First published on The Straits Times on 05 December 2019.
Forged over billions of years beneath the earth, the ancient Greeks believed diamonds to be tears of the gods. Over the years, the precious stones have evolved into symbols of love and celebration.
The bigger the bling, the better. For the blushing bride, the measure is carat size; For Love & Co, it is market size.
The Singapore jeweller, which offers customised wedding jewellery, has set its sights on courting the biggest bridal market in the world – China.
“Every year, if I’m not wrong, we are talking 10 million couples plus minus (who are getting married),” said Mr Daniel Lim, executive director and group CEO of SK Jewellery Group, which owns the Love & Co brand.
Mr Daniel Lim, executive director and group CEO of SK Jewellery Group, which owns the Love & Co brand.
Photo credit: Mohamed Ismail Osman
“It’s like the whole (of ) Singapore getting married by two times,” he added, comparing the massive number of Chinese weddings to the city-state’s population of just 5.6 million.
But how to woo the China market? With a lot of help from a matchmaker called Enterprise Singapore (ESG).
Love & Co, set up in 2007, was looking beyond the small Singapore market. After expanding to Malaysia and Thailand, it finally ventured to the lucrative yet complex Chinese market last year.
Mr Lim, 51, described the move as a “one-way ticket”. There was no safety net of returning home without making a breakthrough. Today, the jewellery chain has six stores in China, from Shanghai to Chongqing.
Encouraged by the response from a 2017 trade show in Shenzhen, they worked with ESG to match the brand with a local agency in China.
It wasn’t easy. There were administrative hurdles to overcome. “We live in Singapore for too long, we kind of take for granted (how things work). Singapore functions like a machine, you press the button, the TV will switch on. We cannot assume everything is like that (elsewhere),” Mr Lim explained.
There were two other issues: The lack of brand recognition and good retail locations.
“When customers want to make a purchase, they’ll ask, where are you? If you are in some ulu place, then, probably, you’ve already lost the customer,” he said.
The ESG team in China met Love & Co to understand their overall plans and marketing strategy, including their target customers, and helped to identify suitable shopping malls. ESG also went a step further to connect them with the developers and landlords of these malls, accompanying Love & Co’s brand representatives to meetings to assist with the negotiation of leases and store locations, and supported the company in its landmark registration in China.
As a result, they were able to open shops at accessible metropolitan areas, in lush malls such as Raffles City in Chengdu and Hong Kong Plaza in Shanghai.
After getting the right Chinese business partners and retail space, the focus turned to charming Chinese consumers.
“Our effort is really how to get consumer to know us. That is the last missing part of the puzzle. Brand awareness...it takes some time,” he said.
The changemaker: Daniel Lim
Nine years after their father’s death, the Lim siblings pooled their savings to fulfil the late patriarch’s dream of opening a goldsmith shop. In 1991, the first Soo Kee Jewellery store opened in Bedok Central – with the same name as the sundry store that the elder Lim used to own at Joo Chiat.
Mr Daniel Lim, the youngest child, was put in charge of sales and marketing, even though he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. Within 18 months, the siblings had made back their initial investment.
Over the next few years, they quickly expanded to over 60 stores across Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and China.
In 1996, it started to pair diamonds with white gold, while competitors were still into yellow gold. In 2002, it expanded into Malaysia. And in 2003, it started SK Jewellery, offering a more affordable line, while Soo Kee Jewellery was rebranded as a premium label for diamonds.
Mr Lim and two other siblings, Peter and Mary, were behind most of these changes, including the move to launch Love & Co in 2007 to cater to the premium bridal market – selling made-to-order engagement rings and wedding bands.
Under his wing, the Love & Co brand pioneered many new technologies, including introducing the rose hallmark into a diamond, lab-grown diamonds and expanding to China.
“My wife often says that when I set my mind on doing something, I am like a bull,” said the father of three.
3 lessons from Love & Co's expansion
1. How to connect with customers?
Some naysayers believe jewellery is too pricey for e-commerce. Yet Love & Co has launched an online store for a limited range of products.
This makes transactions easier as people are getting busier, said Mr Daniel Lim, executive director and group CEO of SK Jewellery Group, which owns the brand.
While most still prefer completing the sale at the store, they save time by looking at the products online first. This is especially handy for foreign customers if they have to travel long distances to visit the shop.
2. How to venture overseas?
The challenge with expanding overseas is that every country is different. The same strategies that worked in Singapore may not apply in China.
While big issues like business connections are critical, smaller details matter.
Mr Lim said that while digital advertising through social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, could be used to promote the brand in Singapore, TikTok or other platforms are more popular in China.
Another example are QR codes. While not popular in Singapore, they are commonly used in China for their convenience. So the company had to incorporate these codes into marketing brochures, website, and other materials.
These factors were further complicated by different preferences and even dialects or languages across China.
“In Shanghai, I need to hire (locals because) I realised I cannot shift my staff from Shenzhen to Shanghai as they cannot speak the (same) language,” he shared.
3. How to attract and groom talent?
The success of any business boils down to talent – especially when expanding overseas.
Love & Co formed a “joint force” for the Chinese market – made up of experienced Singaporeans and locals. The Singaporeans would help the team stay in line with the brand, while the locals would adapt the brand for the new market.
“We need people who are capable, people who believe in what you do, and people with good integrity. The people element is actually more important than everything else,” he said.
“Even if you have a proper strategy, you still need to have a good system to grow your people. For us, we work very closely with local (Chinese) talent, and whenever possible we tap into their know-how. To some extent we can’t always assume we know the best.”
2007: SK Jewellery Group launches Love & Co to offer bespoke bridal jewellery, particularly engagement rings and wedding bands.
2017: Love & Co launches the Lovemarque diamond, in a partnership with the De Beers group.
2017: Love & Co partners with Sarine to offer digital diamond reports, to assure customers with objective assessments of their diamonds.
2018: Love & Co opens its first store in Shanghai, China. Five more stores followed, with locations in Chengdu and Chongqing as well.
2019: Love & Co launches Star Carat, a line of diamonds that are grown in a lab and are substantially cheaper than naturally mined diamonds.