! When was the last time you saw a couple with a chaperon?
For today’s Millennial generation, an updated list of rules might include:
> There is no hashtag limit on engagement announcements.
> It’s not official until it’s Facebook official.
> Get down on one knee because two is begging.
> You may have found each other online, but it doesn’t mean you should buy a ring there.
Admittedly, today’s rules are less heavy handed and reflect a century of societal change. But an engagement is still a life-defining moment, and how a couple approaches the betrothal sets the tone for the marriage which (presumably) follows.
Traditional jewelry retailers like Smyth have a vested interest in keeping abreast of the latest trends and are constantly looking at ways to attract the buying public. Last Monday, Smyth Jewelers launched a new campaign geared at connecting with Millennials: The New Rules Of Engagement. We spoke with Thomas A. Smyth – President of Smyth Jewelers, and Howe Burch, President of TBC, Inc. advertising, to learn about the unmistakably lighthearted campaign and to better understand how reaching Millennials presents a unique and exciting challenge.
BPE: Tell us about the genesis of this campaign.
Burch: We’ve been working with Smyth now for a couple of years. They’re an institution in this area and acknowledged as, “Where Maryland Gets Engaged”. Like a lot of other companies and brands, Smyth is dealing with the whole Millennial question – how behaviors have changed where it relates to certain rituals such as marriage, or spending money on material goods versus experiences, which they seem to prefer. It’s been a long discussion about how Smyth Jewelers can maintain its loyal customer base while broadening its appeal to Millennials.
Smyth: Gallantry has always been there, but there is still the question of just how to propose. Guys used to come into our store to buy a ring and ask our associates for suggestions on where to pop the question. But how to propose, and the etiquette within that act, was something else that came up. That’s how we got the Rules of Engagement. A lot of people don’t know that you should always ask the bride’s father first. “Should I get down on one knee?” Well, we know that information is good, but information that is also fun is even better. I believe that this campaign can be a tremendous help for the couple.
BPE: What kind of research went into formulating this campaign?
Burch: There was already a lot of industry research, plus we’ve done secondary research on our own into brand recognition and favorability. Clearly, Smyth has a strong recognition with an older client base, but not as strong with Millennials. With changing mores and the different ways you reach these two groups, it was important to find an approach that would appeal to Millennials.
BPE: The campaign seems to be pretty mirthful, but the new rules offer a lot of solid suggestions. In putting this campaign together, did you run these rules by Millennials? And if so, what did they say?
Burch: The campaign was created here at TBC by Millennials. If you look at our creative team and our account managers, you’ll see we had a preponderance of Millennials working on this campaign. They know where they consume media as well as what inspires them. We didn’t test this out ahead of time, but you’ve got to trust that the people who are on the cutting edge of societal evolution are the best people to design a campaign to reach their peers.
BPE: Are Millennials as conscious of societal norms towards marriage – the Miss Manners approach, if you will – as say their parents and grandparents were?
Burch: I’m sure they are as conscious of societal norms as their grandparents were. I’m just not sure they care. I saw a piece of research which said that a large percentage of Millennials don’t expect their marriage to last more than five years. It’s hard to believe you would go into a marriage like that, but I guess the norms just aren’t as important to them. In their defense, Millennials have been brought up in a much different world than their parents were. Our challenge as a company is to recognize the differences and appeal to that segment of the buying public.
BPE: The New Rules of Engagement campaign was officially launched last Monday. What has been the feedback thus far?
Smyth: So far, the feedback has been great. We’re getting a lot of buzz on social media for the humor in this campaign, but as I said, this is fun information. Will this parlay into more foot traffic in the store? We’ll see. We want this to be fun and hopefully, no one will be offended.
BPE: It’s hard to find anything offensive about the Natty Boh man and the Utz girl.
Smyth: Let me tell you, Mr. Boh and Sally Utz are our good friends.
We loved the idea of using them in our advertising when it was first presented and of course got permission to use the characters from National Beer and Utz Potato Chips. We’ve actually heard that three people tattooed that image to celebrate their engagement. I knew there would be cake toppers and such but had no idea the campaign would be such a resounding success.
BPE: Smyth Jewelers has been in business since 1914, so presumably, the family has seen a lot of Baltimoreans get engaged. How has the engagement process changed over the years?
Smyth: Well, there are constant shifts every generation – sometimes within a generation. When I first started selling engagement rings in the 1970’s, a guy came and bought a round diamond in a Tiffany setting, took it and proposed. There were big fancy shaped diamonds, but they weren’t part of the market at all. Over the next two decades, the participation of the fiancée shifted and the styles changed to show more individuality. In the 2000’s there was a drive to give women more of an equal voice in so many more areas, and that was reflected in the engagement ring. Today, it is almost always a fancy setting in platinum. Designers like Tacori, Uneek and Simon G. are very strong because they have these beautiful designs.
BPE: How has social media affected the engagement process?
Smyth: The internet has changed things tremendously. Also, with social media, people see their friends rings right away, and they want their ring to be as nice or nicer. Millennials are not so much prestige products oriented as they are lifestyle oriented, but the engagement ring is still part of the culture and they want something that they can look at as a lifetime purchase. When they do buy, they buy well and tend to choose very good quality.
Burch: For Smyth, social media has become a much larger part of their overall media strategy. We’ve tried to design this campaign with social media in mind – with both organic and paid advertising. We’ve also included this guerrilla marketing aspect, where we put coasters in bars around town where Millenials tend to frequent. The coasters have space on the back where you can add your own rules of engagement. The idea is user generated content and that’s certainly where a lot of things are happening today.
One of the other things we’ll be doing this summer is participating in First Thursdays in Canton. Smyth has stores in Ellicott City, Annapolis, and Timonium, but they don’t have a presence in places like Federal Hill, Fells Point or Canton; areas where Millennials like to hang out. For us, that’s a really pure audience to reach.
BPE: It seems like people are making more and more purchases online these days. This may sound like a ridiculous question, but why should a couple make the purchase of a ring at a brick and mortar store like Smyth?
Smyth: Oh, believe me, we ask ourselves that question all the time as the buying public changes. Instead of walking into a jewelry store and looking at a hundred rings, you can go online and look at thousands of them. Certainly, there are great reasons to buy online, but jewelry is a little different than most products. Jewelry is a high touch product, and I don’t see that shifting anytime soon. People want to see it and feel it. 87% of our customers go online first and are pre-selecting diamond sizes and settings, so they’re coming in with a much better idea of what they want.
Burch: Let me add that what you don’t get online is the personalized service – someone who can explain to you everything about the cut and clarity of a diamond. Another reason, and I’m sure Tom will elaborate on this, is that a store like Smyth offers so many other customer services. I bought my wife’s engagement ring from Smyth 24 years ago and she still takes it in now and then to get it polished. You can take a watch in there for a new battery or crystal – regardless of where you bought it. You just can’t do that online.
BPE: I guess that there is a surety when dealing with someone face-to-face?
Smyth: Yes, and it’s sad that in some instances buying online has become questionable. People see something they like and get that instant gratification by clicking the “buy now” button. But there is a lot of bad stuff out there, and you don’t want to make a mistake with such an expensive purchase.
BPE: Let’s look at some of the New Rules of Engagement. Two of the rules (#49 and #11) address hat etiquette. What’s with guys wearing a fedora while tying the knot?
Burch: (laughing) I’m not sure I can explain that one. It must be something our copywriters have experienced. I just know I would have never proposed or walked down the aisle with a hat on.
BPE: Is it really okay if your engagement lasts longer than your student loan payment?
Burch: Again, I’d have to ask our copywriters about that, but I guess the point is there is nothing wrong with a long engagement. I mean, student loan payments can last, what, 10-30 years?
BPE: Can Millennials still afford marriage?
Burch: That’s probably a good question, but again, their approach is different than what previous generations did. They may not choose, for example, to have a wedding at a country club with 250 people – opting instead for a local destination, but that’s what Millennials are about.
BPE: If I may interject a personal story here, last summer two Millennial friends of mine, Sarah Jane and Josh, were married at a nature conservancy in Howard County. They paid for the wedding themselves and were very happy to note that the money they spent in renting the venue went directly into preserving the environment.
Burch: That’s interesting and it confirms what companies with principled platforms have discovered: Millennials are about causes and not just material stuff. So to hear that your friends would hold their wedding in a park where the money would go to plant trees and such: that’s just not something you would have heard about in previous generations.
BPE: Relationship dynamics have changed dramatically in the last 10-20 years. Not counting gay unions, do you have any idea how often girls are the ones who end up popping the question?
Smyth: You know, that question does come up. Do girls pop the question? I know of a few who have. It may have been in the form of an ultimatum or at least a strong hint. I think women today are more vocal about where they are and where they want to go. Of course, Millennials almost always live together first, so that is a difference in the last 25-30 years.
BPE: If a girl does pop the question, should she be the one shelling out the gelt for the rings?
Smyth: That’s a great question, and it’s one I’ve never been asked before. I’m not sure it has ever happened, but an engagement ring is a promise to marry and I’m asking you to marry me. So maybe we’ll have to add that to our rules of engagement.
BPE: Rule #33: “Your engagement should always be engaging”.
Smyth: Yes, and I completely agree with that. It is a moment in your life you will never forget. You want it to be an occasion both people will reflect back on fondly.
BPE: One final question about rule #48, and this one is important: Have you ever been to a wedding where the DJ played “Free Bird”?
Smyth: (laughing) I’ve never personally seen that happen, but I’m sure it has been done.
Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A one-time newsboy for the Evening Sun and professional presence at the Washington Herald, Tony’s poetry, photography, humor, and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore!, Destination Maryland, Magic Octopus Magazine, Los Angeles Post-Examiner, Voice of Baltimore, SmartCEO, Alvarez Fiction, and Tales of Blood and Roses. If you notice that his work has been purloined, please let him know. As the Good Book says, “Thou shalt not steal.”