How To Move Forwards While Looking Backwards – Innovation In The Watch Industry Part.1

Breguet Tradition Hand-wound

Much like in the wild a company’s ability to survive and prosper in the business world depends largely on its ability to evolve and innovate. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a super-competitive industry like the luxury watch industry, where new brands continually come and go, sometimes in a matter of months. Yet, what makes the watch industry somewhat different from many others is the value its consumers place on a brand’s heritage.

Please note this article is also available in a slightly modified version in French. Please click here to read it.

The Ultimate Balancing Act
It would seem that companies need to be constantly moving forward whilst at the same time firmly anchored in the past, a balancing act not easily achieved but one that is nonetheless essential to the brand’s success. Whilst clients are almost certainly interested in and attracted to innovation, at the same time they also feel a deep sense of attachment to tradition, or even a sense of status quo established by some of the brand’s older models.

So how do these famous watch-making houses do the splits? How do they dedicate a part of their production to historic, illustrious models, which are often highly expensive and complicated, whilst at the same time maintaining strong investment in R&D to develop future projects? And furthermore, how do the myriad of young brands appearing on the scene attempt to compete within this complex environment?

This is the paradox of the watch-making industry. Discover new territories, but remain faithful to the culture of your origins. Respect the purest tradition, but embrace the latest techniques. In summary, one must be always looking to the future whilst at the same time remaining firmly connected to the past to ensure that the core identity of the brand is preserved.

Each brand has developed its own answer, but all share a common objective: complete customer satisfaction.

Straight To The Source
There have been countless examples of brands (none of which we wish to name here) who have lost their way, and as a result their identity, in their rush to embrace technology and as such paid the ultimate price for it. To find out how some of the best in the business avoid this tricky pitfall The Watch Lounge went to meet several great industry captains to better understand their strategy.

Mr. Jean-Claude Biver – CEO, Hublot

Jean-Claude Biver

It’s Thursday, 10 :00 AM and we are with Jean-Claude Biver, CEO of Hublot. A seasoned veteran of the industry, who has been at the helm of some of the best known watch brands in the world like Omega and Blancpain, Biver stepped in to take over the reins at Hublot in 2004. For a man that has enjoyed so much success in the industry there is no miracle recipe for staying visible and attractive.

“Each time it’s all about starting almost from a blank page. Of course, it’s necessary to take into consideration the DNA of the brand, but there is no one approach available here.”

Wise words indeed from a man who played an instrumental role in changing the fortunes of the mechanical watch industry after the fallout from the introduction of the quartz movement. Still if there is anything that has really changed the way companies think about growing and a protecting their brand in recent times then surely it would be the financial crisis that almost brought the industry to its knees? After all the impacts of this have been many, and in many instances have created opportunities for new players to step in.

“Yes, nowadays it’s far easier to be in this business! Now there are a lot of new brands, most of the markets are open, and it has become very easy to enter the game.”

But more brands means more competition, so we find ourselves back where we started: how does a brand stand out without losing its identity?

First, for me, being present right there next to my team on the playground is essential. A football captain doesn’t follow the match of his team from the terrace. Real luxury is all about proximity. I travel at least once per month in the US, in Japan or in China, and will continue to do so as long as my health will let me!”

So there you have it, a strong presence on the ground both with the team and with your clients is critical to your success. And let’s not forget one of Mr Biver’s other exceptional talents; self promotion.

Jean-Claude Biver

Known for his philanthropic activities we recently saw him, through Hublot, actively showing his commitment to the African Wildlife Foundation, complete with a supermodel ambassador on his arm (the beautiful Veronica Varekova no less). The cynics amongst us might be tempted to ask if this is just another marketing tactic designed to exploit this highly visible cause to help sell more watches. In other words, is this simply another way to create some hype and positive sentiment towards the brand?

On the contrary.

The genuine passion and excitement in Mr. Biver’s voice is obvious as he explains his logic:

This century will be either dedicated to sharing or it won’t be. I don’t understand brands that don’t have a philanthropic involvement. Sharing, for a luxury brand, is vital!”

Certainly no arguments here but surely the driving force behind this “sharing” is the promotional exposure it provides to the brand?

“No, I do it because it corresponds with my personal sensitivity, and to that of my clients. Besides, most of the well-known brands have a philanthropic action. Whether they choose to expose it or not is not my business. As far as we are concerned, it’s consistent with the DNA of our brand, with my personal convictions, and with the philosophy of our clients. I can’t imagine going in the opposite way!”

The Final Word
What more can be said? Regardless of your sentiments in relation to the above, it cannot be denied that Hublot is staying true to its identity as defined by Mr. Biver and by extension, its clients, and as a result the company is prospering.

Whilst they are arguably one of the most innovative brands in the industry today when it comes to the use of materials and the promotion of their products, they have also remained faithful to their original modus operandi, especially during a time when many other brands would have been tempted to divert philanthropic funds elsewhere to combat the effects of the market crisis.

Make sure you join us for Part.2 of this multiple-part special when we explore the exceptional watch-making journey of Montblanc and take a detailed look at where the magic really happens; the Minerva Institute for High Horology Research.

Olivier Muller
Olivier Muller is half Swiss, half French, and has been raised in the world of haute horlogerie & luxury watches right from the cradle. He now works in Public Relations in Paris.


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