YOU'RE SPOILING US AMBASSADOR
The relationship and benefits between watch brand and their chosen ambassador strikes a fine balance. Plaza Watch looks at the finer aspects of these potentially lucrative marriages.
Josh Sims explores the relationships between watch brands and their ambassadors.
FOR THOSE WHO don’t know, Cara Delevigne is a model. That, depending on your position, does not make her uniquely talented or notable, despite her being a known name in her field. And yet there she is, staring down from a billboard. Most prominent are a scowl, a tattoo and her trademark eyebrows. Unexpectedly perhaps, she is not wearing a watch – unexpected because Delevigne is the latest face for TAG Heuer.
According to the sports watch giant’s CEO Jean-Claude Biver, they needed “someone disruptive yet elegant like Cara to open our minds to the brashness and boldness of today’s youth. TAG Heuer has set its sights on ‘itness’, and Cara is just the person to help us get there.”
It is an unusually direct statement, in its admission that signing Delevigne is precisely all about the company seeking to attract a new demographic – the cool kids. Indeed, the big guns of the Swiss watch industry are more used to striking deals with Hollywood and sporting A-listers – people who, more than anything, have high profile for sale.
The favoured descriptor, ‘brand ambassador’, may blur the edges, suggesting as it does a deep connection between company and celebrity – ‘Friend of the brand’ is more nebulous still – but the notion that it is anything but a commercial arrangement is, initially at least, hard to escape.
There’s a nice watch in it for the ambassador, if not a nice pay packet. Take Hugh Jackman, for instance, recently directing his limelight towards Montblanc. A quick scan online reveals many of his white-toothed smiles are accompanied by a Harry Winston.
But is Montblanc bothered? Unexpectedly perhaps, not a bit. “It wouldn’t be wise if he’d represented another brand in the same sector of the watch industry, but otherwise we wouldn’t see a problem with it. It’s a reflection of Jackman as a multi-faceted person,” says the company’s executive vice president for marketing Jens Henning Koch. “The fact is that you can be very analytical when selecting a potential brand ambassador or very instinctual, assuming they’re available and
interested of course. Ideally it works on both levels. Jackman, for example, isn’t just a figure of the public imagination – he’s a proper actor, with a real interest in the arts, plus he’s elegant and well-known.”
Certainly, it is hard to slide an ultra-thin watch between the many brand ambassadors that have come and gone over recent years to form the public face of so many of the major manufacturers: John Travolta and David Beckham for Breitling; George Clooney and Angelina Jolie for Omega; Lewis Hamilton, Brad Pitt, Leonardo di Caprio and Cameron Diaz for TAG Heuer; Cristiano Ronaldo for Franck Muller; Roger Federer for Rolex; William Baldwin for Alpina; Michael Schumacher for Audemars Piguet; Kate Winslet and Simon Baker for Longines; Clive Owen for Jaeger LeCoultre; Uma Thurman for Chopard... And so on with the watch world’s A-lister arms race to snag a star.
Yet selecting one’s brand ambassador is no easy task. It is a search for credibility, assurance and mutual self-interest. As Koch notes, while the advantages of profile for the watch brand seem to be clear, “there are risks for the celebrity too: ‘what will this brand do with my image?’ – both sides need to be protected.”
But clearly a sense of authenticity rises to the top of importance. “The people we work with are genuinely interesting people, they have a real talent and get a lot of respect,” stresses Tracey Osbourne, the UK marketing director of Citizen – the company has worked with cricketer Kevin Pietersen for a decade and last year signed up the opera singer Katherine Jenkins to help provide a push on women’s watches. “But it’s a two-way street. It’s a partnership, though I wouldn’t say that any publicity is good publicity. There may be certain incidents that aren’t compatible with the brand, but they’d have to be quite extreme [to have an impact], and that’s invariably covered as part of the agreement. Besides, the celebrities working as ambassadors get that – they have managers and understand PR.”
Celebrities, in other words, think of themselves as brands in their own right, and are keen to monetise their name. Of course, in the watch world it doesn’t always work out – less because of some PR-hazardous peccadillo in the ambassador’s personal life, akin to Nike’s falling out with golfer Tiger Woods over his reported infidelities, so much as the ambassador not being quite as committed to the brand as the brand might hope. Most notoriously, Raymond Weil slapped Charlize Theron with a $20 million breach-ofcontract lawsuit when she was caught and photographed wearing a Dior
watch to an event rather than one of the Shine watches she was being paid $3 million to wear.
Perhaps this is why Roger Dubuis has decided to drop the use of celebrity faces (Gerald Butler has done some events work for the company) in favour of letting the watches speak for themselves. “Whatever ambassador you pick, it’s a big risk – and there are many examples of it going wrong,” suggests Dorothee Henrio, Roger Dubuis’ global marketing director. “The idea for us now is that Roger Dubuis, the brand, is the star, which works because our customer is probably very self-confident and doesn’t aspire to sports stars or Hollywood types, even if that might make sense for luxury products in general.”
Nor is Roger Dubuis alone. Patek Philippe and Tudor, for example, have avoided the use of ambassadors altogether. Davide Cerrato, Tudor’s creative director, said that he prefers to associate the brand with real people – using the watches out in the field, so to speak – than unreal ones using them out on the red carpet.
Hamilton gets round this another way: its main brand ambassador is already dead. It works with the Elvis Foundation – The King wore a Hamilton watch in ‘Blue Hawaii’ and on other occasions – to secure Presley as one face of the brand. CEO Sylvain Dolla argues, however, that Hamilton’s close work with the movie industry – partnering with costume designers for appearances in a staggering 400 films to date, most recently Interstellar – is arguably more memorable.
“We end up on the wrists of plenty of famous actors but in the context of a film,” he says. “Sure, traditional brand ambassadors still work – so many watch brands wouldn’t still use them if they didn’t. But the consumer today is much sharper. They’re ready to look into the authenticity of these relationships – they can read about it on-line. Consumers today don’t just buy a watch because some famous person is fronting it.”
THIS IS ONE REASON why, according to Rod Kohler, the managing director of London-based marketing agency Revolution, which works with Rolex on its sports sponsorship programmes, brand ambassadors can now be seen as working in two different ways. On the one hand there is the contract of perhaps two or three years with a specific short-term business objective – the launch of a new line of watches, for example – “in which the ambassador is really just part of a much broader marketing programme – the celebrity picks up a shit load of money, the brand gets the profile, both the brand and the celebrity then move on and that’s it,” as he explains. More successful, however, might be considered the much longer term relationship between watch brand and celebrity, especially with one who might be said to epitomise the values of the brand – a set-up which is, inevitably, harder to establish. For the watch industry, these figures need also to be highly aspirational – which limits the pool further.
“But you can be left with the feeling that what the brand has gone after doesn’t really reflect its heart and soul. That is the much harder thing to get.”
“The big difference to the way an ambassador works is whether they are perceived as being there to get paid or because they’re part of a brand family.”
“You get a brand chasing someone who’s big in their field right now and perhaps set to get really big – and of course any arrangement that comes as a result is going to give great media coverage,” says Kohler. “But you can be left with the feeling that what the brand has gone after doesn’t really reflect its heart and soul. That is the much harder thing to get.”
Montblanc’s Kock agrees: “Short-term arrangements are much more questionable. The big difference to the way an ambassador works is whether they are perceived as being there to get paid or because they’re part of a brand family. You need time to get beyond that reading that the relationship is superficial – that’s what really improves the sense of credibility.”
For similar reasons, Hamilton works with the stunt pilot Nicolai Ivanoff – despite being no household name – because it underpins the company’s history with aviation watches, and because he can offer hands-on advice regarding new product design. Similarly, Richard Mille, which counts among its ambassadors tennis star Raphael Nadal and actress Natalie Portman, found itself falling into establishing such relationships more by accident than design – and quite literally. The company worked with racing driver Felipe Massa as a means of testing its watches under extreme conditions of force and heat.
“But then we had this strange situation in which he had this enormous crash and people kept asking how the watch was – and it was fine,” recalls Richard Mille’s CEO Peter Harrison. “So what became important to us was that ambassadors actually wear their watch when they do what they do – Nadal wears his when playing tennis, for example, rather than some manager dashing out and putting it on his wrist at the end of each match. We really don’t want any ambassador relationship to be perceived as a gimmick, because that can be toxic. That said, a good ambassador is certainly a very cost effective way to get your message across, and I can only see the use of ambassadors in the watch industry growing.”
INDEED, AS ROD KOHLER at Revolution stresses, the fact is that brand ambassadors still work, and especially for companies – like many in the watch industry – within the luxury goods sector. “Of course consumers are very savvy now and know that brands and ambassadors are in a business arrangement, which perhaps makes it easier to be a bit cynical about them – and certainly it does get increasingly difficult for brands and their ambassadors to get good PR,” he notes. “But then people in marketing know celebrities are still very powerful, and especially in days of social media.”
And he isn’t kidding. One might, for example, think that, on first impressions at least, a watchmaker may have little in common with a sprinter. But, back in 2012 Philippe Tardivel, Hublot’s marketing director, was the man who masterminded the company’s business partnership with superstar athlete Usain Bolt. And this was despite Bolt being, as he admits himself, “never a watch fan”.
Yet, when one considers that sports people account for some 500 million likes on Facebook and 200 million Twitter followers – the single biggest share, in fact, of both platforms’ usage – it sounds like a golden promotional opportunity all the same.
Crucially, the relationship, while relatively young and far from exclusive, must feel like one of mutual commitment. Bolt has multiple deals with the likes of Visa, Virgin Media, Gatorade, Nissan and Puma, the latter of which alone is worth in excess of $9 million per annum. Bolt has, after all, presumably had his pick of watch brands to work with. “But celebrities get given stuff all the time of course, just because of who you are makes it look good,” says Bolt. “But someone told me that Jay Z once picked two watches in a store and then stood there, seeming to expect them to be free. They said he’d have to pay. And that’s the kind of level of product I want to work with – it says it all.”
And as for Hublot’s reasoning? “He’s the fastest man on the planet, the best in his category of sport, and so there seemed to be a strong symbolism there for us,” explains Tardivel – who has also established endorsement deals with many lesser known sportspeople who chime with more local markets, the likes of champions in alpine skiing and biathlon, for example. “We’re a niche company and don’t have many ambassadors and we like to think of Bolt as part of the family. But, of course, there’s a commercial relationship.” Unsurprisingly, he isn’t saying quite what that amounts to.