In the watch world, the road to market for a new brand is familiar and well-trodden.
Create a catchy name and an engaging story behind it, design some beautiful watches around this theme, source the best possible manufacturing facility for your particular needs and then market the bejesus out of the product to get it into retailers and, ultimately, onto the wrists of the general public.
Of course, this by no means guarantees success, but the basic blueprint has worked for innumerable brands in the past and will continue to do so for years to come.
Dartmouth Brands is a watch company that is not set the follow in the exact footsteps of its predecessors. Its parent company, Hong Kong-based Solar Time, has its own manufacturing, assembly and sourcing facilities in China, and so, as it turns its attention to the UK watch market, it does so with an impressive arsenal at its disposal.
Jim Clawley, Dartmouth Brand’s UK sale director, has been tasked with introducing the company’s portfolio of brands to UK retailers and consumers, one by one. Top of the agenda for Clawley is its aviation brand – the aptly named Avi-8.
“Avi-8’s our main focus this year. There’s a chronological order in which we want to launch into retail, so the next focus [after Avi-8] retail-wise for us is James McCabe; I’ve no doubt you’ll see that in due course,” Clawley forecasts.
Launching into retail is quite a broad aim though. How does Clawley see Avi-8 and subsequently Dartmouth Brands’ other names rolling out into retail and by what criteria will he judge success?
“My thing this year with Dartmouth and Huw Meyrick, who’s the ops director, is that we really want to play the long game with Avi-8, because it has got legs. We want to be in the market in multi channel retail but in years to come,” envisages Clawley, who wants to emulate the success of more established brands.
“There are brands there that you see – Rotary, Citizen, Accurist – that built their brands on reputation by being there over a period of time.. A brand can be made or broken within the first six years of its inception. It’s quite rare, particularly in an unforgiving financial climate right now, that you get a second chance if you launch it wrong.” No pressure then, Jim.
As well as warning against potential pitfalls, Clawley also looks ahead with optimism at the plan he has that he believes will result in a lot of things going right.
“We’d rather partner with the right independent retailers, department stores, multi-channel retailers from the word go and build with them,” he explains. “We’re not trying to get everywhere; we’re looking at independent retailers with a target of a multiple retail jeweller this year and potentially a department store.”
This first-year programme of activity is sensible and realistic without being unambitious. If Avi-8 ends up ticking all the boxes that Clawley mentions, then it will be looking back on an impressive 12 months this time next year.
The subject of online watch retail is also important to Dartmouth Brands, which knows that this is a channel that is preferred by new brands who want to make a fast buck.
“We’re tidying up our online presence; online retail is fantastic and it’s here to stay, but you have to partner up with the right retailers because if you over-saturate the brand it all comes crashing down quite quickly,” Clawley warns. This ties in with his refreshing views on bricks and mortar retail, which clearly has a place in his heart.
“High street retail is still there,” he asserts. “I honestly believe that it will make a comeback because I think people still like that service element of retail, and there are some good retailers out there – Fraser Hart, Beaverbrooks – they do it very well and they always get awards for service.
“So I think it’s important to be seen in those retailers because people are still out on the high street. Not everyone is at home tapping on their computers, so the right doors that we’re seen in still creates an impact. All good brands in the last 10 to 15 years – and Fossil did this superbly well – almost subliminally put the brand in your mind and you go: ‘I’ve seen that brand, I really like that product,’ and the pieces almost become iconic within the collection. That’s what we’re trying to achieve across the board now.”
“So we are looking at multi channels but we really want them to be the right doors for us and if it means that turnover isn’t quite as high in year one then so be it. We want to do it knowing that the partners that we have want to look after the brand like we intend to look after them.”
This again reiterates the company’s mantra of long-termism, even when it’s potentially at the expense of maximising first-year sales. This an all-too-rare trait among horological newcomers, who have a tendency to be blinded by dollar signs when trying to get their brand off the ground.
As impressive as Dartmouth Brand’s multi-channel strategy appears on the surface, it will count for nothing if the product that is being offered to retailers simply doesn’t cut the mustard. When questioned about this, Clawley is again effusive in his praise of what the Avi-8 brand offers.
“With us [Dartmouth Brands] being owned by the manufacturer, the specification of the product at the price we go out at is actually very compelling. You can buy a full stainless steel chronograph at around £149.99 – that’s actually pretty good if you look at what’s going out in the market. Since the recession in 2008, end customers and actual retailers as well are really particular about quality. The product’s got to last because people don’t want to be buying two or three times. Consumers will spend that little bit extra to get that better quality and I think we have that.”
Clawley readily admits that Avi-8 (a brand he jointly created with Dartmouth Brand’s director Vishal Tolani) takes inspiration from a lot of the more established aviation brands in the market. He knew that there is huge demand for premium watches in this sector, but identified an opportunity to bring this style to the masses at a lower price point.
“We wanted to do something that was inspired by famous aviation brands,” Clawley recounts. “People love those brands, but they can never really get them in the £149 – 299 price bracket that has any quality or inspirational element to them. So they revert to buying cheap copies of those brands in Spain instead.
“We always knew there was a market there for the aviation watch but it was about making a good aviation watch. So if you look at Avi-8 ‘generation one’ through to now, the level of design and quality growth is huge. That’s one thing that Vishal [Tolani] is very adamant on – it’s got to keep improving.”
With a design of watch that’s inspired by established brands, it is thanks to the nature of Dartmouth Brand’s business model – namely being owned by its manufacturer – that it can produce its timepieces at a price that satisfies Clawley’s desire to fit into the £149 – 299 price segment and undercut almost all its competitors that make aviation watches to a similar specification. Clawley elaborates in more detail on some of the other key benefits of having the manufacturer being part of the parent company:
“There’s less middle men,” he states. “Generally when you see a brand, unless they have a subsidiary (we’re talking about the big brands), there’ll be a middle man and then another middle man, so it’s just adding on margin each time. A lot of distributors nowadays don’t want to make a ton of margin but the less people involved from A to B, the better value we can then present to the end consumer.
“It’s quite a significant saving and when I go back to specification and price, consumers are very savvy now and have been for last eight to nine years. The cost of living generally has gone through the roof, so any item that’s perceived as a luxury good or a considered purchase, people really do their homework and, because the internet’s there, they can educate themselves on what X and Y costs. The fact that we’re owned by the manufacturer and are a subsidiary of the manufacturer means that there’s less fat in the middle.”
Despite painting a very rosy picture of the benefits of Dartmouth Brands being a wholly owned subsidiary of Solar Time, he is quick to caution against taking success for granted based on the greater margins argument alone.
“It means nothing unless we back it up with good after-sales and good deliveries, so that as well is critical and it’s really important that Huw Meyrick, myself and the London team nail the service with 99 – 100% on-time deliveries.”
Such is the meticulous nature of Clawley’s and Dartmouth Brands’ planning for the roll-out of their brands in the UK market, it’s hard to see how they will not make make a huge success of things, starting with Avi-8. This is not a view shared by Clawley, who still sees there being significant hurdles to negotiate before the good times start rolling.
“The biggest challenge you always get from a retailer is the element of risk. They’ve got tight budgets, they’ve got tight purse strings,” he muses. “You get brands that have been in the market for 20, 30, 40 years and with that element there brings security for them [retailers]. So you have to prove that your brand deserves a spot in their window or deserves a place on their website or deserves a place in their catalogue. Plus there’s a lot of competition in the market, which is a challenge in itself.
“I always think that once we’re in front of the customers and they see the physical product and the design that goes behind it, the general impact has been that this is something different to what is currently on the market. I’m 100% convinced we’ve got a different story, a different proposition to anything that fits in that £149 – 299 price bracket,” Clawley concludes.
Dartmouth Brands has indisputably got a number of things working in its favour as it ramps up its activity in the UK watch market. The size and scale of its parent company allows it to create brands that are manufactured to a specification that belies their price points, while the team it’s assembled over here (including taking on the impressive Ian Broad as a sales agent) has experience and horological nous in abundance.
With aviation brand Avi-8 the first piece of the jigsaw, take-off is seemingly imminent.