As millions tuned in to watch Felix Baumgartner break the sound barrier, zenith was breaking its own record, and making one of the biggest watch marketing coups of our time.
As water cooler moments go, they don’t get much better than this. As Felix Baumgartner mentally and operationally prepared to jump 24.2 miles from the edge of space, 7.1 million people crowded round desks to watch it on YouTube.
As Baumgartner successfully smashed world records and broke the sound barrier – his velocity maxed out at 833.9 mph – so too did Zenith, with its El Primero Stratus Flyback Striking 10th becoming the first watch to “break the sound barrier in a near space environment”.
As a brand, Zenith sells itself on its ability to create watches that can survive in hostile conditions and various versions of the El Primero have been tested to their limits. Back in 1970 it strapped an El Primero to the landing gear of a Boeing 707 during a flight from Paris to New York. The conditions the timepiece had to endure were savage – dramatic changes in temperature and pressure as well as serious jolting – but not only did the watch survive, it maintained its regular cadence of 36,000 vibrations per hour and required no adjustment, having remained accurate to the nearest second, apart from the five hour shift required to bring it in line with its new timezone in New York.
At the time, this trial was extreme, but nowhere near as extreme as what the El Primero Stratus Flyback Striking 10th had to endure on October 14, strapped to the wrist of Baumgartner. When the Austrian daredevil made the jump from the edge of space it was described by some as our generation’s man on the moon moment; a seminal test of human endurance, an adventure to inspire a generation and certainly a record-breaking moment for the history books.
Zenith has aligned itself with many such pivotal moments in time, including explorer Roald Amundsen’s discovery of the North and South Poles, Mahatma Gandhi’s quest for India’s independence, the “laying of the foundations of ecology” by the Prince Albert I of Monaco, Louis Blériot’s Channel crossing, John F. Kennedy’s political action, explorer Colonel John Blashford-Snell in various endeavours, such as his latest expedition to Nepal, as well as Johan Ernst Nilsson in his daring Pole2Pole mission. So when Baumgartner made his intentions clear, it was a no-brainer that Zenith would sign up as sponsor for this incredible mission.
Zenith signed the deal to join main sponsor Red Bull – the mission came to be known as Red Bull Stratos – back in 2010. The partnership was formed after Zenith chief executive Jean-Frédéric Dufour, who joined the company a year earlier, was introduced to Baumgartner. At the time Dufour was searching for a new project that the watch brand could align itself with, something fresh and packed with pioneering spirit. Having become bored by the over-sponsored earth-bound events such as motorsports, sailing, flying and diving, he was instantly captivated by the fact that Baumgartner planned to take his pioneering spirit to the stratosphere.
“We have often been forerunners in unexplored domains and we have accompanied people on their most incredible projects,” says Dufour. “It is this ability to come up with new ideas, and then push through with new technical developments before anyone else that is most fascinating at Zenith. Our watches have participated in some of the grandest human adventures. Felix Baumgartner is made of the same stuff as these pioneers.”
With the sponsorship deal signed up – Zenith branding was prominent throughout the jump, on Baumgartner’s suit and equipment – the challenge was on to create a watch that was worthy to make the journey.
Zenith took 1990s timepiece the El Primero Rainbow Flyback as its model but adapted it by using lubricating oils specially chosen for the ability to withstand the extremely low temperatures that being 24.2 miles above the earth’s surface induces. It also replaced the sapphire caseback with a solid case with commemorative engraving and fitted it with a special nylon hook-and-loop strap to make it large enough to be strapped on top of Baumgartner’s pressurised space suit.
This specially modifed watch is one off, but an unadapted El Primero Stratus Flyback Striking 10th is a commercial model that is already out on the market, stocked by UK retailers including The Watch Gallery, Iconic Watches and Watches of Switzerland.
The retail price of the watch varies depending on the strap options; Watches of Switzerland is stocking the steel bracelet at £7,900 while The Watch Gallery is carrying the rubber-lined leather strap for £7,400. The watch is by no means cheap, but for the technology, and a now legendary story, it is not an unreasonable price.
When Dufour described his lack of interest in sponsorship of traditional sporting events, he had a valid point. Most are oversubscribed with watch brand logos, such as Formula One where each sponsor – with perhaps Red Bull as the exception – is a tiny dot in a larger blur of brand messages. But what Zenith has achieved with Baumgartner is a marketing triumph; clear sponsorship at a global event, a strong technical testing story and involvement in a modern-day adventure that captivated the imagination of consumers all over the world. Truly a stratospheric PR coup for an exciting brand.
This feature was taken from the November issue of WatchPro. To read the issue in full online, click here.