Drive Time

The relationship between watches and cars is getting cozier as more watch firms focus on automotive brands, events, and designs to boost consumer awareness, build sales, and attract new customers.

“The tendency of more watch companies is to align themselves with cars and car events to take their brands to the next level of business,” says Carol Levey, senior director of marketing for Swiss watchmaker Maurice Lacroix.

Breitling and Bulgari recently entered into co-branding agreements with Bentley and Cadillac, respectively, and at least one mid-priced Swiss brand is considering something similar. Oris, Girard-Perregaux, Chopard, Rolex, Breitling, TAG Heuer, and Maurice Lacroix have expanded or added sponsorships, supplier pacts (as “official watch” or “watch partner”), and marketing uses of motorsports. Meanwhile, auto design—both classic and current—influences the look of several watch lines.

The attraction is mutual. Several carmakers—seeking to widen their customer base and add accessories that complement their image and customers’ lifestyles—have approached watch brands about affiliations.

This bandwagon is gaining speed as more watch companies see association with car brands and events as an effective way to expand business. However, Ronald R. Jackson, U.S. president of Girard-Perregaux—whose 10-year relationship with Ferrari is an example to other brands—has this caveat: As more watch companies “do it for the customers, they can’t lose sight of the most important factor—a good fit. There should be synergy in concept, design, and marketing. Otherwise, they’ll confuse consumers rather than attract them.”

Other brands agree. Bulova, one of America’s best-known watches, “has been approached by many in the car business,” says Francie Abraham, vice president of marketing, “but we’ll only do cross-promotions if a brand’s imagery fits with ours.” Rolex spokesperson Carla Stamp calls its support of racing “a natural fit, because cars, drivers, and teams must be in the best shape and of the best quality and endurance to compete—and that’s how we think of Rolex products.” And Oris’s new pact as “Watch Partner” of the BMW Williams Formula One racing team “underlines Oris’s high-mech strategy perfectly,” says chairman Ulrich Herzog. “BMW, WilliamsF1, and Oris all use mechanical engineering principles and innovative technologies to build top-class products, [and racing] provides the ideal technological context to promote the qualities of Oris’s timepieces.”

Alike. Watches, especially mechanical ones, and fine cars certainly have similar characteristics. As Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, vice president of luxury watchmaker Chopard, wrote recently, “In this ultra-modern world, there is a return to authenticity and craftsmanship. The fine mechanism of a watch as well as a classic car are both symbols of this.” Lisa Roman, senior marketing director of Breitling USA, known for its precision chronographs, concurs. The fine timepiece and the luxury car, she notes, “share a coherent identity which focuses on performance, prestige, and tradition, coupled with technical innovation.”

They also attract similar consumers. Connoisseurs of fine watches—like actor Malcolm McDowell or comedian Jerry Seinfeld—often are connoisseurs and collectors of fine cars and fans of auto racing. But fascination with the craftsmanship, technical precision, and durability of fine watches and automobiles isn’t limited to collectors. “There’s a high correlation between affluent customers for both,” notes Roman. “Their aspirations are similar, and they appreciate what a watch like Breitling and a car like Bentley can do. Some of the highest response rates to our ads are from readers of car magazines.”

More than appreciation for fine mechanisms is involved. “Most people today pick their watches and cars to suit their personal needs and personality,” says Levey. “They’re lifestyle extensions of their image and home.” So as watches become accessories to—and symbols of—car owners’ lifestyles and interests, “identifying one brand with the other builds awareness of both.”

Even watches without links to car brands are targeting car fans. Cartier says its first watch collection in a half decade, a men’s line called Roadster, is “inspired by the world of automobile design.” Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso Gran’ Sport is “perfect to wear when driving an expensive sports car,” says a spokesman. And recent ads for both Citizen and Seiko watches (Eco-Drive Largo and Sportura, respectively) show a man driving a sports car, implying that “this type of watch appeals to any car enthusiast,” says Peter Nicholson, Citizen Watch of America’s vice president of corporate communications.

Cars also now play a role in planning watch marketing. Festina USA, for example, asks on its warranty survey cards, “What kind of automobile do you drive?” “It’s one of several lifestyle questions that help us create better profiles [of who buys Festina watches] and select media for marketing campaigns,” says company president Phil Schwetz. Survey answers showed Festina that prime customers for its stainless-steel line, for instance, are SUV owners aged 25 to 49.

Speedsters. The affiliation between watches and cars is most apparent in motorsports. To reach car fans and improve their own technical features, some brands have supported auto racing for decades. Rolex has been the official timekeeper of France’s famed Le Mans for 71 years and, since 1992, the sponsor of the 24-hour race at the International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla.—The Rolex 24 at Daytona, the biggest annual event of the Grand American Road Racing Association. (Winners receive Rolex Daytona chronographs.) Chopard has sponsored Italy’s 1,000-mile Mille Miglia since 1988, while TAG Heuer has been timekeeper of the FIA Formula One World Championship since 1992 and sponsors the McLaren racing team. Girard-Perregaux USA has sponsored the North American Ferrari Challenge since the mid-1990s.

As viewer interest in auto racing grows, watch companies are expanding their involvement in the sport, to reach new categories of fans. Rolex became the official timepiece of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance vintage car event in 1997 and the Monterey Historical Automobile Races in 2001, and sponsor of the regional Grand Am races (now named the Rolex Sports Car Series) in 2002.

Michael Schumacher, Formula One’s reigning world champion and an avid watch fan, has been an Omega Ambassador since 1999. Girard-Perregaux USA began sponsoring Ferrari’s 360 GT team in 2002, the same year Maurice Lacroix was named official watch of the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Racing League. Starting this year, Breitling will sponsor the Bentley Motors team, racing in Florida’s 12-hour Sebring as well as at Le Mans.

Oris recently became the “watch partner” of the BMW WilliamsF1 Team, and TAG Heuer signed Sarah Fisher, 21, Indy Racing’s youngest-ever driver, as a brand ambassador. She’ll help develop and promote the company’s watches here, starting with its F1 Micrograph digital chronograph. Her first appearance as a TAG Heuer Ambassador is slated for September’s Indianapolis Formula One Grand Prix, where she’ll be the first woman since 1992 to drive a Formula One car.

Design. Less apparent but also significant is the influence of cars on watch design. TAG Heuer has created several racing-related timepieces, such as the Monza, Kirium Formula 1, F1 Micrograph, and its 2002 Gold Classics collection. Chopard’s Mille Miglia series and Girard-Perregaux’s Pour Ferrari line annually feature limited editions and non-limited versions, echoing automotive themes and even using racecar materials such as aluminum, titanium, or carbon fiber.

Breitling’s new Bentley chronograph—unveiled this month at the international Basel, Switzerland, watch fair—mirrors the knurled finish traditionally found in Bentley cars. In May, Bulgari will debut a special edition of its Diagano Aluminum Chrono, for buyers of Cadillac’s 2004 XLR sports car. The watch’s black face and amber dials match Bulgari-designed instruments on the XLR dashboard.

The large round dial and red inner bezel of Dunhill’s RPM echo vintage sports car speedometers, while the case design of its d-Type is inspired by the 1950s Jaguar speedster of the same name. Lalique’s first-ever men’s watches (Mascot and Starter) use design features based on 1930s cars, including dashboard dials, wheels, upholstery, and even screws and radiator caps. The Mascot power-reserve dial even resembles a gas gauge.

And auto-influenced lines keep growing. Breitling’s Bentley chronograph is the first in a series. Girard-Perregaux adds Pour Ferrari tank and tourbillon models, and Dunhill expands its RPM and d-Type lines (introduced in 2002), at this month’s SIHH luxury watch show in Geneva, Switzerland.

More car companies and automotive events also realize the value of a branded watch as an accessory. Maurice Lacroix’s Indianapolis 500 chronograph is the Indy League’s first official watch. Automaker BMW is expanding its mid-priced Swiss-made timepieces (designs based on its classic cars), while Land Rover has a sports watch line. Even former carmaker John DeLorean is selling a $3,500 watch, with each timepiece carrying a number that puts its buyer in line for DeLorean’s proposed new cars.

Meanwhile, more watch brands are getting into car designs. Breitling’s co-branding pact with Bentley, for example, began with an agreement to create dashboard clocks, starting with its new Continental GT coupe. Bulgari designs panel gauges and clocks for Cadillac, including its concept cars, its 2003 Escalade, Escalade EXT, and Escalade ESV sport utility vehicles, and the new 2004 LXR. Others are pursuing design opportunities. Maurice Lacroix, for example, recently contacted select car designers, says Carol Levey, “about the possibility of designing instruments for your car or a watch [for your brand].”