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ASK ARIEL: How much do watch brands really know about their customers?

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In this series of guest columns, Ariel Adams, owner and editor-in-chief for aBlogtoWatch, answers questions on behalf of WatchPro readers. Click here to Ask Ariel anything you like!

Ariel replies: These days, a number of watchmaking companies seem to be trending the statement of “we listen to our customers” when it comes to how they develop new products.

The message is that they monitor the sentiments of their purported customers (on social media) and then produce products they feel some of their fans have been asking for. The approach can yield sales success, even if it is far from scientific. It also begs the question, in today’s “highly informed age,” how much do watch brands actually know about their customers?

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What for example, does asking a person on social media what dial to produce on an upcoming model actually tell you about that person aside from a mere matter of taste? Social media can help brands evaluate the effectiveness of designs, but I would argue (beyond an exhaustive exercise in data mining) product polling a siloed fan base doesn’t actually inform brands too much about who is buying their products.

For almost a decade now the number one source (and query) watch brands have mentioned to me as to where they get customer demographic information are exit polls made after someone makes a purchase directly or in a store. Sales people are directed to ask questions such as (this is actually the most popular question) “where did you learn about this watch?”

Assuming that customer is a person who is into watches it might proving alarmingly challenging to actually recall where you first learned about a product. The sales person’s assumption might be that the consumer saw it in a magazine and then ran over to a store to purchase it.

The reality is far from that. Most regular timepiece consumers probably don’t recall where they first learned about a wrist watch they just purchased because of the large volume of watch media they consume.

Consumers usually carefully consider watch purchases after looking at the piece on people’s wrists, trusting or knowing the brand, reading reviews, and comparing that model against other potential purposes.

Going back to the retail purchase example in question; that consumer wants to get out of the store ASAP, and that retailer’s misguided question is actually trying to determine (all in one sentence) where a consumer first learned about the brand, first noticed the model, and then what eventually convinced them to get it.

The data I’ve seen collected from these types of “why did you buy this watch” surveys are unsurprisingly limited in their responses and ability to gleam deep insight. And yet brands put enormous stock into these responses since they have almost no other data to go on.

Watch brands often purchase analyzed data from consumer research firms that purport to tell them about consumer groups the brand believes (I will return to this point below) they are selling to. I’ve yet to hear a brand exclaim that these reports taught them much.

Usually the feedback I get is that such reports merely (and apparently unsatisfyingly) confirm what people in marketing and sales positions “already know about consumers.” In other words, the data seems to be more or less stating the obvious without delivering any additional wisdom or guidance. The good news for data analysis providers is that corporate managers rarely scold team members for purchasing this type of “metric-tainment.” Plenty of reports of dubious value will continue to be created each year siphoning off needed marketing budgets.

Some purchased advice is useful. No doubt there are some very accurate consumer demographic studies out there, which if studied by watch brands can teach them valuable insights about customers of all types.

The problem is that watch brands often fall into an ego-fueled traps where they study the demographic of a consumer they would like to think they are selling to, not always who they actually are selling to. Perhaps the biggest fallacy of information in the watch industry that I’ve seen is that watch brands have a huge gap of knowledge between the personal relationships they have with some collectors and the vague understanding at a distance of a consumer group which purchases their watches through various different channels.

It goes without saying that watch brands would very much like to know more about their consumers – and today many of them are building the tools to do just that. The push to sell direct to consumers has allowed many watch brands to develop much closer relationships with their customers by collecting their personal information. With that said, aside from rare circumstances, I don’t see brands these days making effective use out of these newfound relationships with consumers to really get to know them.

Much of the time, consumer data is put into automated systems which send marketing e-mails and once in a while catalogs in the mail. While customers appreciation events do happen from time to time, many would rightfully argue that there are still a lot of missed opportunities for watch brands to get to know their consumers in any serious way. Here is what is at stake in my opinion.

Watch brands are selling an ownership experience with consumers, and much of that experience is how wearing or seeing the watch makes a consumer feel. Certain brands like Rolex are fortunate because their marketing investments have allowed consumers to have visual relationships with the Rolex name for much of their lives. Other brands have iconic designs which are popular enough in mainstream culture for consumers to learn about the designs prior to learning about the brand. All other brands need to reach out to consumers and then court them. This isn’t possible if the brand doesn’t know who their consumers are or where they hang out.

Major evidence I rely on that brands do not really know the mindset or preferences of their end-consumers can be seen as a function of at least two decades of ineffective marketing content creation. Even when watch brands were spending serious money on advertising a few years ago, the marketing content they created was communicatively anemic. What looks to be creative laziness on their behalf is probably just a deep misunderstanding of who they are actually talking to. Brands who know their consumers have more relatable, specific conversations with them. Brands with murky understandings about who they sell to end up of speaking vaguely to no one in particular. This fact can be seen in countless marketing copy and messages which seem to have no discernable human target but one lovely picture of a timepiece.

In my opinion watch brands today will end up selling more watches by acknowledging that some people will like their brand and others will not. Getting to know your customer is also an admittance of who actually likes you, and who isn’t really interested. My gut instinct tells me that a lot of brand managers are too closely connected with the creative process to really want to risk learning facts which contradict the personal opinion they formed of their brand. This type of insular mindset in luxury is common enough that suggesting it could be a major cause behind poor demographic understanding is at least plausible.

The best way to get to know your consumer is to merely ask them. Better yet, also talk to people who don’t like your brand to learn even more. Direct response questions to consumers, that fairly give them something in return (brand swag is nice), are probably the most effective way to get high-quality data. Questions to made to consumers should be fair and transparent in their motives. Consumers will gladly offer authentic feedback if asked and treated politely. If they feel disrespected, consumers can simply tell lies as a result because they want to punish brands with bad data if they feel their time has not been valued. This behavior is very common, and in general brand marketing managers need to think more like the consumers themselves when trying to answer big questions about what consumer response data means.

If knowledge is power, then the mixture of good and bad data available to watch brands has put many of them in a weak or at least vulnerable position. Watch brands should be continuously investing in understanding not only the people they would like to be selling to, but the people who they actually are selling to. Guessing about a consumer’s preferences or behavior often leads to embarrassing mistakes, and there is no replacement for a direct experience with a consumer.

Finally, knowing about one’s consumers is perhaps the most direct way to producing products they want to buy. This is a different notion than asking a group of people what they believe they want to buy. Knowing a consumer well allows a creative watch maker to design something new which appeals to a demographic. Consumers on the other hand are limited by what they know. Ask them what they want and they will reach from their memory of available choices. Just because something is familiar doesn’t mean someone wants to buy it. Stun someone by showing them something new that they didn’t know they wanted until they say it, and you’ve produced exactly what today’s traditional watch industry is celebrated for at its best.

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Ariel Adams

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