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.

Plaza Watch International - - Contents - WORDS: JOSH SIMS

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.

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