Celebrities Power Omega’s Revival

Besides watches, Omega sells emotion. It gives consumers another reason to admire its watches beyond the products themselves. And that other reason is a celebrity.

Worldwide, people like to identify with the beautiful, the daring, and the athletic. This is the emotion Omega is capitalizing on. Using some of the best-known modeling and sports stars – supermodel Cindy Crawford being the latest – it has given consumers throughout the world a reason to admire and buy its products.

The successful celebrity-endorsement strategy stems from a worldwide directive prescribed by Nicolas Hayek, chairman of the Swatch Group (Omega’s parent). Hayek and his right-hand man, Jean Claude Biver, have used the strategy to revitalize a brand that looked all but dead back in the 1970s. “Twenty years ago was a very difficult time for Omega,” acknowledges Hayek, who wears his heart – along with multiple watches – on his perpetually rolled-up sleeve. “Everybody thought we had to close down. But we have gained our place back. We’re happy, but we are not satisfied.”

Most businesses would be more than satisfied: Worldwide sales are up 67% since 1994. And now that Crawford has added her famous face to the pantheon of Omega boosters, the company expects 1998 – its 150th anniversary year – to be one of its best ever.

It’s not just Crawford the company is pinning its hopes on. For its anniversary, Omega is introducing four limited-edition series from each product family – Constellation, Seamaster, Speedmaster, and DeVille. Beyond that, Omega will spin off a Constellation jewelry line this November. It has also launched a space-age watch with design influence from astronauts and a fashion watch with design input from Crawford herself.

Cindy’s choice. In recent years, Omega has spent hefty sums for endorsements from such glitterati as supermodel Elle MacPherson, actor Pierce Brosnan, tennis phenom Martina Hingis, and golfer Ernie Els. Racing champion Michael Schumacher lent his name to a Speedmaster model that sparked a brief color craze in timepieces. The company hopes the synergy between its celebrities and its watch designs will evoke strong feelings among consumers and bolster sales. Crawford is the emotional mother lode of endorsements.

Consumers will see a lot more of Crawford, who is featured in Playboy’s October issue. But it’s her instantly recognizable face that will likely reinforce Omega’s fashion cachet.

Crawford lent not only her name and image but also her design suggestions for the My Choice Constellation timepiece, a feminine version of a watch originally launched in 1982. One practical suggestion was to make the surfaces smoother to keep them from catching on clothes. She recommended scaling the watch down to a smaller size and altering the design of the hands. With its curved claws, mother-of-pearl dial, polished case, and bezel engraved with Roman numerals, My Choice adds contemporary flair to an old classic. It’s available in white gold, yellow gold, and steel, with or without diamonds.

Crawford, who along with Omega officials hosted a celebrity golf tournament in Switzerland in August to unveil the Constellation jewelry line, is delighted with the watch result. “My Choice represents all the qualities I look for in a watch: class, elegance, subtlety, beauty, and fashion,” she says. “The trend is definitely going back to more feminine watches.” That’s a trend that suits Crawford, and Omega, just fine.

Omega officials hope Crawford’s star power will do for the Constellation line what Tiger Woods’ did for Rolex’s successful Tudor brand. If so, echoes of the company’s troubled past will fade even further.

What went wrong. In the late 1970s, Omega’s reputation as Olympic timekeeper and favored watch of astronauts counted for little when the company – like many other Swiss watch brands – tottered on the brink of bankruptcy.

As sales sagged owing to complacent management, inconsistent marketing themes, lagging technology, quality problems, and slow reaction to the quartz revolution, no one much cared that the Omega brand adorned the wrist of astronaut Neil Armstrong when he made his famous giant leap for mankind. An ill-advised move away from independent jewelers in favor of large national chains only compounded the company’s woes. Even into the 1980s and early 1990s, Omega was still disorganized and struggling.

Jean Claude Biver says Omega’s traumatic times stem from losing touch with its market. “There was not a clear collection, not an international, unified advertising campaign, not integrated marketing, not a correct distribution policy.”

That’s when Swatch Group chairman Nicholas Hayek called in Biver to work his resuscitation magic. The rest is history.

In recent years, Omega has enhanced its product lines with more automatic mechanical movements and more stainless-steel timepieces, reinforcing its reputation for world-class technology and innovative designs. The company upgraded to 18k gold watches in the United States, where Omega had been known primarily for its 14k pieces. Meanwhile, the celebrity campaign has been used to boost consumer awareness. The company’s hopes of tripling U.S. sales within the next five years seem within reach.

The right stuff. Helping to fuel that ambitious campaign will be several new product launches. For example, there’s the Mars watch. This new titanium Speedmaster, officially called the X-33 (derived from its code name), received design input from American and European astronauts, Russian cosmonauts, and professional pilots. (Not surprising, since former astronaut Thomas Stafford serves as Omega’s board chairman.)

This lightweight, anti-allergenic timepiece accompanied the crews on recent space shuttle and Mir missions. The X-33 features digital display, chronograph, universal time (GMT), mission-elapsed time, luminous hands, and an 80-decibel alarm – all on a titanium bracelet or a red DuPont Kevlar strap.

Omega is marking the 40th anniversary of its Speedmaster collection with a special series of 23 watches, including a replica of the original. Each pays a tribute to space exploration with a different official mission patch at 9 o’clock on the dial. As if to reinforce the out-of-this-world theme, the watches come in a valise covered with the same cloth used in space suits.

Another 150th-anniversary tribute is a limited-edition Seamaster GMT in titanium. Attentive viewers of the last two James Bond films may have noticed the Seamaster Professional Chronometer gracing Pierce Brosnan’s wrist – yet another of Omega’s successful product promotions. Rounding out the year’s special series is a DeVille line that features a platinum automatic chronometer.

In 1998, there’s a story behind every Omega watch, but each is merely a chapter in a more dramatic story of the brand’s rise, fall, and rise again. Anniversaries usually commemorate beginnings or births. Omega’s 150th anniversary signals a rebirth. Born again, with Cindy Crawford at its side.