Watch brands risk alienating future consumers

As a young watch enthusiast, I’ve looked on with mild bemusement as the adults in the room debate our alleged purchasing behaviour as well as our relationship with watches. I’ve often heard the assertion that Gen Z and millennials care more about “experiences” and less about buying things. This always struck me as rather odd, since I can’t say I’ve seen this to a significant degree amongst my friends and acquaintances.

Watch brands don’t market to young people

I wonder if the nature of the market has fundamentally changed. Gone are the days where you could work a summer job in order to save up for a quality Swiss watch – stories about our parents’ generation buying their first Rolex or Omega at the age of 20 with their own income seem laughable to the vast majority of people my age. Iconic marketing campaigns for the launch of watches such as Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, Rolex’ GMT Master and Patek Philippe’s Nautilus succeeded in taking stainless steel watches off the wrists of divers and engineers and onto the wrists of the polo-playing, dinner-suit wearing and cognac-sipping class. In hindsight, these marketing campaigns have arguably turned the industry into a victim of its own success. Today’s young customers no longer see luxury watches as attainable because of how Swiss brands have elevated the timepiece status to the ultimate luxury accessory for the upper class.

Perhaps the most iconic of these “lifestyle” advertisements is Patek Philippe’s “You never really own a Patek Philippe” campaign. This advertisement appeals directly to the viewer’s desire to create a legacy, and has little to do with the watch in question. Its success probably comes as a result of how it appeals to one of humanity’s most basic and primal urges, tying the notion of a legacy to a timepiece so special that no one is really capable of owning it. It also perhaps glorifies the inheritance of wealth, through the suggestion that a Patek Philippe timepiece is a worthy investment for future generations.

Another facet of the move towards luxury and lifestyle are the celebrity endorsements and partnerships. Some brands take more visible branding decisions like Breitling and IWC’s sponsorships and “friends of the brand”, while other brands exert their influence through support for events like A. Lange & Sohne’s partnership with luxury car event, Concours of Elegance. For the majority of the younger enthusiasts, marketing images of preppy young white men driving classic cars and playing tennis may be aspirational and attractive, but generally so far divorced from reality that they don’t represent a realistic goal.

Nomos Glashutte – successfully appealing to Gen Z and Millenials

On the contrary, Nomos doesn’t attempt to project a perception of unattainability. In fact, the brand has touted the Club Campus, a variant of its Club line, to be the “graduation” watch for university students and has priced it accordingly. Unlike Patek Philippe, Nomos doesn’t attempt to invoke images of trans-generational wealth and legacy transfer. Young people are less likely than ever to want to start families, so why market a watch as an heirloom if your customers don’t necessarily want to have children?

Secondly, Nomos don’t do high-profile sponsorships or celebrity endorsements. The one mention of the brand outside the watch world that I’ve come across is in the TV series, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and it’s unclear whether this was an Easter Egg from one watch-loving writer to the community or an actual marketing effort. Regardless, it’s been surprisingly effective – a few of my friends reached out to ask me about the brand, and one viewer had consequently purchased a Club as his graduation gift to himself.

Finally, Nomos doesn’t attempt to project the “lifestyle” or iconography of the ultra-rich onto their customers. Nomos’ marketing of its Metro family epitomises this – using imagery from underground metro lines immediately provides the city-dweller with familiar themes and designs. While not exactly an aspirational association, it’s extremely relatable – more of us have taken an underground train than have been on a yacht. Familiarity is a powerful tool which brands often under-utilise.

Nomos seems to understand how alienating much of the marketing message from the luxury industry is to normal young people. After all, how can I identify with a conventionally attractive white man from a traditional family when I fit into none of them?

Brands need a focused message

Despite this, luxury watches still appeal to young people – a luxury watch is still part of an aspirational notion of “moving up in the world”. Patek Philippe and Nomos both understand that a marketing message resonates strongest when it is coherent and focused; for Patek Philippe it’s wealthy older people with familial aspirations, whereas Nomos appeals to the university student and young professional through its relatability. Brands that try to extend an existing customer base towards young people don’t achieve this success when they fail to fundamentally transform their brand identity accordingly.

One example of a brand pursuing this “big tent” approach is IWC. Launching an online store in 2017, it aimed to engage with a younger, internet-savvy demographic. More recently, it launched a Facebook chatbot and a virtual retail experience. While these initiatives are likely to increase engagement from consumers across the board, it distinctly lacks a clear and targeted focus that Patek Philippe and Nomos display. For example, if IWC aims to connect with young university graduates looking for their first watch, they are unlikely to want to spend upwards of £4,000 on an online purchase and miss out on the “full experience”. Moreover, if young people are looking for their first watch online, it is likely that they will then discover the grey or pre-owned market which often offers a cheaper price. By choosing this “big tent” approach, the brand fails to build an acute connection with younger consumers.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to blame young people for finding an industry that orients itself away from them to be increasingly irrelevant. Even my relatively well-off friends, the supposed target of luxury brands’ marketing, have become increasingly apathetic towards the industry. Young people don’t identify with the imagery of luxury that the brands have pushed in the aftermath of the Quartz Crisis – it might even be driving them away. It is high time for middle-of-the-market brands such as IWC, Breitling and TAG Heuer to take the next generation of consumers seriously by listening to their experiences and opinions. Without fundamentally rethinking their marketing approach, they risk being left behind.

@edinburghtimepieces is an enthusiast and collector living in the UK. Growing up in a family of collectors meant he often spent weekends peering over the counter at familiar (and some not-so-familiar) names in watchmaking, picking up knowledge about movements, bezels and other things a 10-year old had no business knowing about. Since then, he has developed a passion for independent horology, but still retains an interest in vintage and contemporary watchmaking. As a university student, he enjoys converting his casually interested friends into full-fledged watch fanatics.

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