MONTREAL – “What was the best gift you ever gave your mother?” the rabbi asks a bemused member of Three Six Mafia.
“A house,” the tough gangsta rapper answers. “But mama didn’t want to move away from the ‘hood.”
No, that’s not a Mother’s Day joke. It’s a cheeky video interview from Pinny Gniwisch, director of motivation at ice.com – an international online jewellery business based in Montreal.
With his two brothers, the Internet marketing dynamo has used YouTube and other social media in creative and unconventional ways in the past 10 years to develop a family business with 71 employees and more than $50 million in annual sales.
“We have a YouTube channel called Pinny’s World. We use Twitter, Facebook and our blogs are the talk of the corporate world,” said Gniwisch, 38.
In addition, the father of six serves as a board member of the National Retail Federation, spends his summers as chaplain for the Boy Scouts and was recently hired by McGill University to teach a graduate course in electronic marketplaces.
“I want to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs,” Gniwisch said.
How does he do it all?
“I have ADD” – attention deficit disorder, he said. “But I’ve managed to turn it to positive use. When I was growing up, I was continuously thrown out of class. They thought I was a wild child.”
The “wild child” left home as a teenager to pursue rabbinical studies overseas, where he practised as a rabbi in Hawaii and Hong Kong. A computer buff, Gniwisch returned home and saw the Internet’s potential to sell products made by Delmar, his parents’ jewellery company.
“We were early adopters of technology and in the forefront of websites in 1999,” he said. “We also had a source of product we could tap into, so it was no-brainer to start.”
An early challenge was the reluctance of consumers to provide credit card details for online purchases of marked-down rings, pendants, bracelets and other jewellery items. Gniwisch responded with a giveaway campaign.
“We offered a pearl necklace for $4.95 to cover shipping and handling. The psychology was that people got a gift for just a small amount of money to cover costs. That clicked. We sold 175,000 pieces in three days and established a customer base of people willing to trust us with increasingly more expensive credit card purchases.”
That trust is enhanced by the company’s longstanding commitment to ethical responsibility. For example, ice.com openly supports the United
Nations’ certification scheme to ensure diamond trading does not finance armed conflict. “It’s a gesture appreciated by our customers,” Gniwisch said. “When the movie Blood Diamond came out, we had a bunch of calls, especially from people in California.”
Gniwisch says his religious background has also enabled his business to survive and rebuild after economic disasters like the dot.com bubble in 2000 and the current recession.
“Rabbinical studies teach you to look at issues from many different angles and to think out of the box. Jewish history has shown me how we have persevered over thousands of years and come back stronger every time we were knocked down.”
This concern for the well-being of humanity has influenced Gniwisch’s view of modern marketing, which he sees as too impersonal.
“Marketing today is expressed in terms such as target, direct hit, strategy. It’s as if they were talking about warfare. That has to change. I believe a company has to humanize the transaction again if it wants to succeed.”
And here is where he sees an important role for technology and social media to improve human interaction in marketing.
“You can chat to us live with one click on our website. We have blogs where people say what they think. We have reviews where our customers comment on our sales. Even if the comments are negative, we keep them up there, because we feel this humanity has to be brought back to business.”