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To Speak Out, or Not to Speak Out?

Amid anti-racism protests, brands are increasingly taking a stand on social and political issues, but jewelers disagree on whether it’s worth voicing their opinions.

Aug 11, 2020 9:47 AM   By Joshua Freedman
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The killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in May and the subsequent protests split US society in a way that few other events have. While companies in all sectors have increasingly engaged in corporate activism in recent years, the latest debate over race has prompted countless brands to weigh in on the issue.

Yet for jewelers, it’s not so simple. They have seen how even the biggest, most publicity-trained luxury brands have suffered a backlash on social media for their statements on this sensitive topic. Instagram users have called companies out for being hypocritical, or claimed they were taking advantage of the situation for commercial gain.

Some jewelers associate the Black Lives Matter movement with the looting spree that followed Floyd’s death. They might support the anti-racism movement, but social media doesn’t give them time to explain their more nuanced approaches. And independent retailers, often well-known and admired institutions within communities, have feared alienating customers who don’t share their views. So is it better to keep quiet?

Perfect or nothing?

The arguments for being vocal on social issues are clear. Some businesses say their motivation is merely to improve the world. Many also see long-term commercial benefit in aligning their brands with causes their consumers support — especially when the product is a nonessential and emotional item such as jewelry, notes Brandee Dallow, founder and president of luxury branding and communications consultancy Fine Girl. “The theory on marketing is that you look at the demands of a consumer, what they need first, and [then] respond by providing something that can positively reflect their needs,” Dallow explains.

However, with Americans holding strong views on certain topics, it’s hard to say anything without risking a backlash, says Elisabeth Austin, founder of Diamond Runway. Sometimes the consequences can be serious.

“There are people who want to find every little thing wrong with something that someone says, and are very aggressive about attacking people for little things that are not perfectly said,” elaborates Austin, whose company helps connect jewelry and gem sellers with collectors. These aggressive reactions are one of the reasons many jewelers have avoided saying anything, as they see little upside in making a statement, she says.

Even Tiffany & Co., an experienced commenter on social and political issues, seemed to trip up in this case. During the height of the demonstrations, it posted a short and simple message on its Instagram page: “We are one community and we #BelieveInLove.” But the statement was “weak,” a follower soon responded, urging the jeweler to “be direct on the message you are trying to convey.” The follower told Tiffany to “try again.”

A day later, it did. In a longer post, Tiffany admitted that it hadn’t “said enough.” It vowed to use its platform to “make a difference” and to “stand with the Black community in the fight against racism,” signing off this time with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.

Tiffany wouldn’t say whether there was a connection between the commenter’s response to the initial post and the company’s second contribution, noting only that the series of posts “speak directly to our commitment to the Black community and the fight against systemic racism.” But the episode highlighted the challenges of participating in such a debate.

Avoiding hypocrisy

Corporations open themselves up to criticism when the public perceives a mismatch between words and behavior. Cosmetics brand L’Oréal Paris and clothing producer Reformation both had to apologize after their anti-racism posts met with allegations of discrimination within the companies.

The best policy is to ensure all public statements are in line with a company’s true nature, argues David Prager, De Beers’ executive vice president for corporate affairs. That means setting values, operating in accordance with them, and only then speaking up.

For example, De Beers has a relatively diverse senior management team and a strong record of protecting the environment and communities around its diamond deposits. Meanwhile, its GemFair program aims to improve working conditions for artisanal miners in West Africa.

Following Floyd’s death, De Beers posted a quote by Nelson Mandela on its social media pages and published a letter by CEO Bruce Cleaver expressing solidarity with the Black community. De Beers even voiced support for a campaign to remove a statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes, one of the company’s founders, that stands at Oriel College, Oxford.

“De Beers will never talk about anything in the realm of social justice, environmental conservation or gender equality that isn’t hardwired into our business model and strategy,” Prager says.

Taking sides

But is it dangerous to express views that consumers could perceive as political? It largely comes down to what different people consider controversial. A truth for one person might come across as a partisan statement to another.

“There’s a fear sometimes that people have that they don’t want to be political,” comments London-based jewelry designer Melanie Eddy, who produced several Instagram posts supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. “I think that’s a bit of a cop-out, because to some extent, within our everyday lives, we all have some element of politicization. We all choose certain things to be political about. I think it’s a way to opt out of difficult conversations or difficult content.”

Still, many jewelers are wary of saying anything that could deter customers. “It’s in our best interests to be Switzerland,” says Tiffany Bayley, owner of retailer Avalon Park Jewelry in Orlando, Florida, referring to the European country’s neutrality policy. “It doesn’t matter what your opinion is: There’s still a whole segment of angry people waiting in the wings to rip you to shreds.”

Jewelry stores have an extra factor to consider: In large part, they are a sanctuary for people looking to make a one-off discretionary purchase outside the bustle of normal life.

“[Jewelers] bring joy and happiness and continuity,” says Chrysa Cohen, owner of retailer Continental Jewelers in Wilmington, Delaware. The company posted a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., on its Facebook page so people would know the topic was “on our minds,” she says, but didn’t want to do anything more. “Unless you know most of your audience, you just have to be careful not to turn them off.”

Much depends on location and demographics, as well as the business model in question: Most one-person design companies are more likely to put personality into their brands — including by voicing their opinions — than a large jeweler would, according to Angie Marei, a New York-based jewelry designer.

“[Major corporations] are focusing on meeting their quotas and then selling and marketing their products,” says Marei. “For me, it’s very personal — I actually know many of my followers on a personal level.”

Association with looting

The wave of looting that severely affected the jewelry industry at the time of the anti-racism protests has tarnished the reputation of the Black Lives Matter movement among some store owners, Austin notes, and many companies are reluctant to support a movement with connections to such activity.

“A lot of people in the jewelry industry want to see people not be hurt by racism, but they are [put off] by the hashtag ‘Black Lives Matter’ because it has been used [in the media] to excuse looting,” Austin says. “It’s tied to good things and bad things.”

And with jewelers fighting for market share and working on tight margins, the risk of repelling consumers is too strong for many.

“Because it’s such a complicated issue, it’s not worth alienating a percentage of your clientele that would make a critical difference in the bottom line for your store,” Austin says.

This article was first published in the August issue of Rapaport Magazine.

Image: Stocksy.
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Tags: Angie Marei, Avalon Park Jewelry, Black Lives Matter, branding, Bruce Cleaver, Cecil Rhodes, Chrysa Cohen, Continental Jewelers, David Prager, De Beers, Delaware, Diamond Runway, Elisabeth Austin, Florida, George Floyd, Instagram, Joshua Freedman, L’Oréal, L’Oréal Paris, marketing, Melanie Eddy, new york, Orlando, police, protests, racism, Reformation, Tiffany & CO., Wilmington
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