The unintended consequences of social media for the big watch brands

The start of 2020 has me thinking a lot about the evolution of social media, particularly Instagram, and its impact on the watch industry over the previous decade. I’ve realized that when we talk about the positives and negatives, we tend to focus heavily on one side of things – it’s either the pros and cons for the community or the brands. Zooming out a bit by considering its impact on both, social media really cuts both ways in a non-obvious way – what has been great for the community has pushed the brands into quite a predicament. The brands are on the losing end of the present social media reality, and I’m not sure they even know it. Before I flesh out exactly what I mean, let’s just run through what Instagram fundamentally does and how the brands use it.

Compared to its predecessor, the forums, Instagram has a clear advantage in the ease of use, smoothness of exploration, and quickness of connecting with others. Supercharged by images, it’s effortless to scroll and consume information in our feed, find what we aesthetically enjoy, and engage with likes or comments. It’s basically a one-stop-shop for all our favorite eye-candy, not only watches. Overall, the platform acts as an efficient awareness-creating machine at unprecedented scale. We might not think of it this way, but the proof is in the fact that we all recognize so many more watches than we did historically while investing 1/10 the time in research.

Now when the brands hopped on social media, their primary goal was to exploit what Instagram does best – build awareness and drive demand at scale. In digital marketing, this idea that awareness is the first step toward demand is one of the profession’s fundamental axioms. So the theory behind everything thus far is correct – it looks like the brands should be winning. But like all things, the problems arise in practice.

For years now, the brands have established consensus on how they utilize Instagram – it’s extremely product-centric. As the proverb goes, “too much of anything is good for nothing.” From my vantage point, years of the same approach on social media has produced more awareness of product but less awareness of each brand’s values and history. The average consumer today primarily understands each brands not through their products, but as their products. All of the biggest watch companies didn’t devalue their brand by merely joining social media – a common criticism amongst the purists. But they did devalue their brands by enabling scores of consumers to increasingly think of luxury watches in commodity-like terms – difficult to differentiate, very price-driven.

Luxury watches might not be traditional commodities, like coffee or oil, but to the average consumer, choosing between a Royal Oak, Nautilus, Octo Finissimo is increasingly left to decision making similar to commodities – it’s all about personal preference and price. The brands rarely make a case for their product based on their distinct values and history. If the businesses want to succeed, they should not be leaving consumer decisions to taste and buying power. The next wave of social media for the brands, hopefully occurring this decade, must educate more and get back to what makes the brands great, not single products. The values and history of each brand needs a stronger voice, and in turn, I believe it will produce a healthier consumer base and the next generation of passionate collectors.

My thoughts on this topic are still in an early stage of development. I’m becoming increasingly interested in the relationship between social media, commoditization of luxury, and education as the remedy (if there is one!). There is definitely more to research and map out on this topic – this is not an exhaustive analysis. I will continue to add to this post in the future.

Another day with the beast,

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