What big brands can learn from independent watchmakers

While my interest in watches started with the “big brands” (as it does for most people), all my purchases have gone exclusively to independent watchmakers. You won’t find a Rolex, Patek, or Omega in my collection. Up until recently, I’ve always written this off as some reflection of my personality or individual taste. There’s probably some truth in that, but recent conversations on Instagram has prompted me to consider a deeper connection: independent watchmakers offer behind-the-scenes access to their creative process, watchmaking approach, and business as a whole. They make watch collecting more human.

In many ways, it makes sense that many independents have gone down this route. Who they are and what they do is, after all, the only asset they have when they launch. There’s no history or prestige to capitalize on when starting something new. It’s all about showing personality, hard work, and creative vision while building personal relationships. Though independent watchmakers and the big brands occupy positions a world apart, there’s a lot that big brands can learn from using transparency to build more personal consumer connections.

The parasocial dynamic

My (sub)conscious preference for more personal brands is far from unusual in the modern world. As social media and consumers reward brands for being more open and “real”, faceless and distant brands seem increasingly out of place. To connect on a level deeper than product, consumers want to see behind the curtains through a constant stream of stories and images and videos.

If television created parasocial relationships with our favorite sitcom and movie stars, then the internet has pushed us to yearn for more parasocial relationships with brands. We want to know about the life of brands – how it does what it does, at every step of the process. We want to be friends with brands.

Currently, celebrity brand ambassadors and executives fill in this void for big watch brands. They are the face to an otherwise faceless brand. But the approach feels outdated and inauthentic compared to the independents. For an industry and community that values craftsmanship, there is an overwhelming lack of the craftsman’s voice. Where are the Virgil Abloh and Kim Jones’ of the watch industry to take us to the heart of the big brands? Where are the visionaries directing the watchmaking process and philosophy?

Their popularity pales in comparison to their haute couture counterparts, but they are out there. They do exist.

The end of “black box culture”

Let’s zoom in on Christian Selmoni, Style and Heritage Director at Vacheron Constantin. For many of you, this is a new name, and that’s precisely the brand’s fault. Though he has a fair number of appearances on YouTube (mostly in third-party, journalism content), Selmoni almost never pops up in Vacheron Constantin’s social media. He might be leveraging the brand’s history to create new stories and drive product development, but you’d never know how or why. We don’t really know much about what his job actually entails, nothing about process, nothing about decision making, and very little about the manufacturing.

The problem isn’t that the Creative Director type doesn’t exist in the watch industry. It’s that the culture of big brands in the watch industry prohibits this type of figure from letting audiences online in. The industry has not opened up in ways the modern internet-accustomed collector, enthusiast, and everyday consumer demands.

There was a perfect example of this “black box culture” that occurred very recently in an interview with the CEO of Audemars Piguet, Francois Bennahmias. Discussing the future of the brand, Bennahmias floated that he found the right answers moving forward, specifically for how AP will manage and build better relationships online. In doing so, he is progressive for acknowledging that the watch industry doesn’t yet live in the 21st century, as Jean-Claude Biver has also mentioned elsewhere. That’s one step forward.

But as he refuses to discuss his ideas at any depth, he takes one step back. By sticking to secrecy, Audemars Piguet (and the industry as a whole) will not evolve.

 

For big brands in the 21st century, the right answer is becoming as willing as independent watchmakers to bare it all online. Being transparent doesn’t just build more intimacy and loyalty with fans, it helps us understand the value of the brand – its creative decisions and its craftsmanship. If, for an example, Audemars Piguet had revealed more of their creative process throughout the development of CODE 11.59, they might have avoided the stinging backlash.

I hope to see more big brands open up in the future. Maybe then, I’ll finally add a Rolex or Omega to my collection.

Another day with the beast,

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