Passion for watches is like lust for your partner. Sometimes it spikes, most of the time it is a low level warm desire. Unlike your love life, it takes a little more than a coquettish glance to arouse demand for a five-figure timepiece. In fact, the fear of missing out on a rare reference or limited edition is a more powerful sales technique, and one that most brands have turned to over the past few years. Robin Swithinbank believes that a mixture of positive marketing hype and fear of missing out is an irresistible combination that the best brands are executing with increasing confidence.
Back in November, as a second wave of the global covid pandemic swept Europe, Panerai announced a new watch. In the metal, there was nothing exceptional about it. A Luminor, with a titanium case and detailing plucked from the brand’s America’s Cup partner Luna Rossa, it was every inch a Panerai.
But behind the watch, there was a story. The 20 limited-edition pieces would only be available through Panerai’s website. And only for 24 hours.
Even a year before, such a move would have been unthinkable, particularly from a Richemont brand.
In the considered world of luxury watchmaking, smash-and-grab retail gets short shrift.
Or at least, it did.
The finest watches come to those who wait, was always the unspoken adage, while the industry takes – somewhat unseemly – pride in boasting about waiting lists that can run to years, decades say some, for the most sought-after models.
Times have changed though, so that with production capacity shrunk by the pandemic and bricks and mortar outlets shuttered for long periods, luxury watchmakers are having to resort to a tactic more common to streetwear brands – that of building hype.
Hype is a loaded word, dangerous even. Don’t believe your own, is a common mantra in brand and celebrity culture, and it can be superficial. American novelist Brandi L. Bates said: ‘Quality sells itself. No hype needed.’ But increasingly, that no longer holds true.
In our age of influence, hype is the adrenaline shot even quality needs. The Indian-American neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran had it better: ‘The fact that hype exists doesn’t prove that something is not important.’
During the pandemic, hype has oxygenated the watch industry. Think back, and the launches that stick in the mind were all delivered with the tease-and-reveal schedule once reserved for a new pair of Dinks.
Each was launched (virtually) in the presence of the respective brands’ chief executives, and, in the case of the Laureato, with the backing of retail powerhouses Harrods and Dover Street Market.
Social media was awash with Laureato white ceramic and Aquaracer orange detailing for days. Hype, executed all but to perfection.
It continues. Breitling co-signing a dial with Australian motorcycle customisers Deus. Audemars Piguet muscling into the Marvel Universe. Zenith splashing a rainbow of colour onto its Defy 21 with artist Felipe Pantone. Hublot – no stranger to hype – limiting its Premier League connected watch to 200 pieces and showering the internet in approving glances from its ambassadors Jose Mourinho and Alan Shearer. Hype brands have seized the narrative, silencing the rest.
But is it here to stay? Almost certainly.
The industry was already speeding up pre-Covid, switching on to ecommerce and social platforms belatedly but effectively.
The joke was once that the watch industry makes progress like an advancing glacier (and still does in some quarters), but the digital gulf stream has blown through it like a hurricane.
Add in the pandemic, and for some brands eShops are now among their biggest ‘territories’, some saying the percentage of direct-to-consumer ecomm sales has marched into double figures.
Hype isn’t exactly new, mind. The industry is no stranger to flashy launches, limited editions and high-profile collaborations.
The shift though, is in frequency and intensity.
Hype watches that burn fast and bright raise the core temperature of a brand’s profile. The trick is keeping the mercury high.
Take Bamford again. Last month, the two businesses pushed a five-piece limited-edition Franck Muller in a collab with Daniel Arsham and superstar engraver King Nerd, a Franck Muller online customisation tool, and a second Popeye watch.
All on consecutive Mondays. Bamford, whose style won’t be to everyone’s taste, is fast becoming the watch industry’s King of Hype.
And in the here and now, that’s meant as a compliment.
Not for the first time, the watch industry would be wise to look to the fast-moving, highly competitive world of fashion for reassurance, where hype is core currency.
Capsule collections and ‘mega-drops’ for the faithful have transformed the industry’s profile and fired up a new generation of superbrand.
In 2017, Supreme collaborated with Louis Vuitton on a hoody that retailed for $935. According to some trackers, it’s now trading for more than $6,000. In November last year, Supreme was bought for $2.1bn by the American apparel group VF Corporation.
A pretty sum for a brand with only 12 stores worldwide. But then, hype.
The luxury watch industry can learn from this. It needs to.
And no more so than at the lower end of the market. With smartwatches vacuuming volumes of entry-level quartz and mechanical watches like matter through a black hole, hype can’t come quickly enough.
Some appear to be getting it; others less so.
The Japanese, always ahead of the curve in this regard, are on it.
G-Shock has been revving up the internet with pieces such as the so-called Casio Oak Galaxy, a limited-edition piece rainbow-ised by Instagram favourite the Dial Artist and sold through upstart webshop IFL Watches.
Seiko has done similar by embracing the resurgence of 90s culture and creating a line of watches inspired by characters from the Street Fighter gaming franchise.
The Swiss? The FHS’s figures detailing the disappearance of millions of watch exports in the sub-£1k category ought to be a shot across the bows, but brands in the segment appear reluctant to change course, instead sticking with tried-and-tested launch programmes (something vintage, and a contemporary sports chronograph).
While there’s no arguing the quality-to-value ratio offered by a Tissot, Hamilton or Certina, signs of giving consumers a reason to queue around the block, Apple Watch launch day-style, are few and far between.
Not that the incentive should be to embrace hype hook, line and sinker.
The challenge is just as much to avoid over-hyping brands and watches. Partly because the audience will tire of hearing the same brands behind the loud speaker, but also because in the urbane world of luxury Swiss watchmaking, there will always be something indelicate about encouraging collectors and enthusiasts to wait for opening time, however metaphorically.
Don’t make them beg.
Oris, historically not one to deal in hype, appeared aware of the jeopardy when discussing the impact of its Hölstein Edition 2020 recently.
It said it could have sold the 250 all-bronze pieces it made more than once, but has hinted that when it repeats the exercise this year it won’t extend the run.
Give the people what they want, but then where’s the hype in a watch anyone can have?
Thierry Stern’s much publicised decision to cancel the Nautilus Ref 5711 makes a similar acknowledgement, albeit the other way around.
If all the hype is around one watch no one can have, what chance the rest of your collection?
But still. Despite the pitfalls, well-managed hype is the much-needed fuel that could re-energise a pandemic-weakened industry.
As some brands are finding, now’s the time to embrace it. Panerai said its 24-hour watch sold out in minutes. Hype? Or just good business?