Watch Marketing Hits Fever Pitch

With many Asian and Latin American economies in turmoil, watch companies have turned their eyes on the big prize – the United States. Overseas brands are flocking to this market as if it were Ellis Island in 1900. The companies aim to sell not just a single watch to each consumer but multiple watches – with the help of enthusiastic retailers, of course. And to boost those sales they’re unleashing a lot of innovative marketing campaigns. Here’s what you and your customers will be seeing.

Subtlety is out. Watch marketing these days is getting more radical and “disruptive.” Like a kid acting up in class, the unconventional advertising is commanding attention, especially among the young. The fresh marketing campaigns encompass virtually every medium. They are dominated by the big-time sports sponsorships, such as Swatch and the Olympics, Citizen and the U.S. Open tennis tournament, and Festina and the Tour de France.

So why are so many watch brands still small needles in the giant American haystack? First, there’s a confusing plethora of brands. Second, except for luxury buyers, the level of watch sophistication among U.S. consumers is low. Watches have never been a must-have American accessory.

“Spending $400 on a watch is a major investment here, compared to Italy, where it is an afterthought, a small fashion investment,” says Anthony J. D’Ambrosio, Tourneau’s executive director. “With the high number of Americans with disposable income, we only need to connect with some of them to succeed. The question is, how does the U.S. watch industry get to that point?”

Watch executives say the United States is the most difficult country in which to market watches because it’s heavily populated, regionally fragmented, constantly changing, and price-conscious. Consumers must be bombarded with brand messages from all directions. Growing the category demands that brands and retailers be marketing-driven rather than strictly sales-driven, as in the past. “More watch companies are becoming marketing companies first and watch companies second,” says Maurice Avenaim of Chicago-based Internet Strategic Marketing, U.S. distributor of Kelek and Ikepod Watches.

When Bulova became the first-ever television advertiser on July 1, 1941, watches were thrust into the mainstream. Since then, other consumer products surpassed watches in public awareness. Watches fell behind the times with reactionary rather than visionary marketing. Not since Timex’s “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking” has a watch slogan pierced the American consumer’s psyche.

Still, there are a handful of companies whose marketing efforts stand out: Rolex, Cartier, Tag Heuer, Movado, Omega, Raymond Weil, and Swatch. They’ve built brand awareness with specific niches, creativity, consistency, distinctive product, appeals to the emotions, and yes, multimillion-dollar advertising budgets.

An awakening. If a watch brand lands in the U.S. market and doesn’t make noise, does it exist? Not in retailers’ eyes. Advertising and brand awareness drive sales. Retailers are cautious of a new brand that has little power to mass-market. “If you’ve never heard of the watch brand, it’s not a brand in my opinion,” says one industry observer. “That’s the malaise suffered by many watch companies today.”

For decades after Bulova’s breakthrough commercial, watches were marketed primarily as functional time-tellers. But in the United States, function rarely sells or generates interest in watches. Enter fashion, lifestyle, status, emotion, pop culture, celebrity, and humor – the wild cards of consumer marketing today. Watch marketing has awakened from its slumber.

“For a brand, marketing is everything,” says Laurence R. Grunstein, president of Citizen Watch Co. of America. “If you don’t separate your brand from the rest, you’re just a commodity. And if you’re a commodity, you can’t make a profit. Brands make people feel good, so it’s emotional as well. Retailers who focus on brands that are marketed well will do well.”

Movado, Jaeger-LeCoultre, IWC, Hamilton, Ebel, and other brands have launched bold new ad campaigns, with a shift toward unconventional, “Americentric” ads. Ebel’s use of Madonna’s and Harrison Ford’s hands is the best attention-getting example (although some wonder why the brand didn’t use their famous faces as well). These brands may have been influenced by the quick U.S. success of Tag Heuer and Raymond Weil.

Raymond Weil’s W1 watch, for example, was recognized by the American Marketing Association as a top product launch among all consumer categories. It was the sole jewelry-industry nominee.

This renaissance began with Tag Heuer, which found a niche and invested heavily in ads. Retailers ran with it and had gratifying results. Through its award-winning ads saying, “Don’t Crack Under Pressure” and “Success, It’s a Mind Game,” the brand became a multifaceted luxury sports watch with multiple incarnations. Its image is further enhanced by the brand’s latest in-your-face “Inner Strength” ad campaign.

Tag Heuer’s campaigns are groundbreaking for the watch industry because they focus on thought-provoking messages rather than just the product itself. “We were targeting a crowd of people who were going to be thought leaders and fashion leaders,” says Susan Nicholas, president of Tag Heuer USA. “People related to the premise and went into stores requesting the product. Tag Heuer stood for things that were interesting to consumers, and they identified with the brand’s mental-strength message.”

In a game of follow-the-leader, other brands introduced creative lifestyle ads. Citizen watches are “how the world tells time.” Michel Jordi offers “a piece of American history that tells time.” Bonneville Watches appeal to consumers from “biker to broker.” Seiko Kinetic ads say, “If you’re going to create electricity, use it.” Cyma watches are “not just another pretty face.” Clever slogans seep into consumers’ minds and gradually build brand awareness.

Humor is an effective way to accomplish this. Festina’s ad for its battery-less Mecaquartz watches features people dancing and twisting for no apparent reason. The purpose of their “flipping out” (to wind their watches) isn’t revealed until the commercial’s end. Krieger Watch Corp.’s “Roughing It” ads use dark humor. One ad with an image of a cemetery says, “Because there’s only so much time.”

Provocative ads are also en vogue. Naked or scantily clad models wearing watches are turning up more and more, from the likes of Gucci, Delance, and Swatch (its Skin watch is promoted by model Tyra Banks). And it works.

Access Hollywood. Look for more watch companies to sign on celebrities. Tag Heuer has NBA All Star Grant Hill; Tudor has golfer Tiger Woods; Movado has tennis’ Pete Sampras; and Omega has fashion model Cindy Crawford and actor Pierce Brosnan. For the power of celebrity, look no further than Omega, whose Constellation line has grown 175% worldwide since Crawford signed on.

Celebrities can boost sales and exposure via in-store appearances, as Crawford did just before Valentine’s Day. After signing autographs for customers at Tourneau in New York, she surprised two contest winners at their workplaces and presented them with flowers and an Omega Constellation for their girlfriends. Omega also hosted a James Bond online trivia contest, offering a Seamaster watch to a winning consumer. “The celebrity-endorsement strategy influences the public tremendously,” says Gary Gordon of Samuel Gordon Jewelers in Oklahoma City.

“David Duchovny wore an Omega Dynamic on ‘The X-Files,’ and that week four people called asking for that watch,” says Jeffrey Kramer of William Barthman Jewelers in New York. “I’m not sure how they knew which watch it was from the quick shot on television, but they obviously went out of their way to find out.”

Movies are the hot medium of the moment. Oris graces Nicolas Cage’s wrist in 8 mm. Anthony Hopkins wore Concord’s Impresario in Meet Joe Black. Television is also important. Swiss Army adorns the wrists of characters on “ER” and “Felicity.” And it seems that nearly every celebrity owns a

Breitling. Tag Heuer, Movado, and Raymond Weil all gained exposure at events surrounding the recent Academy Awards.

On the retail end, Tourneau is the champion of watch promotion. In 1997, the retail chain built the Time Machine, the world’s largest watch store, in New York. Now the store is again throwing down the gauntlet by challenging magazines to entice readers to buy more watches. Tourneau’s 24-page advertorials boost its overall ad budget to $25 million this year – unheard of for many watch brands, let alone a retailer.

“We need to find new ways to push the envelope and get more Americans buying fine watches,” says Tourneau’s D’Ambrosio. “The goal is to bring more awareness and lift the watch category a few notches up in the consumer’s ranking of status symbols. Most watch ads direct people to choose one brand over another. Tourneau believes the competition is not each other, but other luxury goods such as wardrobes, vacations, home furnishings.”

These marketing efforts are preselling watches, to retailers’ delight. Watch brands usually tag retailers on their ads. And while brands must give consumers a reason to buy watches, retailers must give consumers a reason to buy even more watches. Special events such as in-store watch fairs, celebrity appearances, and music performances can drum up consumer interest. Watch brands are usually willing to assist retailers in these marketing ventures. For example, Hamilton Jewelers in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., hosts an annual watch fair at which representatives from watch companies explain their lines to consumers.

New blood, new directions. Why this cosmic shift in U.S. watch marketing? The hiring of more women, minorities, and young executives with advertising, marketing, or graphic arts backgrounds brings fresh faces with fresh ideas to watch marketing. Women at the helm of companies like Baume & Mercier, Hamilton, and Daniel Roth push for more distinctive timepieces for the American woman. One example of an exclusive women’s watch line is Delance.

Wittnauer International, the first African-American-owned watch company, is diversifying its overall marketing to reach minority consumers. College sports sponsorships, civic programs, and Spanish-speaking radio ads are all part of this campaign. Spanish-owned Juvenia has a similar strategy. These newcomers have already shown a greater sensitivity to a melting pot of U.S. consumers of varied ages and ethnic backgrounds.

Tomorrow and beyond. The next shake-up in watch marketing will be on the Internet, where sales are starting to take off. Joining many retailers, some manufacturers have begun selling through their own Web sites or an online retailer. This will be a controversial marketing and sales venue.

A watch boom could be on the horizon as watch companies continue to outdo one another in the marketing arena. If so, U.S. retailers can prepare for increased traffic in their stores. The American retailer is now in the driver’s seat as the watch industry finally heads in the right direction.