Iconic Ads: Kay Jewelry- Every Kiss Begins With Kay

every kiss begins with kay

Stern established a new category of romance by disrupting a market characterised by products and price for Kay

Kay Jewelers was once lost in a sea of monotony. That’s all you need to do to sell jewellery was the common opinion in the business.

Buying jewellery is an emotional experience, and the messaging had to reflect that, Stern realised. It established a new category of romance by disrupting a market characterised by products and price.

Tom Papadimoulis – One of the geniuses who created this campaign takes us through the genesis of the campaign.

I wish I could tell you that EVERY KISS BEGINS WITH KAY started with a lightning bolt of an idea that grew out of a well-thought-out brief, painstaking research, genius-level analysis and once-in-a-lifetime insight, but the actual story is more complicated and more interesting.

An old boss of mine once told me, “Success has many fathers. (And mothers, too). Failure is a bastard.”

EVERY KISS BEGINS WITH KAY owes its success to many fathers and mothers, some luck, a lot of money well spent, and being in the right place at the right time.

I should know. I was one of the fathers.

There would be no EVERY KISS BEGINS WITH KAY without The Man In The White Linen Suit, or Cindy Crawford.

There would be no multi-billion dollar SIGNET/STERLING, the largest diamond retailer in the world and the largest speciality jewelry retailer in the US, UK and Canada, without some very smart corporate marketing executives and a very supportive C-Suite. They had a vision, a plan and the willingness to take a lot of risks.

But first, a little history: Sterling Jewelers was founded in Ohio in 1910.

By 1987, Sterling had grown from a single jewelry store – LeRoy’s Jewelers – to a collection of several hundred jewelry stores operating in malls across most of the US under eight different brand names.

Those brand names represented the “mom and pop”, and small-chain local and regional jewelry stores that Sterling had acquired over the years and combined into a single marketing entity.

Advertising dollars could be efficiently spent on one campaign(s) and tagged with each individual store’s brand – unified messaging, consistent production values, best-possible brand imaging and no wasted ad dollars.

Volume purchasing power made buying jewelry cheaper for Sterling, which would keep margins high while still passing “savings” on to consumers – which resulted in more profits for Sterling. (You may or may not know this, but the markup/margin on jewelry can be as high as 400%.)

Those original eight-store brands are still operating today, and a few more store brands have been added to the roster, as well.

For many, many years, you could walk into a large mall anywhere in America and if there were five or six jewelry stores in that mall, at least three of them were probably owned by Signet/Sterling. (Today, that number may actually be higher because of consolidation within the industry.)

With that much market penetration/share, why not combine all of those individual store brands into one national store brand?

A great idea – it just wasn’t as simple as you might think.

• Jewelry is a “trust” business. None of us, especially men, know very much about jewelry other than it’s very small, very expensive and we might have heard of the 4Cs. We are afraid of being ripped off. That’s why, if we have to buy jewelry, we prefer to buy from family-run jewelry stores that have been in business for many, many years.

We trust those jewelry stores because of their longevity, their local origins/family heritage, their word of mouth reputation, their knowledge and their dedication to customer service.

Many consumers continue to buy jewelry from the same jewelry store(s) that their parents and even grandparents bought jewelry from – because that jewelry store/family is TRUSTED.

It’s not uncommon to see many independent jewelry stores advertising themselves as “Trusted Jewelers Since 19___”.

Even though Kay Jewelers and Zales, together, have about 1,500 stores (there may be fewer stores now because both Kay and Zales continue to close poor-performing stores), local/regional “mom and pop” jewelry stores still account for the vast majority of jewelry sales in America; it may be as high as 85% local to 15% chain store.

• When you think of a mall store that isn’t a nationally known “anchor” store, you don’t generally think of a store that’s going to be in business for fifty years or more; you think of a temporary, disposable, easily replaced store brand. Apply that bias to a mall jeweler and  “trust” doesn’t immediately come to mind.

• Each of Sterling’s eight stores was a family-owned, trusted jeweler within its own market, and taking that store brand into a mall was a smart way to leverage its reputation and gain greater visibility, more foot traffic, sales and growth – especially as malls were expanding and downtown Main street shopping was declining.

By keeping their individual identities and reputations, those stores also avoided the stigma of being seen as a “corporate chain-store, low-quality mall jeweler” – even though they were all owned by Sterling.

• Unfortunately, none of those eight stores had the kind of individual brand recognition and market penetration that would have helped to make them a national brand, regardless of how much money was invested in the effort. It was just too soon and too expensive to create a single, national brand.

Sterling Jewelers became a wholly-owned subsidiary of UK-based Signet Jewelers in 1987. (I will continue to use “Signet Jewelers”, even though it was Ratners Group at the time. How it became Signet is a great story.)


In 1990, Sterling bought Kay Jewelers, a 250-store chain that was concentrated primarily in the northeast United States.

Signet maintained a mostly hands-off approach to running Sterling Jewelers. They were more interested in the profits that were being generated by their US operation than they were in trying to fix something that wasn’t broken.

By 1991, Sterling Jewelers had become a very successful mid-market jewelry retailer – selling jewelry valued at $100 to $10,000 – with stores in malls throughout most of the US.

That same year, Signet would be preoccupied with their own disaster at home in the UK – the Ratner effect that I referenced above.

Aggressive promotional pricing, easy credit and rival-store acquisitions had helped Sterling grow.

Another important factor in Sterling’s growth was their real estate division; they were experts at negotiating the best leases for the highest visibility, and highest foot-traffic locations with the fastest-growing malls and mall developers in the country.

Like they say in the real estate business, “Location, location, location.”

Future growth, however, was not going to come through lease deals, product pricing, credit, and acquisitions, alone. The need for a national presence, a national brand, like Zales, had become a necessity.

Sterling had flirted with the idea of re-branding all of their stores as Sterling Jewelers, but the downside was just too great – store conversion costs and reputational damage to regional brands which could result in a tremendous loss of revenue, plus the need to drastically expand advertising expenditures in order to market a new brand, put that idea on hold. Sterling was not going to spend money to lose money.

Up to that point, Sterling brands relied on radio advertising – lots and lots of radio advertising, direct mail for catalogs and seasonal promotions, and tagging diamond-specific print ads from the Diamond Trading Council (DeBeers).

Sterling Jewelers had never done a TV spot.

I was hired by Stern Advertising in 1991. I was reunited with my friend and writing partner of many years, Mark Thompson.

Stern Advertising was a decades-old, retail-advertising agency headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio.

The driving force behind Stern Advertising was William J. “Bill” Stern, a charismatic, very creative, and sometimes brilliant marketer.

He left behind a successful, big ad agency career in New York to come back home and take over the agency that his father had founded.

Bill turned Stern Advertising into a very nimble and responsive full-service ad agency with an entrepreneurial mindset – the perfect fit for clients that didn’t want to get lost and ignored in a large agency; the kind of clients that wanted results, not a lot of talk, over-analyzing and over-thinking that would waste time and money, and paralyze decision-making.

Stern was known for creating very smart, effective and successful advertising campaigns for local, regional and national clients.

Sterling Jewelers had been a Stern client for many, many years, and Bill Stern had gained the trust of and had become personal friends with, the Chairman of the Board of Sterling Jewelers. Their friendship would turn out to be the catalyst that helped to make Kay Jewelers the number one jewelry store in America, and Signet the giant global jewelry retailer that it is today.

I was brought in to oversee the production of the campaign that would be Sterling’s first-ever TV advertising – The Man In The White Linen Suit.

The Man In The White Linen Suit was an idea suggested by Bill Stern.

Imagine a much, much earlier version of Dos Equis’ The Most Interesting Man In The World campaign and you’ll have a pretty good idea of who The Man In The White Linen Suit was supposed to be – a dashing and charming adventurer/ spokesperson.

The spokesperson has always been a well-used, effective, and even well-loved ad trope; the company personified in a recurring character who tells the company’s story  – dedication to quality craftsmanship and excellence; only the finest ingredients from around the world; hand-made by master artisans – you get the idea.

I’m sure you can name lots and lots of spokespersons/characters for brands in many different product categories. They work hard, and they get results when used well.

Long before I arrived, Mark Thompson had written several scripts that would have taken the production to Africa, Australia, Belgium and Italy.

We would follow The Man In The White Linen Suit as he explored diamond and gemstone mines, haggled with diamond traders, and introduced us to the master craftsmen who create the finest gold and gemstone jewelry.

The spots were a very entertaining and effective way to merchandise all of the rational reasons to buy jewelry from Sterling’s jewelry stores – world-class jewelry at mall store prices.

The spots could be easily tagged with any store’s brand or just the Sterling brand – they were still flirting with that idea.

The spots could be easily tested in one market for messaging and effectiveness and then rolled out to other markets as needed.

It was a dream assignment.

It never happened.

Even though the Chairman of the Board of Sterling liked the idea very much and pushed for producing the spots, the costs of production were prohibitive. Add in the costs of TV spot time at effective media weights and the costs were unjustifiable.

The looming recession didn’t help, either.

The campaign was just too ambitious and too risky, especially with the Christmas selling season rapidly approaching and the recession making jewelry “persona non grata” on holiday gift lists.

You may not know this, but the Christmas holiday season – early November to December 24 – is when jewelry stores make about 80% of their sales and the bulk of their profits. Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day are the other major sales periods. That’s why you don’t see jewelry advertised heavily, if at all, outside of those holidays.

The 1991 Christmas season was disastrous for Zales, the number one jewelry retailer in the US. Sales were so bad that Zales went into involuntary bankruptcy and closed hundreds of stores in order to keep their remaining stores open.

Sterling/Signet, the number two retailer, had dodged the bankruptcy bullet by remaining conservative and sticking with what was working for them, but even Sterling suffered a major decline in sales during the holiday season.

The whole industry was overmalled and overstored.

TV was still in the plans for Sterling, however. They were willing to gamble on television advertising, which they expected to put them in the right place at the right time – a post-recession time in the near future when consumers were ready to buy jewelry again.

We wrote and produced spots that featured more realistic and relatable stories. The spots still promoted rational reasons to buy jewelry from Sterling stores – knowledge, expertise, selection, quality, price – but the stories were more personal.

In one spot, a young man is showing off the car that he lovingly restored, while he also talks about getting engaged. He proudly shows us the ring that he’s chosen and tells us about the help that he received from his “Sterling” jeweler. The main copy point is, “They know more about this ring than I know about this car.”

In another spot, the wedding ring has been misplaced just as the wedding ceremony is about to begin. The groom and best man frantically search for the ring. The groom tells us that he wishes it was as easy to find the ring now as it was to find the perfect ring with the help he received from his “Sterling” jeweler.

In a spot we wrote for Mother’s Day, moms are featured just after they’ve been given the gift and opened it. They react to the camera / gift-giver with amusing, but “real” lines like, “It’s too nice, take it back”, “I must have been a good mom. (Opens jewelry box). Wow. I must have been a really good mom”, and “You shouldn’t have … (Mom admires jewelry) yes … yes, you should have.”

The spots were tested in several markets and they were very successful. They dramatically boosted awareness and helped to significantly increase sales.

The results were very encouraging and, once again, the idea of converting all stores into Sterling Jewelers stores was seriously kicked around, but it was rejected again for a lot of the same reasons that it was rejected previously.

Kay Jewelers stood the best chance of becoming Sterling’s national store brand.

Kay Jewelers was a large chain of well-known jewelry stores in several markets across many states in the northeast United States. Kay Jewelers could potentially leverage an effective advertising campaign into an aggressive expansion strategy.

 But, there was an obstacle.

The recession was still having a negative effect on retail sales in general and jewelry sales in particular. Any new spending now could be very unwise and potentially fatal to this strategy.

Even though the TV spots we had created were solid performers, the time and money necessary to launch and sustain a new store brand expansion might be more than Sterling was willing to take on, unless the advertising could very quickly produce real, measurable results in terms of profits and market share. Otherwise, Sterling might be tempted to cut costs and pull out before giving Kay Jewelers a fighting chance to succeed.

Time and money were both in short supply.

We had an ad campaign that was a solid performer, but what we really needed was a blockbuster hit.

In the early 90s, Cindy Crawford was the most super of “super models.” Cindy was hosting MTV’s House of Style and she was recently married to actor, Richard Gere. That’s one heck of a trifecta.

Bill Stern saw an opportunity to use Cindy’s star power to create immediate awareness for Kay Jewelers and fast-track Kay’s national profile without having to wait years and years for results.

He was sure we could catch lightning in a bottle with the right ads.

Celebrity endorsements can be tricky. The right celebrity combined with the right product can make magic happen.

The wrong combo just looks like a shill getting a big payday and a brand with nothing to say saying nothing.

Stern had experience and a good track record using athletes and celebrities in ads for many clients, including McDonald’s restaurants.

Michael Bolton, the pop-rock singer/songwriter, was already starring in a successful radio campaign for Sterling’s jewelry stores.

Cindy Crawford should be able to do at least as well.

Hoping for a quick response and a green light to proceed, Bill bypassed the Sterling marketing department and went directly to his friend, the Chairman of the Board to present his idea.

After many late-night conversations and personal assurances, Bill Stern finally convinced him to, at the very least, let the agency see if Cindy was interested. She was.

Suddenly, we were all in the right place at the right time.

Cindy wanted to grow her career and brand beyond modeling and MTV shows.

She was hoping to get into acting and entertainment, as well as launching her own line of Cindy Crawford-branded products.

Kay Jewelers needed her mega star power to rub off on its brand and give it instant credibility.  

It was a win-win partnership in the making, BUT Cindy’s people were wary of having her associated with any jeweler that wasn’t Tiffany and Co. They wanted to protect her brand image – the fewer people nationally that saw her selling Kay Jewelers, the better for her image.

Remember that mall jeweler stigma I mentioned? It’s real.

As long as Kay Jewelers spots were confined to national spot market television, Cindy would continue to represent Kay Jewelers, but once Kay actually went national and began to air ads on national network TV, the partnership would have to come to an end.

Cindy starred in Kay Jewelers TV, print/catalog, POP, and radio advertising for about four years – from the start of her marriage through her divorce.

She also made personal appearances at the annual Sterling sales meetings and graciously took part in meet and greets with all of the attendees.

Sterling even created a line of Cindy Crawford jewelry inspired by the Bulgari jewelry designs that Cindy admired and wore.

The jewelry designs were simple, elegant and timeless, not unlike the Bulgari jewelry that inspired the collection. My wife still wears the Cindy Crawford necklace that I bought for her.

Unfortunately, the jewelry was not a big seller; it was a little too expensive and a little too sophisticated for the average Kay customer. But, the lessons learned from that celebrity jewelry experiment would lead to many other exclusive jewelry lines and successful celebrity collaborations in the years to come.

Mark Thompson and I wrote dozens of Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day spots for Cindy to star in.

Every spot combined awareness/brand image with a price and product retail sales message – all in 30 and 15-seconds.

Every spot’s success was measured by product sales.

Product sales would make the holiday season a boom or a very costly bust.

Store managers could easily tell when Kay spots were on the air; their store foot-traffic increased and many customers would come in specifically to buy the jewelry they saw advertised on TV.

Daily sales reports from each store made it very easy for Sterling HQ to tell if sales were meeting projections or underperforming.

In the early ads, we portrayed Cindy as the fashion icon she was – backstage at a fashion show, a photo shoot, on the runway. Cindy wore Kay jewelry while she was giving out jewelry fashion tips and gift advice. She ended those spots with, “Let Kay Jewelers make you a little more beautiful, too.”

In later spots, the locations were less fashion show and more familiar: home, a jewelry store, a designer’s studio, the beach, limbo sets. Cindy would still offer jewelry fashion and gift advice, but now we added a little more meaning and emotion to the gift by having Cindy say, “Tell her more than words could ever say with a gift from Kay Jewelers.”

We shot our last series of spots with Cindy in 1997.

We presented Kay Jewelers as the destination jewelry store where finding the right gift and the best jewelry advice was easy because Cindy told us to, “Just say Kay.”

One of my favorite spots from that series is a spot called “Diamonds For My Wife.” I’m sure it’s online somewhere.

CINDY CRAWFORD PUT KAY JEWELERS ON THE MAP and helped Kay become a national brand.

Cindy Crawford made it acceptable to trust Kay Jewelers by making Kay almost as recognizable as she was.

Cindy put Kay on the path to continued sales growth, store expansion and increased profitability.

Everything that came after Cindy Crawford was built on the success of that campaign.

It’s also important to recognize how critical media planning and buying were (and still are) to Kay’s success.

Television advertising, no matter how creative, no matter how well executed, needs to have the right people watching the right spots at the right time in order to be effective. Reach and frequency are as critical to an ad’s success as the message is.

Aggressive media buys, sponsorships and product placement packages focused Kay Jewelers advertising on its intended target audience. No matter what time of day they were watching television; they were going to see a Kay Jewelers ad.

As Kay Jewelers grew, so did media spending. On a comparable basis, Sterling was spending as much on network TV during the holiday season as other major brands were spending throughout the whole year.

Creating ads after Cindy Crawford became more complex.

We had to feed the appetite for more and greater success at Sterling, and at the agency, too.

As Sterling’s plans for sales growth and expansion were coming to life, statistics and research would become almost as important as the ads, themselves.

Whatever we were going to do next was going to be more disciplined – guided more by science and less by anyone’s gut instinct.

We were entering an era of market analytics, focus groups, and spot testing that would either confirm our preconceptions, or explode them and open our eyes to new ways of thinking about advertising and selling jewelry.

Research confirmed that both men and women liked the Cindy Crawford campaign, and were positively influenced by it. Because of Cindy, the perceived quality of jewelry from Kay was higher than the quality perception of jewelry from other mall jewelers.

Research told us how much awareness there was for Kay Jewelers (a lot, but with room to grow), and how much preference there was for jewelry from Kay Jewelers (a lot more than before, but with room to grow).

Research told us how much market share we had gained or lost compared to other mall jewelers, specifically Zales.

Research gave us a much better understanding of who the target audience was and what they were really thinking and feeling.

Research gave us a good idea of which ad concepts had the best odds of being both well liked, and successful.

Research pointed out the flaws in our messaging – were we really saying what we thought we were saying?

Research told us which fashion-forward products were trending, and which ones our target audience really wanted, and at what price-point.

Sales analysis gave us an idea of which products met or exceeded expectations, and which products were sales busts.

Research even told us if our research was accurate.

What did we learn or confirm?

The simple answer is, “Plenty.” Here are some key findings:

• The audience was young (25+), with solid midwestern values – not unlike the target audience for Ratner’s Jewelry stores in the UK,  “Where working-class boys bought rings for working-class girls.”

• Women not only influence jewelry purchases, but women will gladly buy jewelry for themselves; a large market for self-purchase was out there just waiting to be tapped.

• Jewelry is an important part of personal style.

• Women want romantic love.

• Men are somewhat emotionally repressed. They have great difficulty expressing their love, even though they want to. They’re just not sure what the “right way” is.

• Jewelry is an easy gift – a generic, go-to gift. It doesn’t take a lot of thought to buy it, and giving it can be perceived as a patronizing gesture without much feeling behind it.

• Men fear the unknown – the jewelry store is a foreign country where they don’t know the customs or speak the language. Jewelry is not a tool or a car. They don’t know anything about it. They need help and guidance to make a jewelry purchase, and reassurance that the jewelry they purchase is a quality item.

• All jewelry advertising is the same – remarkably similar products sold for remarkably similar prices; only the store names change.

• Men and women watch a lot of football.

If you listen closely enough to the people you’re trying to sell to, they will tell you how to reach/convince them without being insulting or condescending.

What we heard was:

• To maintain our momentum, we had to disrupt a category where there was very little perceived difference between the major players.

• Almost everyone has a romantic, or love story – Their first crush, their first date, their first heartbreak. Couples have their own unique “When Harry Met Sally” rom-com “meet cute.” They can tell you who proposed where, when and how. They can tell you what they do to maintain a romantic relationship.

• Gifts don’t have to be expensive to be meaningful.

• Thoughtful gifts and gestures can be very romantic, no matter how small – context is important.

• Jewelry is both desired and appreciated, but it is not a romantic gift in itself.

The most important insights that we gained were these:

• Jewelry is much more than a fashion accessory.

• Jewelry is love that can be worn, and like love, it is precious, strong and will stand the test of time. (DeBeers got here first with their “Diamonds are forever” campaign. Could we leverage the awareness of that campaign to our advantage?)  

• Jewelry is a time machine – wearing it can take you back to the moment when you received it. You can relive the experience and emotions over and over again – it has real emotional resonance.

• Jewelry is valuable beyond its actual worth.

• Our advertising had to be much more romantic and emotional. Rational reasons to justify a jewelry purchase were not enough to disrupt the category.

• Buying and giving jewelry had to be seen as romantic gestures for any occasion, not just wedding proposals.

• Sports marketing could be a very important media tactic.

We seriously considered replacing one “fashion” celebrity with another. We had a very good meeting with Brooke Shields and came very close to making her an offer, but there was a lot of concern that we were just going to repeat ourselves, but not as successfully. Another celebrity spokesperson may not be the disruptive concept that we needed to break through the sameness of jewelry advertising – been there, done that.

Mark and I, and some very high-powered freelance writers spent a lot of 1998 writing dozens and dozens of scripts that incorporated what we had learned from our research. We focused a lot of our efforts on men and romance and their reluctance to shop for jewelry – an area we had mined in some of our earlier work.

A lot of very good scripts were written: Brooke Shields scripts, emotional scripts, funny scripts, other celebrity scripts. Our clients rejected everything, even though they liked a lot of the ideas and executions – ideas that we would come back to in the years to come. In their view, nothing we had written would have the same impact as Cindy Crawford. We needed another big idea.

Mark and I were sure that there was a big idea in “romance”, a problem/solution idea: how to be romantic was the problem. Kay Jewelers was the solution.

We knew that not all men are clueless when it comes to romance. We even joked that we were born romantics. That’s when it hit us – some men are born romantics, other men need help.

It was a strong concept, but how were we going to execute it in a BIG way?

In the late 90s, The American Film Institute created a list of the 100 greatest films ever made. That list got a great deal of media attention and it was a hot topic all over the country for quite a long time.

I know we talked about it a lot in the office – comparing who had seen what, did we agree on the list, what other movies should have been on the list?

Casablanca was in the top 10 on the AFI list. The on-screen romance between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s characters was, and is, legendary. It’s a movie classic. The final scene where Rick sacrifices his love for Ilsa to save her by sending her away is both heroic and heartbreaking. That’s the scene that Mark and I chose to use for our BIG idea.

As we had done in some of our earlier spots, we mixed an emotional appeal with a rational reason to buy – As you know, luxury goods are very often sold this way.

We want the expensive, luxurious thing, but we don’t actually need the expensive, luxurious thing. There are other, less expensive and more practical choices that are comparable performers. So, how do we justify an ostentatious purchase without looking like we are simply giving in to desire, flaunting our wealth or seeking status? Answer: the rational reason(s). It’s hand-made, it has best-in-class performance, it’s made with only the very finest materials, it’s built to last a lifetime, so it actually saves money, it uses new, innovative technology that makes the competition look shoddy by comparison, it has more features than other expensive, luxurious products, so it’s a great value, and besides, I’m worth it.

Automobiles like BMW and Mercedes, as well as so many other luxury brands, have always done this very well. They disguise status as practicality that’s worth the ridiculous expense.

The spot that we wrote opens with a couple sitting on the couch watching Casablanca on TV. The woman is crying as she watches the final moments between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. The man is a little oblivious to her tears as he hands her a tissue. The VO comes on and says, “Some guys are born romantics” as we cut to Bogart saying, “Here’s looking at you, kid”.  We cut to a shopping mall scene where dozens of men are marching towards a Kay Jewelers store. Leading the group is the man from the opening couch scene and he says, “For the rest of us, there’s Kay Jewelers.”  Cut to the price/product sell. The VO says, “We travel the world hand-selecting only the best for you. We cut to a gift-giving moment between our couch couple. As he hands her the jewelry box, the man says, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” She is overjoyed and kisses him. The VO ends the spot with, “Kay Jewelers. For a legendary romance like yours.”

Our clients loved the spot.

The biggest problem with using movie footage for TV spots is securing and paying for the rights to use the footage and the actors’ likeness.

You have to negotiate with studios, agents, estates, authors and anyone else who has a copyright interest in the film property. Terms of use, markets, and start and end dates all have to be negotiated. The negotiations can be time-consuming, contentious, and very expensive, and they may ultimately amount to nothing. You have to always have a plan B in case the footage you want just isn’t going to be available.

We didn’t have a plan B.

It took a very willing client and a lot of time and money, but we finally negotiated a deal with Warner Brothers.

We were able to get the spot on the air for the Christmas season.

Our clients gambled on what they hoped was a BIG idea.

Fortunately, for all of us, it was.

That spot, or a version of it, is online, I’m sure.

As I told you, Sterling operated eight other mall stores. Mark wrote radio campaigns/spots for all of them.

Some campaigns were spokesperson-based while others used original music and jingles.

I helped Mark with ideas and copy for the radio spots and lyrics for the jingles.

We were also in the final stages of launching a new store concept – Jared. The Galleria of Jewelry. (“Jared” was the name of the chairman’s son.) Jared was going to be a 5,000-square-foot, stand-alone jewelry store – referred to as a “category killer” in the business. Jared would be a destination store – built in a prominent location outside of the main mall. Jared would carry more expensive, higher-quality jewelry and a large selection of loose diamonds. Brands like Rolex would be featured. The service would be impeccable – very personalized and attentive, but not cloying. The staff would be well trained, knowledgeable about all things jewelry, and well paid – if no one worked on commission, there would be no need to fight over customers or poach customers from other sales associates. The target audience was a high-income demographic that would never think of going into a mall to buy jewelry, but they weren’t Tiffany’s shoppers, either.

While we were writing radio scripts, jingle lyrics, inventing Jared. The Galleria of Jewelry, and struggling to find the perfect Kay concept, Every Kiss Begins With Kay happened – by accident – as we were writing our Casablanca/Legendary Romance script.

“You must remember this. A kiss is just a kiss. A sigh is just a sigh. The fundamental things apply. As time goes by. And when two lovers woo. They still say, “I love you”. On that you can rely. No matter what the future brings. As time goes by.”

Mark and I must have listened to that song a hundred times or more, and we watched the final scene from Casablanca at least that many times, too. We were trying to figure out how to fit it all into a 30-second spot that made sense.

Mark was sitting at his desk and I was sitting on the couch in his office. While we were batting copy and dialogue ideas back and forth, rhyming phrases, and playing word association games, one of us blurted out, “Every kiss begins with Kay.”

We both looked at each other and stopped talking. 

Mark will swear that I said it, and I will swear that he said it. We may even have finished the other one’s thought. That’s how I know that we both created it.

That was our “Eureka” … our “blinding genius of the obvious” moment.

“Kiss” begins with the letter “K”.  “Kay” and “K” are homophones (sort of), and kisses are passionate, and romantic.

We had found a unique way to connect Kay Jewelers and romantic love.

We weren’t sure what to do with the line. We knew we had something –potentially something big. It was clever wordplay and it was true, but we also thought it was a bit silly, the kind of advertising hyperbole that no one would believe, or worse yet, they might think it was a joke.

Was it radioactive or a miracle cure?

It wasn’t right for our Casablanca spot. It might have worked with the concept, but “Kay Jewelers. For a legendary romance like yours” was a much better fit.

We didn’t tell anyone at the agency or any of our clients about “Every kiss begins with Kay.” We hid it.  

No one was going to kill that idea before we had a chance to make it work.

By 1999, Kay Jewelers was gaining both awareness and market share.

Our Casablanca spot had successfully picked up where Cindy Crawford had left off – making Kay Jewelers more top of mind for jewelry purchase consideration.

We sold a lot of jewelry with that spot

We all agreed that “Kay Jewelers. For a legendary romance like yours” was campaignable, so we stayed with it, but what was our follow-up to Casablanca going to be? We would need another big idea.

Marilyn Monroe.

There is a scene in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes where Marilyn Monroe sings Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend in an elaborate stage number. Our idea was to use Marilyn singing Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend as she dances off the movie scene and into a Kay Jewelers store.

It would require a lot of special effects to isolate Marilyn from the original scene and put her in one of our stores.

Our clients were really intrigued by the idea: Marilyn Monroe, film and cultural icon, singing about diamonds as she walks through a Kay Jewelers store. What’s not to like? It was Cindy Crawford all over again, but bigger and better.

We created an animatic of the spot and tested it in several focus groups. It was a BIG IDEA and a “hit” waiting to happen.

We were given the green light to explore production costs.

Unfortunately, securing the rights to use Marilyn Monroe, the movie, and the song were difficult to negotiate and crazy expensive. Add in the costs of the other production elements, the special effects and the time needed to create them, plus the cost of a network media buy, and we would have to be crazy to proceed. We were looking at a budget that only the very largest advertisers could afford, and Kay Jewelers wasn’t in that group.

Our “legendary romance” campaign was doomed before it ever really got off the ground. Even though Casablanca had proven that the campaign could be memorable and effective, the potential costs for future spots were unsustainable.

Using movies and movie stars was/and is a great idea if the borrowed interest from the movie and its star(s) can be successfully integrated into the ad concept. The ad becomes memorable and the advertiser and product are successfully married to the movie and its star(s). That’s one of the reasons that usage rights are so expensive. Whether or not the ad is successful, the movie and its star(s) are remembered as much for the advertiser as for the movie, itself; they effectively become on-screen “spokespersons” for the advertiser. The downside for the star(s) is being seen as sellouts and shills, and that reputational risk doesn’t come cheaply. Also, the rights holders know that the advertiser is in business to make money, so they just want their cut, their fair share. Business is business.

Plan B.

Mark and I had been concerned that our Marilyn spot would be too expensive to produce, and unfortunately, we were right. We had met our clients’ challenge to go bigger than Casablanca, but they simply weren’t willing to pay for the trip.

Make Someone Happy, sung by Jimmy Durante, is on the soundtrack of the movie Sleepless In Seattle. Mark and I had been trying to make a spot out of scenes from that movie, but what really stood out for us was the song, itself, and its whole “it’s better to give than to receive” vibe – perfect for gift-giving.

We had written a spot that used romantic scenes from several movies, not just Sleepless in Seattle. The scenes would be edited to Make Someone Happy, but instead of Jimmy Durante singing the song, we wanted to use rock and blues legend, Dr. John.

Dr. John created a beautiful demo version of Make Someone Happy for us – just his voice and piano. We added some background strings to the final version.

Our clients genuinely liked Dr. John’s cover version, and the spot that we had written intrigued them – we eliminated the movie scenes and movie stars and, instead, featured regular folks in gift-giving or engagement scenes shot in a cinematic visual style to look like scenes from movies.

They bought it, but not without some concerns: we have a recognizable song, but it’s an old standard – will it appeal to a younger demographic? We have a recognizable artist, but he’s not a pop star, so how recognizable is he? Is this too big a leap from where we’ve been recently?

We reminded our clients that our original, pre-Cindy Crawford spots used everyday people in everyday scenes, and those spots were very relatable and resonated with our target audience.

Old song or not, Make Someone Happy had a message with universal appeal, and Dr. John made it sound new.

To add some star power to the spot, we suggested using Ed Grover as the voice-over talent.

Ed Grover was the voice of VISA credit card spots. His voice was distinctive and instantly recognizable. VISA’s media spending made sure you heard him say, “It’s everywhere you want to be,” several times an hour, no matter when you watched TV, or what channel you watched.

Dr. John’s vocals and Ed Grover’s VO plus our cinematic visuals proved to be enough to make viewers pay attention to our spots.

But wait, there’s more.

Mark and I had not abandoned Every Kiss Begins With Kay.

While we were writing our Marilyn Monroe and Make Someone Happy spots, we started to play with a concept for Every Kiss Begins With Kay.

In the movie, Cinema Paradiso, there is a lovely and powerful scene at the end of the film where we see a compilation of passionate kissing scenes that a priest from a small Sicilian village had censored out of all of the movies that were ever shown in the local movie theater.

We borrowed those kisses and created our own edit. We intercut those scenes with jewelry close-ups and, just like that, Every Kiss Begins With Kay became a powerful romantic statement; crudely simplified, “Give jewelry. Get kissed.”

Bill Stern was on board with the concept and wanted to present it to our clients sooner rather than later. He was sure it was a BIG idea, the kind of idea that could be a disruptive force in the category– romantic love as the driving force behind buying and giving jewelry.

We presented Every Kiss Begins With Kay to our clients at about the same time we were selling them Make Someone Happy.

Bill made a very passionate plea and presented a powerful case for moving ahead with Every Kiss Begins With Kay.

The clients smiled a very knowing smile. We had come up with a concept/tagline that was as Kay-focused and Kay-centric as they could ever want.

The concept spot was a near-perfect distillation of our research, but it needed work. It was powerful, but it was just a little too generic at this point. There was no “Why Kay?” message in the concept, nothing to truly separate us from Zales.

They loved the idea of kisses – passionate, but family-friendly.

They didn’t want us to rely on movie kisses. The costs could prove “costly”.

They liked the visuals of Make Someone Happy  – everyday people in love in everyday situations.

Could we marry the two concepts?

While we produced Make Someone Happy, we started to refine Every Kiss Begins With Kay.

We wrote lyrics for a possible song/jingle that would be featured in each spot.

We began to focus on an earlier theme that we had used with Cindy Crawford; “Tell her more than words could ever say with a gift from Kay Jewelers.”

We tried to make these new spots as honest and relatable as possible by using anecdotes from our own personal relationships and those of family and friends as the basis for our storylines.

In a way, we were revisiting and retooling some of our very earliest spot ideas.

Ideally, anyone in our target watching a Kay spot should be able to say, “I never looked at it that way” or, “That’s the way I feel, too.”

Every spot had a “Why Kay?” written into the scripts. There had to be a real reason to trust Kay Jewelers and be confident in the jewelry purchase.

Every spot ended with a close-up of a kiss.

We used the song briefly. It had only a few, simple lyrics, but each syllable of Every Kiss Begins With Kay was sung out. We abandoned the song lyrics, but kept the sing at the end of each spot. Those same seven notes have been used for over 20 years and have become a very recognizable earworm.

As I mentioned, buying jewelry involves trust.

The “Why Kay?” in each spot was a way to introduce and reinforce the rational reason(s) to trust Kay Jewelers for jewelry advice and purchases.

The “Why Kay?” in each spot evolved over time:

We began with, “We travel the world hand-selecting only the best for you.”

When Kay started to take direct aim at Zales, “The Diamond People” by marketing more fashionable and more profitable diamond jewelry and diamond engagement rings, we told consumers that our “Diamonds are hand-selected to match beautifully” (Actually true. Deep in the underground Sterling vault, diamond graders carefully match diamonds for size and color before they are sent to the jewelry manufacturers.) We reinforced that message with a slow-motion image of two diamonds rotating in space, sparkling in the light until they both lined up together and “matched beautifully.”

Once Kay Jewelers became the number one jewelry store in America, we used that as our “Why Kay?” but it wasn’t just bragging. There was always a good reason why Kay was number one. Here’s an example of what we said in one spot, “Because jewelry isn’t something guys usually know about, every Kay Jewelers offers some of the best brand names in the business. Reassurance. That’s just one more reason Kay is the #1 jewelry store in America.”

We even created spots that touted Diamontologists in every store – yes, Diamontologists are a “thing”; certified diamond experts who will guide you through the 4Cs and help you select the very best diamond that you can afford based on which of the 4Cs matter the most to you. Each store also had (and has) a diamond scope on the counter so that customers could actually see what the Diamontologist was telling them about a particular stone.

Robert Simon joined the agency in 2000. Bob was a very talented writer and creative director who had built an impressive career creating campaigns and writing spots for national brands while working at Chicago ad agencies.

Bob put the final, finishing touch on Every Kiss Begins With Kay by suggesting that we more sharply focus the ads by making the campaign more about appreciation – “Why give her a gift from Kay?” to complement our “Why Kay?”

It was a subtle, but profound observation.

Each spot asked the viewer to appreciate their significant other by asking questions like –

What do you give the woman who always believed in you?

How do you say thank you to the woman who gives you so much?

What do you give the woman who never asks for anything?

What do you give the woman who makes every day special?

Of course, a gift from Kay Jewelers was the answer to each question; it’s advertising, after all – with the added assurance that every diamond was hand-selected and that she would love it.

“Give jewelry, get kissed” was now becoming “Give jewelry because you appreciate what someone does out of unconditional love – get kissed in appreciation” – Everyday people celebrating the little things that make up everyday life.

Jewelry was now less of a perfunctory gift and more of a thoughtful gift that helped to express some real emotions – gratitude and love.

Personally, I think the hardest thing to do in advertising is to tell the same story, to say the same thing differently – over and over again, year after year.

Here’s an interesting fact for you: for each script that we produced, usually three or four a year, 20-30 scripts were rejected.

For over 20 + years, a lot of very talented writers and art directors added their own true stories, experiences and insights to EKBWK – constantly refreshing it and keeping it topical and relatable.

We produced a spot about adoption. Another spot featured a deaf couple. We wrote about a military dad away from home on Mother’s Day, and one spot starred a wheelchair athlete.

We always tried to be diverse and inclusive, as well as entertaining, and I think that’s one of the reasons that Kay Jewelers became so very successful. We weren’t always casting the perfect fashion/perfume ad-looking couples. EKBWK really tried to include the kinds of people that everyone knew and recognized.

We couldn’t “own” Christmas, but we could certainly be a part of the annual tradition. We created a new Santa Claus spot every year for several years in a row, always careful to keep Santa “real” and not an imaginary character that didn’t exist. We didn’t want to inadvertently spoil some child’s Christmas if they happened to be watching our spot(s).

I have to mention the Sterling CEOs, too. There were three of them, and each one gave us the chance to explore subjects and characters that were outside of their individual comfort zones. They were also wise enough not to try to fix something that was obviously not broken.

We wrote and successfully tested spots that featured Warner Brothers’ cartoon character, Pepe Le Pew, and an animated Superman and Lois Lane from the animated Superman TV series – a hot property at the time.

We also created a series of spots that starred The Simpsons in recurring storylines.

At the time, The Simpsons were just reaching its peak of popularity and it was a very affordable licensing property. Our clients were enthusiastic at first but then decided that The Simpsons was too crude and wouldn’t appeal to our target Kay customer, even though focus groups told us the exact opposite. That’s the only creative execution I’m really disappointed that we couldn’t produce.

We never produced Pepe Le Pew or Superman and Lois Lane, either; there were other, better spots that year, but those spots were always in the running for future holiday seasons, until they weren’t.

Years later in the EKBWK campaign, we used animation and produced a spot that featured CGI gingerbread cookie characters and another CGI spot that was all about penguins, pebbles, and jewelry.

Very few ideas or executions were ever off-limits, especially for the “number one jewelry store in America.”

The variety of spots that we produced over the years contributed to Kay’s increased awareness.

Increased awareness led to increased sales and increased sales led to successful marketing partnerships with other jewelry brands that included

Le Vian Chocolate Diamonds, Leo Diamonds, and Tolkowsky Ideal Cut Diamonds.

Kay Jewelers also successfully marketed many exclusive diamond jewelry products and created several, popular sub-brands, including celebrity-branded lines by Jane Seymour, and Neil Lane of The Bachelor TV show fame.

Both Jane Seymour and Neil Lane appeared in our TV spots.

All of those marketing efforts combined added hundreds of millions of dollars to Signet/Sterling’s bottom line.

In 2014, Signet bought Zales.

The success of Every Kiss Begins With Kay also influenced Signet advertising in the UK. Several of our spots were reworked for Signet’s UK stores and many of the insights that were gained from our research and experience were successfully incorporated into marketing campaigns in the UK.

I mentioned that our research told us men and women watched a lot of football on TV. This is where media placement became another important factor in Kay’s success.

We were buying spots on very highly rated network TV shows in all day parts and we were getting terrific viewership numbers, but NFL football broadcasts really put us in the right place at the right time – influencer and purchaser in the same room at the same time watching the same message on a program with astronomically high ratings. ( I am imagining the popularity of Cricket in India).

Women watching football could drop hints about the jewelry that they liked in our spots and wanted as a gift. Women were also the targets as self-purchasers.

Men would see our spots when we knew for sure that men were actually watching. They could get a hint from their significant other, or they could get a clue from watching our spots, which were strategically placed in pods with beer and car ads.

Kay Jewelers had such a successful relationship with the NFL that Kay became the official designer of the National Football League Hall Of Fame ring that is given to each new NFL Hall Of Fame inductee. We even created a spot for that message.

Every Kiss Begins With Kay ads made it acceptable to shop at Kay Jewelers, but Every Kiss Begins With Kay, alone, didn’t make Kay Jewelers the number one jewelry store in America and Signet the world’s leading jewelry retailer.

Advertising can only convince you to try a product or service once. After that, it’s up to the product or service to live up to the advertising promise and create a loyal customer or a one-and-done customer.

A lot of credit has to go to Kay Jewelers and how they delivered on the advertising promise(s) at the store level. Product, price and customer service all had to come together to create a positive and long-lasting customer experience.

As I said, success has many fathers (and mothers).

I don’t think that any creative brief could have ever caused us to write Every Kiss Begins With Kay. A crooked path led us to it; we were just smart enough to know that we had discovered gold. 

We really did write it by accident while writing something else.

For me, one of the key creative insights is that jewelry is love that can be worn – beautiful, precious and timeless.

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