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business pivots

The new Maison Birks retail experience concept store.Henry Lin

Business Pivots looks at how a switch in strategy helped catapult a business forward.

After 133 years of selling its fine jewellery out of "intimidating" stores replete with oppressive dark wood, Montreal's Birks Group Inc. decided to go in a new direction.

So, to coincide with the hiring of current president and chief executive officer Jean-Christophe Bédos three years ago, Birks underwent a comprehensive rebranding campaign. The goals were clear: to become more of an international brand, to revitalize the product lines, and to make the jewellery buying experience a more relaxed event.

"It was really about freshening up [the brand] and bringing it back into the 21st century," says Eva Hartling, Birks Group's vice-president of marketing.

The company was also responding to competitors, such as Tiffany & Co., which has grown its Canadian operation in recent years, and De Beers SA, which opened its first Canadian store two years ago.

Birks switched direction and targeted three different consumer segments: Generation X shoppers, affluent millennials and international luxury customers. It was a decision that was long overdue for some who follow the sector.

"It's not the older affluent people, who were always available and who were always their target market," says Toussaint Xavier, principal and a marketing consultant at Toronto-based Xavier and Associates. "They're now having to change and go after the younger market … and in order to do that they needed to make some changes, particularly to their branding, in order to give it a fresh look."

So Birks hired Montreal's Sid Lee, a creative services firm, to spearhead the rebranding campaign. But while Birks wanted to appeal to a younger demographic, it was mindful of its history of selling high-end, luxury jewellery for more than 100 years.

"There is that sense of responsibility when you're making changes to a brand that's so anchored in Canada and so well-known. You do feel that you don't want to completely screw up the image that customers have of the company," Ms. Hartling says.

The changes were readily apparent, though. Gone was the roaring lion that had previously been the most prominent part of the logo. In its place was a diamond shape – a nod to both the jewellery and the iconic blue boxes it is sold in – encapsulating the words Maison Birks and 1879 to signify the year of the company's founding.

"Maison is what the luxury houses in fashion or jewellery use to refer to themselves, so it was really to highlight that craftsmanship," Ms. Hartling says, citing examples such as fashion giants Chanel and Dior, which also use maison in their branding.

The product lines were also overhauled, with 16 new higher-end collections and some less expensive lines. All the diamonds that Birks sells in its engagement rings are ethically sourced and the company moved to make them all Canadian-mined. It also introduced a line of honey bee-themed jewellery aimed at children that speaks to its partnership with the Honey Bee Research Centre at the University of Guelph.

But the main changes occurred at the store level, where Birks hired Montreal architect Aedifica to make over its street presence. In addition to branding its 29 Canadian stores Maison Birks, the company also launched mono-brand stores, meaning they would stock only Birks product, as opposed to its larger stores, which carry other high-end jewellery such as Cartier or Rolex watches.

"Developing a store where they have a single brand and single identity, similar to what Tiffany has done at a very high level, seems to be working much better today than it would have in the past," says Diane Brisebois, president and CEO of the Retail Council of Canada.

"That's because you really do need to get the customer, especially when they are spending that kind of money, to identify with your brand, to feel good about buying that piece of jewellery because it's a Birks piece of jewellery."

Overhauling the shopping experience was top of mind as well. Taking a leaf out of Apple's book, the new-look stores are light and bright, with a diamond-shaped store entrance and multiple displays that can be walked around, rather than display cases up against the walls with shop attendants standing behind them.

"It's no longer that intimidating store with a lot of dark wood," Ms. Hartling says.

The company has also made the stores more intimate in some cases, drawing in the walls to create the notion of a welcoming space, a more casual environment where someone could drop in and have a coffee rather than feel the pressure of forking over thousands of dollars for a diamond ring.

"What Birks has done here is a significant departure from their typical store design footprint and their brand in the way that they present it," says John Miziolek, president and co-founder of Oakville, Ont.-based Reset Branding and a member of the branding council at the Canadian Marketing Assocation.

"It's almost like a shot in the arm of adrenaline to say, 'We're going to reposition ourselves and we're going to make ourselves current as quickly as possible' … and I think the presentation so far has been pretty strong."

Mr. Miziolek goes on to point out that luxury goods are more popular than ever, and millennials in particular like to attach themselves to brands around which there is a belief structure.

"The millennials are less loyal, but when they are loyal, they will be apt to tell everybody about the good things you do rather than just sharing the bad experiences, so they're amazing ambassadors when you get it right," Ms. Brisebois says.

While the overhaul of all its stores is not yet complete – it should be done by next year – Birks says the results have been good so far. Ms. Hartling says the company has seen double-digit growth in comparable store sales over the past couple of quarters in an industry that, as a whole, is seeing a drop.

Staying relevant is important for any company, regardless of how long they have been in business.

"It really is about adapting. If you think you're in a position where your brand is so good, has so much history, that consumers should be connecting with it, then you'll be out of business. "

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