Imbuing Watches With Timeless Values

Published: November 26, 2009

In 2003, when Breitling announced that it was co-branding a collection of watches with Bentley, eyebrows shot up in Switzerland. What did a widely available watch brand like Breitling have in common with a traditional, elite British carmaker?

Very little, as it turned out, and that was precisely the point.

IMAGE [The “Lady Ceramic Extreme Regulator” from Alpina Genève, which the jet skier Rachel MacClugage wears as part of an endorsement deal.]

“Breitling wanted to raise its image and its price point, and Bentley, which had recently been purchased by Volkswagen, wanted to produce a large-series luxury car at a relatively affordable price,” said Matthew Morse, editor of Revolution, a specialty watch magazine. “It was a win-win for both sides.”

That was then. The automotive partnership has since become an industry cliché. Ditto for the multimillion-dollar sailing tie-in. Now, however, while most of the high-profile deals struck before September 2008 continue to putter along, the recession has forced watchmakers to consider new, sometimes unorthodox, ways to find and court their best customers.

“People have really begun to ask themselves the tough questions,” said Marc-Andre Kamel, head of Bain’s luxury and retail practices in Europe. “The best operators have no taboos.”

Received wisdom says that nobody does sports marketing better than Rolex, which practically invented the concept in 1927 when its founder, Hans Wilsdorf, had Mercedes Gleitze, the first woman to swim the English Channel, carry a Rolex tied around her neck during her swim. Then came a long and fruitful association with world-class achievers, from Sir Edmund Hillary to Tiger Woods.

The strategy worked well — until recently. Now, throwing millions of dollars behind an upscale celebrity, as Rolex did when it poached Roger Federer from Maurice Lacroix in 2006, reeks of the old economy.

Some upstart Swiss brands are looking for a new twist. Nubeo, a five-year-old company based in Basel, searched beyond polo, golf and tennis, the classic sports of fine watchmaking, for the right person to promote its Black Mamba collection of radically oversized sport timepieces.

Nubeo’s founder, Ivan Castro, settled on basketball, striking an innovative deal with Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Laker star. Mr. Bryant lent more than his face to the ad campaign; he imbued the watch with his personality. A flashy, charismatic player, Mr. Bryant has described the Black Mamba as his “alter ego.”

“Kobe is a sportsman but at the same time a sophisticate,” Mr. Castro said. “When we think about the design of the Black Mamba, it is aggressive, sporty, sophisticated and complex — all values that my customer wants to have and will appreciate.”

If basketball seems un-Swiss, imagine jet skiing. That didn’t stop Alpina Genève, an old brand revived in 2001 by the owners of Frédérique Constant, from recently naming Chris MacClugage, 13-time jet-skiing world champion, and his wife the pro-racer Rachel MacClugage as its newest poster children.

Alpina struck a deal with the MacClugages, involving His and Her watches and a commitment from them to promote the brand logo at racing events in Thailand, Portugal and their hometown, Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

“It’s a very modern, viral type of thing,” Ralph Simons, director of sales at Alpina, said.

Still, celebrities of any kind “can garner attention with a wow but that wow evaporates almost as quickly as their appearance,” said Bob Deutsch, a cognitive anthropologist and founder of Brain Sells, a communications consultancy based in Boston. “What you want is to create an idea of your product such that people see it as a venue for their own expansion. Then you’ve got them, because they’re not loyal to you — they’re loyal to themselves.”

Dr. Deutsch contends that the watchmaker Audemars Piguet was on to something when it treated 50 very important clients in Los Angeles in mid-October to an evening at the circus.

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