The opportunity of smartwatches is not in the product

The smartwatch trend has created a new ocean of opportunity for Swiss watchmaking, but it’s not in creating digital products.

The rise of smartwatches occupies nothing less than a complicated position in Swiss watchmaking. Some see it as having no impact on business, while others polarize the narrative as either Quartz Crisis 2.0 or a new market opportunity, “luxury smartwatches.” Collector and technologist Tony Fadell sees it as the writing on the wall, pushing the industry to adapt to the digital revolution.

He’s right, but embracing the digital age doesn’t require creating digital products. In fact, an embrace with technology might just mean working with the sentiments the digital age creates.

In the 2010’s, the last remaining reasons to wear a watch were cut from practical functions and left to nostalgia and fashion. Silicon Valley resuscitated the wristwatch with a modern purpose: fitness tracking and connectedness to a wider ecosystem of beloved digital products. It capitalized on the perennial, fashionable form of a watch, and re-introduced young generations of >18 and 18-30 year olds to the idea of an object around the wrist in day-to-day.

Tech entrepreneurs have made wearing a watch relevant again. It’s time industry executives focus efforts on converting young, smartwatch users to analog.

Believe it or not, the reason to switch is there. It might be the first time there’s a real reason to revert (or progress) to analog, and the internet directly caused this scenario. On average, we don’t trust tech companies very much, right to disconnect movements are gaining traction globally, and we’re becoming increasingly aware of the effects social media has on mental health. The smartwatch’s upside, connectivity, is also its downside for many.

Now is not the time for Nick Hayek to emulate Tim Cook. The pursuit of digital products by Swiss watchmaking fills a niche at best, and more probably is a total waste of resources. Swiss brands would be a fish out of water if they competed directly against Apple and Samsung over the smartwatch market. The only overlap between San Francisco and Geneva is real estate prices.

The real opportunity in the rise of smartwatches is finding ways to capture this new, huge audience, recently re-accustomed to wearing a “watch” but not super excited by 24/7/365 connectivity. Analog needs to address digital pain directly. Marketing and sales need to put on their creative thinking caps and build the next generation of watch collectors.

Keep on keeping on,

Dec 4. 2019 Update – Since I published this piece originally, IWC has released a commercial speaking to the pain points of digital. First time, to my knowledge, I’ve seen a major Swiss brand address this!

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