As Europe lives and breathes EURO 2008 and Switzerland prepares to welcome hordes of fans hoping to be dazzled by some fancy footwork, the prestige watch industry mingles with the hoi polloi.
In what seems to be a case of opposites attract, a handful of high-end brands have dared to associate themselves with football. Hublot, for example, has signed a contract with UEFA to become one of the official sponsors of EURO 2008. In a similar vein, Ebel (Movado group) has already signed exclusive partnerships with Arsenal and Bayern Munich, and has three more deals with European clubs in the pipeline. The brand has cemented these partnerships with a chronograph movement, specially designed for football fans and part of Ebel’s efforts to attract more men to the brand.
JeanRichard (Sowind group) has also been swept off its feet by football and has followed up its contract with Juventus with a Bressel Classic Chronograph. Meanwhile, Paul Picot has dedicated its Technograph FC Internazionale to Inter Milan.
The watch sector has always looked to elite sports such as tennis, sailing or golf, and that high-end brands should seek out partnerships with football flies in the face of this tradition. As unthinkable, some may say, as Beauty falling in love with the Beast. What could exclusive watchmaking possibly have in common with football and its connotations of mass appeal?
An image is made
Football as we know it today originated in the nineteenth century on the playing fields of England’s public schools. By the next century its popularity had grown out of all proportion. Football was the game everyone played, for fun or in leagues, in the playground or with a club. For the authors of Le football dans nos sociétés : une culture populaire 1914-1918*, “the neo-urban populations that industrial society has produced learn integration and sociability on the pitch.”
However, this mass popularity has also cast a negative light on football and drawn scathing comments from many writers and academics. In Marxist and post-Marxist thinking, football is even singled out as a new form of opium for the people. The sociologist Alain Ehrenberg would later write, “this theatre of equality is a populist version of sport.” For the anthropologist Marc Augé, “football is a Proustian grace for the masses.”
The advent of almost uncontrollable hooliganism in the 1970s, followed by the Heysel stadium disaster in 1985, relegated football to the lowliest ranks of popular culture. A sport for the dregs of society; culture for the uncultured come to worship mercenaries in studded boots. Hardly an image likely to appeal to luxury brands.
A new brand of football emerges
Or is it? At a time when brands are vying to sponsor prestigious sports, and even have to share the limelight at some high-profile events, football, which is still virgin territory for luxury, offers visibility that brands could find hard to resist.
The watch companies that have ventured fearless into football refer to a new breed of game, a million miles from the “beer and chav” image more commonly associated with it. “Clubs now have VIP areas. Their image has radically changed,” explains Armelle Colangelo who is in charge of public relations at Ebel. “Look at the FC Bayern Munich stadium: it was designed by Herzog & de Meuron.”
Pierre-Frédéric Von Kaenel, marketing manager at Paul Picot, even refers to the values that the icons of luxury share with football. “Some clubs are over a hundred years old, and values of history, performance, and technique, of emotion, passion and tradition are exactly the ones we wish to convey.”
Jean-Claude Biver, CEO of Hublot, goes further still in his condemnation of a narrow-minded school of thought. “The big watch brands can be very conservative. They stay focused on traditional sports and have yet to realise that football has completely changed over the past ten years. They are missing out on the huge opportunity this new trend brings.” When explaining his brand’s alliance with football, Jean-Claude Biver refers to the game’s new “vertical” popularity spanning every social class including, therefore, the very audience luxury watch brands are hoping to seduce.
A risky strategy
The fact remains that while these brands may see themselves as setting a new trend, convinced that other luxury firms will soon follow suit, their enthusiasm isn’t shared by all. Stefan Haensel, sales manager for Switzerland for the UEFA-EURO 2008 at IMG, is puzzled by this choice: “Of course it’s a huge event. But to associate luxury with a mass sport is a risky strategy. I’m not entirely sure that the spirit of football is really suited to watch brands.”
Will luxury companies, coveted by all but inaccessible to most, pull off this tricky balancing act? Will their association with such a popular sport tarnish the exclusivity that surrounds their brand? Only time will tell. One thing is for sure though: very few high-end watch brands have been willing to take the gamble. Clearly luxury is still reluctant to pucker up for football.
*Le football dans nos sociétés : une culture populaire 1914-1918, Stéphane Mourlane, Yvan Gastaut, Claude Boli, Olivier Chovaux.