Independent watchmakers have struggled for decades because they were outgunned by the industrialized groups. But digital technologies have dramatically changed the way indies can market themselves.
It’s understandable that most established watch brands were not apt to go too much into digital until now. The online obviously can’t give the client the feel of the timepiece and the finish of the materials.
In the brick-and-mortar boutiques, on the other hand, each client can experience an exclusive person-to-person customer service – as luxurious, as the watches themselves. But what about selling the same watches online? Many luxury watch brands still haven’t figured out the way to sell their watches without looking a customer in the eye.
But it seems like a lot can change in a year. The effect of COVID has only supercharged the power of digital marketing, because with Baselworld and Watches & Wonders shows canceled and retail stores closed, collectors of high-end watches have turned to the internet to indulge in their hobby.
The COVID pandemic has pushed luxury watch brands online and even the heavyweights like Patek Philippe, Rolex and Audemars Piguet have started reconsidering their skepticism thanks to the potential advantages the e-commerce can bring, allowing manufacturers to increase their margins, get rid of middlemen and establish a closer contact with their customers via social media.
But while the established watchmakers are taking time to come around, they have already been left behind by new, innovative brands that stormed into the industry by taking advantage of latest technology.
Sales Concept Turned into Brand
Thomas Baillod was working as a watch marketing consultant when he had an epiphany. He formulated a novel business concept and tried to offer it to other brands but no one was interested, so he decided to establish his own watchmaking start-up with an unpronounceable name – BA1110D.
My aim is to launch spectacular watches at accessible prices. I want to prove that it’s possible to democratise fine watchmaking while making no concessions on quality[i] Thomas Baillod, the founder of the BA111OD
Baillod didn’t want to cater only to people swimming in money, so to win the mid-range market he started creating spectacular mechanical watches at a price people could afford. In 2021 Baillod released a “Swiss Made” tourbillon watch shockingly priced at CHF 5,000. How is this even possible, you might ask?
Bringing Swiss-Made Tourbillons to the Masses
There is no question of compromising the quality of the watches. Watches fully assembled in Switzerland, with parts sourced in China, enable BA1110D to claim the “Swiss Made” label. But production costs are just a fraction of the watch’s price, while almost two-thirds is absorbed by distribution and marketing costs. So the first thing he did was drastically cutting these costs. As a result, the newly-born watch brand has quickly reached a turnover of CHF 1 million. Not bad for a business that only launched in 2019 and have been growing in the midst of the COVID pandemic!
So what about that innovative business model? Baillod explains that his concept is about selling the right to purchase a watch, instead of selling a watch itself. In that regard he relies on his community of “afluendors” – an ambassador, influencer and vendor all in one package – with the power to influence more customers.
Anyone who buys a BA1110D watch can become an afluendor. The great thing about it is that afluendors are rewarded with tokens for selling BA1110D watches to others or taking part in marketing activities. Tokens can be exchanged for nice gifts or experiences like spending some time in a boutique hotel on Ibiza, for example.
All sales go directly through the website or through a clever community app, which tracks all transactions and encourages afluendors to promote and sell more BA1110D watches. Thus, the business model keeps marketing costs at a minimum, allowing Baillod to produce the most democratic Swiss-made tourbillon to date.
The Dead Brands Society
William Massena is not just your ordinary watch collector. He is a legendary figure in the industry. From working as a New York retailer, managing director of the TimeZone forum and chief operating officer in Antiqurum, he’s done it all. Finally, in late 2018 he launched his own design studio known as Massena LAB and started collaborating with independent watchmakers like MB&F, Ming and Habring.
Massena believes that brick-and-mortar format today works only for heavyweights like Rolex or Patek Philippe, while the small brands should pave their way to success through the internet.
Without the internet, it would have been impossible for me to do this. Ten years ago, you needed an office, you needed a showroom, you needed to go to Basel. Now I work out of my kitchen[ii] William Massena, the founder of Massena LAB
Massena LAB is basically a horological think tank, where Massena is exploring design ideas together with his friends and partners. Rather than following the traditional sales model, Massena acts like a producer of small indie movies. Partnering with indie brands (movie directors), he pitches ideas (movie scripts), finances each project, manages distribution, marketing and sales. If one his collabs doesn’t do well, it can kill the business, so he takes the risk with each new release.
With the booming market for vintage timepieces on one hand, and the skyrocketing prices and limited availability of Rolex, Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe on the other hand, the watch enthusiasts are showing an increasing interest in some long-forgotten makers, which Massena ironically calls the “dead brands society.”
As a seasoned industry veteran, Massena sensed a certain nostalgia among watch enthusiasts for the brands that don’t exist anymore. So he decided to focus on creating stunning and more importantly, accessible “homage” watches which recall certain elements of a particular vintage timepiece but in a completely new model.
One of the hottest examples Massena LAB brilliantly “resurrected” was a long-out-of-production, Uni-Compax “Big Eye” chronograph made by Universal Genève in the mid-1960s.
Partly owing to their popularity on Instagram, Massena LAB’s vintage-inspired models caught fire like a lesser stock on Nasdaq and generated a lot of hype. Since then, all his watches sell out in a matter of hours… or seconds!
For now, the challenge for watchmakers is to find synergy between traditional e-commerce platforms, brick-and-mortar boutiques, and new online environments to attract a generation of digitally savvy customers. Brands that continue to avoid the internet as a viable market will be struggling for relevancy in the future.
[i] Is the luxury watch market facing a democratic revolution? (2022, January 19). Retrieved from: https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/is-the-luxury-watch-market-facing-a-democratic-revolution-/47273652
[ii] How Independent Watch Companies Have Embraced the Internet (2021, June 18). Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/18/fashion/watches-independent-brands-online.html