The successes of F1 have sparked a flurry of interest in smaller racing events that is allowing a whole host of watch brands to get involved in the motorsports circuit. Revv into WatchPro’s special report dedicated to the world of supercars and the watch brands that support them.
Fast cars and watches have been intrinsically linked since the birth of motorsports and it is a partnership that continues to dominate the watch market today, with brands battling it out with chequebooks to make sure that their logos are plastered to the sides of the fastest cars controlled by the best drivers, who are, of course, spotted wearing their timepieces off the track.
The links between motorsports and watches are obvious; in races that can be won or lost down to a 1/1,000th of a second, accurate timing is everything and every watch brand worth its salt wants to gain a reputation for accurate time. And fast cars are sexy.
While these branding messages are perfectly aligned, the other defining factor is audience size. The daddy of motorsports, the F1, attracts a global audience of somewhere in the region of 50 million spectators, according to 2010 figures, the majority of who tune in to watch the sport on television.
Last year Formula 1 cashed in US$450 million (£286.8m) in television rights, allowing broadcasters around the world to stream the races live. Marry the two figures we’ve just spewed out and you’ll work it out to mean that Formula 1 gets a rough sum of about £5 per viewer.
This might seem like a pretty healthy return, but it is miniscule in comparison to what the Formula 1 sponsorship machine brings in. According to Formula Money magazine the motorsports organisation pulled in US$887 million (£565.2m) of sponsorship deals in 2011.
Brand images replaced national colours on F1 cars in 1960 when the rising cost of competing in top-level motorsports made pushing sponsors into the limelight, in order to keep them sweet, a necessary action. Now cars packed with multiple logos whizz past miles of branded billboards.
And it would seem that these pricey partnerships do actually pay off. Retail analyst GfK has found that UK sales trends for the sector of the watch market involved in motorsports are positive.
Pulling together stats for the top 21 watch brands operating in the UK that use motorsports partnerships to promote watches, it estimates that those brands* registered a combined uplift of 6.09% in UK sales volumes and 8.97% in value to £434 million during the period from July 2011 to June 2012 compared with the comparative period from a year earlier.
“Not all brands grew year on year but as a combined entity there was overall success,” adds GfK watches and jewellery global product manager Jonathan Hedges.
For the past 25 years TAG Heuer has had a close relationship with the F1 through its sponsorship with Vodaphone McLaren Mercedes, but its associations with motorsports go deeper into the history books. The brand first began to align itself with motorsports at the very dawn of the sport, pioneering dashboard chronographs right back in 1911, and its love of motorsports has continued to define it ever since.
In 1962 TAG Heuer signed up its first Grand Prix ambassador, Swiss driver Jo Siffert who was a close friend of founder Jack Heuer. This was more than a milestone for the brand, it was a turning point for the watch industry as this deal represented the first of its kind struck between a watch brand and an F1 driver.
It also turned out to be the first step towards one of the most iconic images of horology-motorsports history, one that would go on to influence the watch house for decades to come, as it was Siffert who was instrumental in brokering the partnership between TAG Heuer and its actor ambassador, and racing fanatic, Steve McQueen.
The American actor was starring in the 1970 film Le Mans at the time, for which he drove Siffert’s Porsche 917K and wore the driver’s complete driving suit, one that was emblazoned with a red Chronograph Heuer logo. He also had strapped to his wrist a blue Heuer Monaco chronograph.
Legend has it that before the iconic shots were taken, McQueen was given his pick of watches to choose from and he personally selected the square-faced timepiece, which at the time was a fairly revolutionary design.
TAG Heuer has been building on this moment ever since with new product launches dedicated to the star and his Heuer watch of choice. This year the brand has unveiled the Monaco Twenty-Four Calibre 36 Chronograph, a super-charged and super-tough interpretation of the 1970 model that has been constructed with a tubular design and extreme shock-protected components that are directly inspired by F1 racecar technology.
The brand’s obsession with racing car drivers also deepened and in recent years TAG Heuer has added speed stars such as Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton to its prestigious ambassador roll call.
But TAG Heuer is not the only brand to buy into the pricey game that is F1 sponsorship. TW Steel is another. While the brand has been building links with the music world of late through its collaboration with singer Kelly Rowland, the brand’s first love is motorsports and it is the official timing partner of the F1 Lotus team.
It has also teamed up with stars of the track, with four of its six brand ambassadors hailing from the world of motorsports: Scottish Formula 1 driver David Coulthard, Scottish IndyCar Series driver Dario Franchitti, Australian Grand Prix motorcyclist Mick Doohan and Emerson Fittipaldi, who was the first Brazillian driver to win an F1 Grand Prix back in 1970.
TW Steel has created numerous special editions dedicated to motorsports, many of which it works with its ambassadors to design. It also works closely with its retailer network and in the past it has taken some of these ambassadors to stores to promote the ranges, such as last year when Coulthard visited Glasgow retailer ROX along with a Lotus supercar in tow and Doohan dropped into Isle of Man retailer Wiklins Jewellers to promote the TW Steel TECH collection.
Casio has also enjoyed phenomenal success through its backing of the rapidly ascending Red Bull Racing team, and celebrated back in June when its sponsored driver Mark Webber stole to vistory in the Monaco Grand Prix.
While F1 might grab the headlines, there is a wealth of other motorsports events out there and watch brands are sending scouts trackside to sniff out the talent on the rise in the hope of taking a journey to the top with them.
In April Bulova announced that it had signed relatively unknown British GT racing driver David McDonald as an ambassador and Bulova marketing manager Liam McAllister says that picking someone on the rise was a conscious decision. “We thought it would be an interesting partnership as he is an up-and-coming racer,” he explains. “He is somebody that can grow along with the brand.”
McAllister reveals that as well as a nice fit for Bulova’s Precisionist range, which measures time to the 1/1,000th of a second required for motorsports timing, it is also a way to root the US brand to local events in the UK and tap into a younger demographic.
“We are not trying to get away from our American heritage as that is paramount to the brand but we wanted to get involved with people on a local basis,” he says. “In terms of who we are trying to reach, our core audience is ABC1s aged between 20 and 50 but the audience for this is younger than we would be used to. Bulova is well known to anybody over the age of 40 as it was heavily around at that time, but by getting hold of these younger consumers we can revitalise the brand.”
McAllister believes that events like the British GT are enjoying strong interest at the moment off the back of the heady successes of the F1 teams, opening up the way for worthwhile sponsorships at these levels.
Torgoen is another watch brand latching on to a young, rising star of the motor world. In May it signed a deal with 16-year-old Ginetta Junior driver Sennan Fielding. The signing of Fielding was a strengthening of the brand’s links with motorsports as it already works with BTCC Champion Matt Neal and runner-up Gordon Shedden.
Pete Carmichael, the business development director at Torgoen’s UK distributor Since 1853, believes that motorsports is a key marketing route for the brand and will help it to build a reputation in the marketplace. “Torgoen Swiss has built strong links in motorsport over the past 12 months and we are looking to expand on these foundations as we continue to grow as a brand in the UK,” he says. “The precision and quality which are so synonymous with motorsport and the drivers who compete are a perfect fit with the Torgoen Swiss brand.”
British watch brand IWI put its backing behind brand ambassador James Walker when he competed at the Le Mans 24 Hours tournament, a race that does what it says on the tin – it runs for 24 hours – and also attracts sponsorship deals from a variety of other watch brands including Edox, Alpina and Richard Mille. The race is considered one of the toughest challenges for racing car drivers and to mark the occasion IWI designed a helmet for Walker to wear during the race that, in addition to the IWI logo, had a mock watch face on the side, a perfect PR spot.
But while motorsports undoubtedly has a giant audience and a perfect marketing story, and GfK says sales of brands involved are up in the UK, how interested in watches are fans of fast cars? Very, according to Top Gear magazine, which believes in that so strongly it is launching a watch special, the Top Gear Guide to Watches, in November headed up by renowned horology journalist Ken Kessler and Top Gear presenter James May.
In preparation for this new launch the magazine carried out some key research that shows that 208,000 of its 1.7 million readers already own a Rolex, 500,000 have bought a new watch in the past 12 months and 240,000 say that they would happily part with upwards of £1,000 for a new watch.
Despite a controversial year for motorsport’s poster races – the F1 is reported to have lost up to a million TV viewers in the UK this year after a deal was brokered to move the live coverage of the racing from the BBC to paid-for channel Sky One with the BBC restricted to highlights – fervour for motorsports is not waning, and it would seem that the long-held correlation between timekeepers and time beaters is set to continue.
This article was taken from the August 2012 issue of WatchPro magazine, out now. To view a digital version of the magazine click here.