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There’s no accounting for taste?

There’s no accounting for taste?

Friday, 19 September 2008
By Louis Nardin
Editor Image
Louis Nardin
Journalist and consultant

“Audacity, more audacity, always audacity.”

Georges Jacques Danton

“A quality watch is a concentration of creativity, rare technical and scientific skills, and age-old gestures. It appeals to the desire for uniqueness and distinction; it is a badge of knowledge, power and taste. A watch has many stories to tell; the details and secrets provide the relish”.

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5 min read

Even in today’s globalised world, no two markets are the same. Europeans are said to make conservative choices while the Chinese buy with their eyes closed. As for the Italians, they are in a league of their own. Brands’ answer to this plurality is to propose powerful, identifiable collections.

Do brands adapt their models to suit their markets? A brief survey tells us, no. Instead, brands concentrate on developing powerful, coherent collections that capture their identity. This is, they say, the only means of survival in a globalised marketplace. Which models distributors and retailers then choose is more of a giveaway of a particular region’s tastes and preferences. And yet far from shutting themselves away in their ivory towers, brands have their finger squarely on the markets’ pulse to sometimes adapt certain models accordingly.

An international catalogue

Trying to paint a picture of a market would be a pointless and complex task, say the experts. At best, brands can refer to a kind of identikit portrait, to be taken with a pinch of salt. The Japanese, we are told, prefer small watches to match their slim wrists. The Russians chase after one-off creations, preferably dripping with precious stones. The Chinese, meanwhile, are “watch virgins.” The country’s nouveaux riches want to spend money but more often than not understand little about what they buy. Europeans, we are told, are well-versed in all things watchmaking and have classic tastes. Their desire to keep a low profile leads them to prefer platinum, which the uninitiated will take for steel, to the bling-bling of yellow gold. As for the Italians, they have a reputation for being totally unpredictable, except on one point: they love ostentatious designs… something they have in common with Middle Eastern buyers.

Until crisis struck the sector in the 1970s-80s, brands happily published separate catalogues for Europe, Asia and America. “Those were the days when we thought customers in Eastern markets preferred dials with hour markers rather than numerals,” an observer recalls. Today, brands produce a single brochure which they have translated into multiple languages. Indeed, as well as saving on logistics, brands have everything to gain from proposing the same products around the world.

We propose four collections, each of which has a highly recognisable design and style.
Michel Ferracani
Coherence and mobility

The first benefit is to project a coherent image. One of the battles brands must wage today is to defend a strong identity, a signal sent out to distinguish themselves from the competition. “We propose four collections, each of which has a highly recognisable design and style,” says Michel Ferracani, VP Marketing at Corum. “They are the pillars on which the brand rests. We can adapt certain aspects but within very strict limits, otherwise we risk betraying their essence.”

The second plus point is that by developing a global product offering, brands avoid sowing doubt in customers’ minds. “Globalisation means that watch buyers are more inclined to travel,” an expert explains. “There could be no worse scenario than a Chinese customer on holiday in London spotting a particular model he’s unable to find back home. Europe represents the cradle of watchmaking and he would feel snubbed knowing he was being denied certain products.”

Turning the tables

Rather than adapting to the markets, brands take the opposite tack and leave it to distributors and retailers to make their choice. “The current infatuation with watches has led customers to show an interest in brands, rather than the other way round,” observes Janeck Deleskiewicz, Artistic Director and Chief Designer at Jaeger-LeCoultre. “Not that we sit back and do nothing. We have to move with the times. Since 1995, for example, we have made dual time-zone models that correspond to a genuine consumer need.”

So does this mean brands turn a blind eye to markets’ specific traits? On the contrary. It’s simply a question of how they respond to them. “We develop our ranges in-house before listening to feedback from the markets,” Stéphane Linder, VP Design and Marketing at TAG Heuer, explains. “We then focus at the heart of each series to develop increasingly targeted products that are still true to the range. It’s a gradual process. We also use focus groups of typical buyers to fine-tune our analysis. We show them our products and rival products and take note of their remarks. Sometimes we take risks too in the hope of setting trends.”

The ace up their sleeve

For brands that want to stand out in a market without undermining their identity, there is a rabbit they can pull out of their hat: limited editions. Producing a certain number of watches in honour, for example, of a retailer or a club is one way for brands to focus attention for a certain time in a given region. Hublot is one example: it launched its Big Bang Yankee Victor earlier this year exclusively for private jet owners in Venezuela.

Hublot produced 100 of the Big Bang Yankee Victor watch for Venezuelan private jet owners © Hublot
Hublot produced 100 of the Big Bang Yankee Victor watch for Venezuelan private jet owners © Hublot

So is pinning down a market mission impossible? Observers are unanimous in answering, yes. “There are so many criteria to take into account, and they are extremely hard to define,” comments Janeck Deleskiewicz. “Also, tastes are constantly changing.” According to one designer, luck has a big say in whether or not a model is a success, be it in a single market or worldwide. So Europeans and Asians prefer mechanical movements while Arab customers tend more towards quartz… at least that’s what we’re told.

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