Luxury

Luxury Swiss Watches: Is innovation shifting from technology to brand?

When we hear “made in Switzerland” a host of images spring to mind, among the most prominent is likely to be a classical Swiss watch. Not just any watch, a superior, high-quality, mechanical watch. Explore a little deeper and we enter a world of luxury, privilege and sophistication. Brands like Patek Philippe, Rolex, Omega, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Zenith shimmer alluringly in our minds.
A recent international survey ranked Switzerland highest in the world as a country of origin associated with quality (ahead of Japan and Germany). Another study showed that consumers all over the world strongly associated Swiss products with ”high quality”, “reliability” and “luxury”. But, curiously, the same people also rated Swiss poorly when it came to “price competitiveness” and “innovation”. For the luxury watch industry, “price competitiveness” hardly matters, after all pricing is always relative and when your competitors are also Swiss the collective impact can actually be quite positive as it reinforces the cost of entry and perceived prestige of ownership. But what about innovation? It seems that many iconic Swiss watch brands seem to regard innovation as a core strength, they proclaim it in their advertising, on their websites, in their brochures and through their spokespeople. Here, for example, are some quotes from three luxury watch brochures:
“…ground breaking technological development that provides better long-term accuracy”
“…a new chapter of horological history for a new millennium”
“…futuristic, daring, high-tech and cutting edge… superior technical solutions”

It would appear then that there is either a growing anomaly between what the industry wants its audiences to think and what their audiences actually believe, or the Swiss national brand no longer reflects the industry with which it has been intrinsically-linked for the last two-and-a-half centuries.
Interestingly, there was a time, a few generations ago, when there would have been no such discrepancy. Watches might be regarded as the first high-tech gadgets in history and Switzerland‘s burgeoning watch brands lead the world in technical innovation. The development curve for the mechanical watch design actually began in the 18th century and by 1800 most of the cleverest innovations (including the chronograph, the self-winding mechanism and, most notably, the tourbillon) had already been invented, with Breguet, the premium-priced technological leader, firmly positioned as the Apple of its generation. By the end of the 19th century most of the major watch brands had established themselves and their biggest challenge was to manufacture these high-tech gadgets in ever greater numbers and at more affordable prices to meet growing international demand. It was in so doing that Switzerland’s legendary watch-making was consolidated and, as its products reached wider audiences, they had a profound and lasting effect on the national reputation. It would not be unfair to say that for much of the last century the basic architecture of the mechanical watch has remained largely unchanged. There have, of course, been significant advances made in the manufacturing processes (finer tolerances providing more consistent quality) and in the application of new high-performance materials, but these are comparatively minor to the average consumer most of whom have long given-up on the Swiss watch for daily timekeeping anyway and for whom a Swiss watch is primarily a luxury accessory.

As if to prove the point, a recent advertisement for the Cartier Santos (the wristwatch created by Cartier for the early aviator Santos-Dumont) simply takes the headline: “Since 1904”. Ironically, you could purchase the same timepiece used by Santos-Dumont to time his record-breaking 21-second flight from the airport boutique before you jet-off on a 14 hour flight across the globe!

It was, of course, the arrival of the quartz watch in the 1970s that changed everything. In terms of scientific innovation the world had moved-on and, by rational analysis, the Swiss watch industry suddenly looked about as outmoded as the record player would look on the arrival of the CD a decade later. But, for similar reasons, its appeal was re-born. It was no longer a rational product to be assessed scientifically, rather it became a subjectively-satisfying product with which buyers connect emotionally, creatively, intuitively. The luxury Swiss watch was reborn as an exquisite, hand-crafted indulgence whose functional capabilities are patently not the primary motivation for purchase. It is, today, a lovingly-crafted piece of functioning jewellery, an object of fascination and desire.

From a scientific/technological perspective, it is fair to say that the gadget innovation baton has now been seized by Japan and the USA (the national brands that rank highest in public perception for ‘innovation’). Products like Seiko’s revolutionary ‘Eco-drive‘ and ‘Ananto‘ and Citizen’s ‘Kinetic‘ models have accelerated the performance expectations of the wristwatch into a new dimension. But then, their customers’ motivations are as different from the Swiss luxury watch buyer as those of the latest Panasonic digital audio system’s are from the specialist hi-fi chosen by the audiophile buyer.

As with any market, it is vital that the brand owners understand their customers’ motivation. Clarity of positioning is essential and, with the best will in the world, no amount of window dressing about cutting edge technology is going to sell a piece of precious time-keeping jewellery even to the most technically-minded customer. While even the very finest Swiss watch mechanisms have now been eclipsed by newer technologies, this is immaterial to the appeal of the brands whose beautifully crafted products and breathtaking intricacy continue to enchant their privileged owners.

It is the brand promise and pride of ownership that will increasingly enable Swiss luxury watch brands to stand-out and thrive in the luxury marketplace. Their ability to deliver a distinctive, relevant and consistent experience will maintain their appeal and customer loyalty over time. It may well be that the key to future success in the luxury watch business will be ever less associated with the mechanism and ‘technology’ within the watch and increasingly with the sense of style, finish, quality of materials and personality that the watch exemplifies as a luxury accessory.

Although it might sound like contentious sacrilege today, is there really any reason why we should not, in future, see a luxury Swiss watch brand with a Seiko ‘Ananta’ or Citizen ‘Kinetic’ mechanism concealed within its stylish gold case? Just as Aston Martin has been dipping its toe in the water with its Cygnet concept car (a genuine Aston Martin luxury experience beneath which is a mechanically unmodified Toyota iQ city car), perhaps the future direction for all luxury brands will be to define, own and express their own authentic, emotional brand experience. Then, to determine the best way to deliver this via the most appropriate technologies currently available. This is, after all, the business model used so successfully by Apple Corporation – spiritual successors of those pioneering 18th century trailblazers, Breguet.

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Watch Your Brand | 1

An extravagance that defies logic…

Is there any other product quite as enigmatic as a luxury watch?

As the world gritted its teeth in the face of economic recession in 2009, demand for high-end luxury watches confounded the pessimists and remained defiantly robust. Admittedly fewer pieces were sold, but there was a marked shift towards the more illustrious and expensive prestige brand models. The desire to own a fine luxury watch not only continues undiminished but its purchase has become even more momentous – it might be even be justified as a secure investment in uncertain times. We should, however, be under no illusion that the real motivation is invariably emotional rather than rational, i.e. “rather than seeing my money as a figure in a deposit account earning very little return, I can see it as the exquisite timepiece that I have always dreamt of”. So, when the heightened allure of a fine watch, as a luxurious escape from the grind of daily life, starts looking like an eminently sensible investment, the rational objections dissolve enabling the emotional desire to be consummated.

The fact is, an expensive watch is a personal indulgence by any reckoning, an exquisite object of desire that is often hard to justify. After all, for less than the cost of each of the regular services you’re going to need on that new mechanical masterpiece you could buy yourself a new, top-of-the-range Apple iPod (think of it as a super-accurate quartz timepiece with a free music player attached). Perhaps it is its irrational extravagance that makes it such a delicious object of desire. There are, it seems, few possessions that can generate such emotional gratification and pride of ownership.

“To be considered a success in life…”, says French advertising guru, Jacques Séguéla, “…you must own your first Rolex by the age of fifty”. The legendary brand name, or that of a similarly evocative brand possibly more to our taste, and the expectation that it signifies is a promise to which we aspire and which we know will be recognised.

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Watch Your Brand | 2

Intimate appeal, some brands have it…

With a multitude of luxury watch brands to choose from, some more memorable than others, but each with its own particular style, heritage and personality, how do we choose the watch brand that is right for us?

From the pages of glossy magazines to the wrists of heros, these brands compete for our attention; they show-off their credentials on ritzy websites and jostle for precedence in the jeweller’s window.

So what is it that enables some brands, collections or designs to capture our imagination and finally convince us above all others?

First we need to recognise that a watch is, quite an intimate possession, it is, quite literally, attached to us and accompanies us practically everywhere we go. It becomes an extension of ourselves and, by implication, our personality. It communicates our taste, attitude and lifestyle, or more accurately, different ‘phases’ of our lifestyle: for example, a smart dress watch might express our social evening phase, a chunky sports watch for the leisure phase and, perhaps, something more businesslike for the professional phase of our life? Our choice of fine watch is as personally-expressive as our choice of scent, clothing or the car that we drive. In fact it is arguably a more authentic indication of our genuine personality than any of these because it is typically chosen with a lifetime in mind – rather than a season, or a few years at most.

So, given how personal an expression our choice of luxury watch is, what the criteria by which we judge which one is right for us? Research has shown that the various criteria (mostly subconscious) can be distilled into the following three decision-making themes:

  1. Product design: “Do I like how it looks”
  2. Brand image: “Do I like what it says about me”
  3. Personal engagement: “Do I want to own it?”

Ironically for watch manufacturers the most important of these three components is also the hardest to measure and the least well-understood – brand image. Brand image is the intangible promise that lives in the minds of everyone with any awareness of the brand. It encapsulates everything we know about the brand, its attributes personality and values as well as the people, events and things we associate with it. We are all influenced, perhaps more than we realise, by the emotional package of elements that make-up a given brand, as well as our impressions of others who choose it (many Audi drivers may impressed by the design, comfort and performance of BMWs but they will not buy one because being a “BMW driver” does not match their self-image!). We also develop, in our subconscious, a sense of relative brand worth. As with all brand values this is dynamic and can rise and fall over time.
Although it is often slow to build it can be quick to fall, because while it might take many years to nurture and build a brand’s reputation, this can be lost very quickly when something undermines the trust we place in it.

The luxury watch consumer, like those of any other sector, is continually absorbing information and subconsciously using it to shape and refine the brand images that exist in their mind. Because brands are memorised and recalled in much the same way that we think about people, we find ourselves attracted to some more than others. So, when we go about selecting the brand that best matches our own personal values it is rather like finding a partner and falling in love.

The story begins with a growing awareness of the options available which leads to a heightened sense of those brands with which we feel feel a natural empathy and, more particularly, the products designs of those brands which best express our values.

This can take time and will draw on a number of cues in the journey from ‘awareness’ through ‘preference’ to ‘commitment’.

It is a courtship that might begin with a repertoire of possible suitors which are steadily honed down until we settle on the one that best fits our self-image and then that is the only that one will do!

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Watch Your Brand | 3

Start with the brand, the rest will follow…

With brand image being so important, it is easy to see why watch manufacturers spend such enormous sums on advertising and sports sponsorship. Unfortunately, too many Swiss watch manufacturers, for all their brilliance in creating, manufacturing and selling exquisite watches, have yet to truly master the discipline of strategic brand management. Consequently, most marketing programmes fall into the “just another watch campaign” category (i.e. a backdrop of some aspirational imagery with a yacht, powerboat, sports car, aircraft, etc., a bland English headline, intelligible to all international audiences, a standard ‘ten-to-two’ shot of the watch, some technical credentials and a line about how long we have been making watches…), alternatively, the brand logo might simply appear as the ‘official time keeper’ at some sports event (which, as everyone knows, amounts to little more than ‘name-drop’ publicity). With the greatest of respect to these esteemed firms and their advertising agencies, how many watch advertisements can you recall and describe right now? Leaving aside the exceptional “You never actually own…” campaign from Patek Philippe, few of us can manage more than a couple of others at best. Now, how clearly could you describe the different watch brand personalities? Probably not very accurately – other than to highlight the prestige of big names.
Now try the same test with cars, drinks or clothing brands and notice the difference. In the luxury watch industry, it is as if marketing expenditure is regarded as a necessary ‘cost of entry’ to the luxury brand marketplace and, provided the anecdotal feedback from the trade and the retail distribution is satisfactory (corroborated, hopefully, by the eventual sales of the watches), that is enough. For the average consumer (as opposed to the avid watch geeks), the challenge of differentiating between the many alternative brands means that the most dominant, consistent brands stand-out even more strongly. The retailer can redress the balance somewhat by presenting the case for the others, but, by that stage in the process, many consumers’ minds will already have been made-up. A glance at the correlation between brand strength and sales trends across most markets will demonstrate this.

Effective brand management is also key to mastering the other two decision-making themes: ‘product design’ and ‘personal engagement’. First, with respect to product design, a clearly-articulated sense of the brand’s values, personality and vision will enable a well-defined creative brief to be prepared which can save time and eliminate confusion. All too often new designs rely on the instinct and imagination of the creative studio to anticipate and create what it believes customers will find attractive, within the context of their own personal interpretation of what the brand stands for. Any doubt will generally resolved by erring on the side of caution rather than risk alarming distributors or end customers. So, when a new consumer trend emerges (such as the demand for sports watches with black cases and rubber straps – as pioneered by brands such as Hublot and Bell&Ross), many high-end manufacturers will literally spend years trying to decide whether or not it is appropriate for them stick with the familiar or embrace the trend. A clearly-defined and well-articulated brand, on the other hand, makes it quick and easy to determine whether such an approach was ‘on’ or ‘off’ brand. The third theme, ‘personal engagement’, refers to the final process of actually bonding with the product by handling it, trying it on, evaluating its quality, determining the choice of finish or colour options then, ultimately, assessing its value for money and after sales support, before making the commitment. Once again, a well planned brand strategy will inform and direct each element at every stage in the customer journey so that all touch-points project the same consistent values – from quality of the bracelet (the clasp, like the car door handle, is the first tactile interaction with the product and needs to be “on brand”) to the design of the presentation box, and from the working of the warranty to the price-point that clinches the deal.

There probably is no other product quite as enigmatic as a luxury watch. Nor is there a market quite as enigmatic, nor a strategic brand marketing challenge quite as ripe for change.

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