As such, only limited shares of the Russian production reached the CSO, the rest being supplied to the competition by Alrosa (which became the worldwide dominant non-African producer) and other Russian enterprises. In 1996, as a consequence of the CSO’s reluctance to satisfy demand for very small stones, the Argyle mine in Australia (with a very distinctive rough production that De Beers had only a limited capacity to match), controlled by Rio Tinto – a multinational mining company and one of their main upstream competitors – became the first major producer to departure from its contract with De Beers.
This disruption seriously compromised De Beers’ punishment capabilities through stockpiling. Additionally, in Canada, another major competitor arose (BHP). De Beers had a problem in these two markets. Unlike African countries, these are nations characterized by strong institutions, with a degree of bureaucratization and stability as well as cultural advancement that do not favor for the kind of “easy bribes” that had allowed the company to control the quantities sold worldwide.
However, even in Africa other obstacles appeared. While Angolan and West African output were being diverted to other channels, the concerns about conflict diamonds – reaching their peak with outbursts in Angola through the 90s – also damaged De Beers’ image and only made it more difficult for those diamonds to be sold through the CSO. Finally, pressure from some African governments (Botswana and Namibia, for example) inadvertently or purposely created internal competitors.
Thus, De Beers saw its monopolistic position seriously threatened and since it could no longer control the diamond flow to the market, it was forced to practice a price closer to that of a competitive market, which meant lower profits. 2. Besides the increasing competition that was subject to in the last decade of the 20th century, De Beers also had to concern itself with the possibility of new entrants in the very market where it had prospered.
Due to the compliance with the Global Witness proposal against conflict diamonds, De Beers saw the noose tightening around its operations and as a consequence the threat of new entrants surged, with several groups expanding aggressively on the continent. Perhaps the biggest of those threats was the business group controlled by Leviev, the world’s largest diamond cutter and polisher. One of his ideas was to integrate backward into marketing rough diamonds. Also, the pressures in Angola were putting in danger the marketing agreement the country had with the company.
That agreement would eventually be terminated already in this century, being replaced with a single-channel marketing entity in which Leviev held a one-quarter interest. Obviously, these potential threats had a negative effect in De Beers’ profits, despite its strong Brand Image. 3. Traditionally, De Beers would buy the supply from other producers to control the market output. With the rise of competitors this became increasingly difficult. As alternatives to the cartel emerged, the bargaining power of suppliers grew. Argyle’s eventual withdrawal and Angola’s termination of the exclusivity with De Beers are clear proof of this growing power.
Governments began to pressure the company as well. South Africa aimed to have more gems cut locally and other nations such as Botswana and Namibia sought to increase the value captured with the activities performed within their borders. Of course, for the company to grant this it would have to see its percentage of value retention lowered. In a climate of an undeniable backdrop, this was yet another factor that contributed to decreasing diamond earnings. 4. Although an increase in competition means that buyers will have alternatives (higher bargaining power), this was still an area (of the five forces) where the market remained attractive.
Competitors did not have the level of expertise or the established supply chain that characterized a company with more than a century of market knowledge. The most relevant fact to mention on the buyers side is the Japanese recession of 1998. De Beers suffered severely from this downturn, after obtaining almost a decade of expansion in various Asian markets. Still, buyers in this industry are not just final consumers, but intermediaries as well. With the rising competition and consequent declining credibility, De Beers could not control sightholders, for instance, with the same discipline and efficiency as before.
Leviev (a sightholder himself) is the perfect example of this reality. Of course the less control the company exerts, the lower its returns are. 5. Regarding substitutes, the closest product would be synthetic diamonds. Yet, these diamonds remained exclusive to industrial applications (to compensate for the scarcity of the others for these functions) and so natural diamonds were still a unique luxury. In spite of the social issues brought up by conflict diamonds, the product was still protected from substitution throughout the 1990s.
The marketing efforts of the previous efforts (mainly represented by the campaign “Diamonds are forever”) continued to provoke the desired effect. By establishing them as a symbol of lasting love, power and wealth, De Beers had assured that nothing could be compared to a diamond, which translated in a he amount of profits throughout that century. On this area, the main challenge for the company presented itself in the early 1990s in the Chinese market. Not only were these consumers traditionally focused on gold and jade, while unfamiliar with diamonds, but also “white” color were thought to bring misfortune.
This might seem trivial for a western consumer, but Chinese people were and are still today some of the most superstition nations on earth. The gold and jade products had certainly a negative effect on De Beers’ profits. Nevertheless, the company managed to overcome this paradigm by using Chinese beliefs to its advantage (the “red thread” ad is a perfect showcase for this idea). This advertisement strategy was very successful and by 2000, retail sales had reached $731 million. Duarte Costa, # 1284