The Swiss watch industry’s four most powerful communicators
“Fusion!” As soon as Jean-Claude Biver said the word, he owned it
JEAN-CLAUDE BIVER — THE VOICE
It must have been akin to when those US Air Force scientists heard the sonic boom in the desert sky overhead that signaled Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier and achieving Mach 1 flight. It was the single definitive sound that heralded the end of one era and the beginning of the next. So it was in 2004 when we first heard the unmistakable voice that took that definitive word and transformed it, arming it with meaning and hurling it forward like a trumpet call signaling the arrival of Hannibal’s fighting hordes. It swept over us like a typhoon; like a deluge, reaching every depth of our imagination; like a whirlwind, it consumed us and lifted us upward into the inexorable blue heights above.
“Fusion!” As soon as Jean-Claude Biver said the word, he owned it. Because, let’s face it, while everyone knew what a Hublot watch looked like, up until the moment he said the word, no one wanted one. That all changed in the single instant when he announced his new vision, the moment he turned his head skywards and uttered a Viking war cry to shake the foundations of Valhalla. In truth, while the definition of “fusion” as the marriage between traditional watchmaking, and future aesthetics and materials, had actually been created by Richard Mille and Audemars Piguet, once Biver claimed the real estate of fusion, such was his communicative power that he became synonymous with it.
Says Concord’s new CEO Vincent Perriard of Biver, “His communicative and marketing abilities are totally unrivaled in the watch industry. He has the vision to see a place in the market that everyone is heading towards, but that no one has claimed, and he will make it his. He will define it. You know, amongst friends, we sometimes play this game — we look at the brands in the market that have huge potential, but are a bit lost, and we say, ‘What if Biver had it, what would he do with it?’ That is his impact on the industry. This is his brilliance.”
In the early part of the new millennium, the once popular brand, Hublot, was in dire straits. But Biver saw how he could turn the company around. As he keenly observed the market like a great eagle surveying the land for prey, he locked in on it with his infallible internal commercial radar because he saw that the watch market was evolving.
He saw a whole new generation of watch buyers who were eager to define horology on their own terms, with sexy, bombastic and ground-pounding designs.
They wanted the high-performance materials of their cars and motorcycles injected into the hyper-aggressive luxury assault crafts on their wrists.
While Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille had already begun to outline the blueprint of this new aesthetic, they were locked into their own exclusivity. Because of their high price points, they had perhaps unwisely excluded this entire generation. (Imagine, for a moment, if AP had purchased Hublot.) So, what is the secret to Biver’s success? He gave the people what they wanted by using Hublot’s one unique selling point: the merger between high luxury gold and utilitarian rubber, as the catalyst for this new vision of watchmaking. In so doing, he leapfrogged the entire watch industry still conflicted over merging their precious horological arts rooted in aesthetics defined by 18th century farmers, with, God forbid, anything that looked remotely modern. Then, he married his vision with that voice and that persona — that unremitting gravitas and inimitable charisma.
And like James Brown, Biver became the hardest-working man in show business. If there was a dinner in Singapore, Dubai, Chicago or London, he was there. If you logged onto his Hublot forum on Time Zone, he was there. If you went to his Hublot TV channel on the Internet, he was there.
He was everywhere and at all times, seemingly bending time to his will. He also remembered the greatest tool of any great orator from Martin Luther King Jr. to John F. Kennedy: repetition-repetition-repetition. Fusion, I have a dream. Fusion, ask not what your country can do for you. Fusion!
In doing so, he has become the man most definitive of the modern era of watchmaking — even more so than Richard Mille, who undeniably makes the most beautiful modern watches in the business. This is because Mille’s watches come from a culture of exclusion and exclusivity, whereas Biver’s fusion is overwhelmingly all-encompassing. And that is his power.
What is the power of communication? It’s mainly to have the freedom to explain, and express ideas and visions. Every idea, every product needs to be known. And you can only make it known through communication. Communication is as important as the product. Imagine a great product that nobody would communicate. As a consequence, nobody would know about it and the product would be dead, except for the only one who knows it….
What is the power of language? The power of language is to put ideas, concepts and visions into words and phrases, so that anybody can understand them. Without language, there is no communication except love. Love does not need a language; love needs only a heart and eyes…
FRANCO COLOGNI – THE communicator
Dr. Franco Cologni is a legend in the luxury industry. But if we were forced to coalesce and define his skills using one word, we would call him our ultimate “communicator.” Cologni is currently the Richemont Group’s senior executive director. He also serves as the editor-in-chief of Cartier’s in-house magazine and has just written the latest in his series of books, La Grande Maison, on Jaeger-LeCoultre. Perhaps his most famous marketing campaign, and perhaps the most successful marketing campaign in 20th century watchmaking, was related to an obscure Italian brand specializing in the manufacturing of naval instruments with a small-volume side business in diving watches. That brand is Officine Panerai. Cologni tells us, “Johann Rupert (the owner of Richemont) saw this big watch during his vacation in Italy and he asked what it was… It was an Italian military watch called Luminor.” Rupert tasked Cologni with purchasing the brand and transforming it into a viable luxury brand. The truth was, while Panerai had made a few hundred diving watches, the bulk of its business was unrelated to watches. In the ’90s, a few modern watches were outsourced and sold as a way of generating additional revenue — who would have thought that this could become one of the most dominant sports watch brands in the world? Apparently, Dr. Franco Cologni did.
The first thing he did was to weave the mythology of Panerai: “We would never say it was a war watch, but the watch of heroes; Italian heroes.” Second, Panerai was presented as a watch of high technical value, but with a very minimalist design. Finally, the watch had to be totally different from everything else at the time. While some may question the precise veracity of Panerai’s past, Cologni demonstrated that the key to any luxury product is the story it tells.
Like any great biopic film, this story must be based on fact, but embellished to some extent to make it dramatic, emotional and accessible. Cologni explains, “I believe that creators should also be businessmen and marketing people. Ideally, both roles should be filled by the same person. People like Yves Saint Laurent and Bertelli of Prada have this fusion of abilities… I think that this belle époque will continue, but on one condition: if each brand is able to make watches that are distinct, and that are legitimate. Today, there is a lot of confusion in the market. All the brands want to make more watches. It is better to make less models, but better ones.”
What Cologni also means is that, in addition to fewer but more distinct models, a definitive story must accompany what is created. Perhaps it is Cologni’s other love, Cartier that continues to do this better than any other brand in the world. Look, for instance, at the La Doña watch. This product without its story would be, simply, an attractive women’s watch; but with the living mythology, it was propelled beyond a timepiece and into the fabric of dreams. Cologni puts it best: “The secret to a successful product is this: you must have equilibrium and harmony in your product, because this gives it beauty. Legitimacy in your product must be defined because this differentiates it from others. Your product must have a certain relevance to the consumer market. And you must have a little notoriety. This brings the commercial spark to your product. With Panerai, its notoriety comes from the fact that it is made in such little quantities in proportion to demand.”
You see, Franco Cologni is more than a citizen of the luxury world; he is one of its key originators and, as such, one of its most fitting ambassadors. To say that he has had a major hand in shaping modern luxury is somehow not saying anywhere near enough about this remarkable man.
What is the power of communication? Communicating comes from the Latin word “communicare”, which means “to impart or participate”. This implies interactivity through words that directly express a thought or a concept. Originally, information was propagated in a personal way, by word of mouth, which implied a certain sense of secrecy and contributed to increasing the value of the object that was rendered desirable. We have moved from a dialogue between two persons to multiple exchanges, which entail the personalization of the message — of expressions, of mutual esteem and of conviviality. Since we now live in a global world, word of mouth is no longer enough to convey information that is now channeled via the media, which then impose the information on the targeted audience. These days, connoisseurs of fine watchmaking are increasingly well informed and capable of grasping the value of information, which means they are harder to influence. This is why conveying the message of fine watchmaking must not be confined to the specialized press, but must instead be chiefly propagated by retailers, who are the real ambassadors of the brands, and of the values embodied in their products. The spoken word circulating between people is still the most effective communication tool.
What is the power of language? Today, the visual medium has gained the upper hand over words. The latter give meaning to illustrations and are based on interpretations of language. While emotions are a dominant factor for Latin cultures and Anglo-Saxons look for the facts of a given reality, language remains a fundamental medium. This is because even though visual elements can embellish lifestyle and/or stylish life, the message itself is conveyed through words. Each country has its own language and there is no such thing as a universal language, despite the creation of Esperanto in 1887, a language that was never really successful. We do indeed live in a Tower of Babel. This being said, the words that represent a message become like a quotation, which, in turn, becomes a living part of a brand or of a product.
What is the emotional power of a mechanical watch? It is the emotional discovery of the secrets of time, of the very soul of a watch.Watches appeal to us, and win us over by the beauty of their soul and the secrets they conceal: the life of a mechanical watch and of its beating heart; its words; its ticking; and its face, which expresses sadness at 8:20 and joy at 10:10. The relationship we have with a watch is like a love story, and love cannot be described by specific and objective criteria.
What is the power of Cartier? The power of the brand comes from its history and its present, characterized by a blend of tradition and innovation, within an environment pervaded by art and culture. If the environment today were any different, Cartier would not have maintained this unique image.
Moreover, the brand fundamentals are as follows: the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain (1984) is intended to foster the development of contemporary artistic creativity and to propagate knowledge of this field. The Collection Privée Cartier Paris (1998), which aims to serve as a reference by offering touchstone examples of the great Maison’s classics. The distinctive features of a Cartier haute horlogerie watch are: one-of-a-kind, limited editions or year-specific models, noble materials, mechanical movements, guilloché dials with the Cartier signature and rosette motif in the centre, adjustable folding clasps, and black alligator leather straps. Within such models, rarity and costliness are combined with the excellence of technical and creative quality. Part of the fabulous history of the brand is retraced in various books, the latest being The Cartier Collection: Timepieces, published by Flammarion, and which won the Prix du Livre d’Art on 8 March, 2007.
How have you helped to empower it? My contribution has been that of an artisan enamored with the brand, and who has devoted 30 years of his life to nurturing creative intelligence, heartfelt passion and intelligent hand-craftsmanship. All these endeavors have been backed by the cultural philosophy that is crucial to the development of the Cartier brand, which is lastingly imbued with the spirit of art and culture. The priority is not “making money” but, above all, the desire to make beautiful things that embellish human existence. Naturally, the success of the products also entails financial rewards, but the latter cannot ensure the continuity of the brand, which essentially owes itself to the beauty, originality and authenticity of the products.
THIERRY NATAF — THE Lightning rod
Thierry Nataf is undeniably flamboyant. In 2004, when he was rapidly deployed into the still pervasively conservative Protestant Swiss watch industry, he was simultaneously an enormous breath of fresh air and a massive jolt to the system. What he was about to be tasked with was one of the greatest branding exercises in modern consumer culture, which was to completely reinvent Zenith, a brand associated primarily with its movements.
But reinvent it he did, surpassing all expectations and pushing the brand beyond any recognizable link with its banal past. You have to credit Nataf for instantly zeroing in on Zenith’s unique selling point. Because while the company had created the world’s first integrated automatic chronograph caliber, this movement also boasted the world’s fastest vibrational speed in the world. Beating at 36,000 vph or five hertz, and capable of dividing time to 1/10th of a second, special oils had to be developed for the escapement of the El Primero to ensure proper lubrication. But Nataf recognized a factor more important than the movement’s technical merit, and that was its gold balance blitzing along at this breakneck speed to achieve this high beat rate that looked… fantastically cool.
So, Nataf decided to craft a porthole on the dial of the watch to reveal the pyrotechnics of this movement. The rationale for this was similar to that used by Franck Muller and Girard-Perregaux when they transported their tourbillon cages to the front of the wristwatch. Any potential customer glancing over a showcase featuring an array of static watch dials would immediately stop dead in his tracks at the sight of a watch that boasted such awesome visual interactivity. Nataf cleverly recognized that watches are, in essence, very expensive toys and must project emotion before all else. By opening up the watch dial, Nataf also solidified and legitimized his brand equity, and he began to toy with a three-dimensional aesthetic that would soon become a major design movement in modern horology.
With a strong product in place, Nataf began to work his singular magic. He began to spin stories to ensnare the hearts and minds of the consumer. One story related to the challenges of opening up his watch dial was, “The balance beating at this rate created so much force that without specially-designed bridges to hold it in check, it would explode out of the watch dial like a helicopter prop.” Now, rather than question the veracity of this, let’s look at it from a marketing standpoint: in one brilliant sentence, it asserts the horological legitimacy of the brand by discussing the fast beat rate and creates an unforgettable mythology related to the product itself. Genius! Because the objective of his stories is to score direct hits on the imagination, and that is precisely Nataf’s magic.
Attending any product launch of Zenith’s is a bit like drinking a double espresso and a liter of Red Bull, and then lying on the plushest, most luxurious bed that money can buy. The stories he spins, the energy he brings, the baroque opulence of the world he creates and the consolidated vision of luxury he defines, have had a massive impact on consumers. While Nataf has definite flair with products, the introduction of stunning timepieces like his Grande Port Royal Concept Tourbillon (with the first watch dial that was fractured by optical-art inspired sunrays of black gold that rendered it largely illegible but truly, damnably cool), is the consolidation of his vision for Zenith, which has been revolutionary. Before Thierry Nataf, no Swiss watch brand had applied the sense of cinematic sensuality that pervades every other luxury sector in the world. If you take a look at Zenith’s ads, you will see that they are amongst the most evolved and alluring in the high luxury business. In contrast, if you take a look at any other brand’s ads, what you’ll see is a watch on a black or white background. Ask yourself, which is more likely to convert new watch buyers and grow the market for horology?
Did Nataf have to take some flak for his forward thinking? Yes, absolutely and, in our opinion, unfairly. It is easy to criticize someone who thinks or acts differently in a closed and insular culture, but can any of his critics match the unprecedented growth that Nataf has achieved? In a mere four years, Nataf has transported Zenith from total anonymity to the A-list of horology’s hottest denizens. Is there any room for improvement for Nataf? Absolutely. Because amid the media blitz, the enormous potential of Zenith’s technical prowess has become a bit lost. In truth, Zenith should have had a hand in creating a product like TAG Heuer’s Caliber 360 – a watch that divides time to 1/100th of a second. And if Nataf wishes to activate this aspect of his brand, he should quickly bring on board a legitimate technical director to focus on this aspect. With a merger between Zenith’s true technical value, and Nataf’s enormous design and marketing clout, Zenith would be unstoppable.
In conclusion, if you want evidence of Nataf being one of watchmaking’s top communicative guns, close your eyes and visualize what a Zenith watch looks like. Can you see it all, replete in every detail? Can you see the aperture that leads you to the fast beating balance? Can you see the dynamic modern styling? Of course you can. You can see it clear as day. And the truth is, before Thierry Nataf, you would have had no idea what a Zenith looked like.
What is the power of communication? To share your vision and your dream for a company such as Zenith, it is essential to use communication to make the world discover this very unique and mythical luxury watch company that has literally created a bridge between the past and the future in this industry. Zenith Manufacture is one of a kind as a technical luxury watch company that creates ultimate mechanical engines with an incredible emotional watch design that really empowers the time. Sharing that power can only be done through powerful communication.
What is the power of language? “The world is born with one word,” says the philosopher. And language is the bridge between humanity. The power of language is unique. We recognize intelligent species because of the power of language, from the sounds of the whales, to the sonar of the dolphins, to the dance of bees. Language in all forms derived from the Tower of Babel is an expression of power. The Zenith style is exactly like a language. It could have been a dead one, a “langue morte”, if we hadn’t added new words to keep it alive.
What is the true meaning of power? Power is driving the world. Power is propelling the present time to the future. The power is what you have in a Zenith watch, which measures time in the most accurate way. Power can be good or bad, depending on how you use and leverage it. Take the watches in Zenith’s new Defy luxury sports collection: you discover that you can go faster, higher, stronger — ‘citius, altius, fortius’ — with the most powerful watch created in the world; through the new Defy Classic and Defy Xtreme lines, you discover that power can be worn on your wrist. Power is what makes a Boeing 777 take off. Power is what you have through the beat of the web. Power is like time; it has existed forever: in the past, present and future. At the end of the day, life is power and power is life.
What is the emotional power of the mechanical watch? The emotional power of the Zenith mechanical watch is that it has an open heart beating like human beings. You discover, through the open El Primero movement, the fastest chrono in the world; you discover the power of its engine that is beating at more than 36,000 alternances. The emotional power comes through for all our lines. And when you watch, wear or carry one of my watches, you feel that heart beating and giving you back this energy. At the end of the day and to close the loop, time is life and life is time. Our watches are beating and measuring time, therefore, measuring your life. This emotional power is the power of life.
What is the power of your brand? The symbol of Zenith is a star. How can you measure the power of a star in the sky? By kilotons of energy — there are no words that can describe the uniqueness of Zenith. The nature of the brand is that it has reinvented tradition, which is searching for the absolute quality. This company combines technique, craftsmanship, luxury, manufacture and glamour; this company has invented a unique style; this very unique manufacture has brought this star brand to the pinnacle of the luxury watch industry, present in more than 55 countries in the world, covering four continents, including countries in Europe, Asia Pacific, America and the Middle East. All this represents the power of our brand. The power of Zenith is also its people: a fantastic team working around the clock, making the company a people company, with watches made by people for people.
How have you empowered it? By making my dreams come true… I have dreamt of watches with a unique style, incredible mechanical watches that are a blend between tradition and modernity. “Le temps n’a pas la même allure pour tout le monde,” – “Time does not have the same appeal for everyone,” – said William Shakespeare. As such, I try to give a different look and style to time. I empower Zenith by re-founding Zenith; by bringing back Zenith to the zenith — at the top of the top, at the highest of the highest. Federico Fellini, the Italian movie director, said, “You exist only in what you do.” We did it and, as such, we exist.
As a conclusion to this interview, I will say that time brings everything to light and that light is power and energy. As Guillaume Apollinaire once said, “Il est grand temps de rallumer les étoiles.” – “It is high time to relight the stars.”
Language is the bridge between humanity. language in all forms derived from the tower of babel is an expression of power. The zenith style is exactly like a language. It could have been a dead one, a “langue morte”, if we hadn’t added new words to keep it alivE
While some may question the precise veracity of panerai’s past, cologni demonstrated that the key to any luxury product is the story it tells
There is no doubt that on a product level, the Swiss watch industry is the most innovative high luxury sector in the world. As its rebirth has been fueled by a global revival of interest in horology, the industry has evolved into a new animal – one where the ability to define and communicate a vision, and not just render a product, has become instrumental to success. Who are the watch industry’s best messengers, the men with the capacity to score direct hits on your imagination and decimate your impulse control? We’ve identified four of them and together they represent the most dynamic communicative forces in all of horology.
F.P. JOURNE — THE man is the MESSEGE
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message,” implying that the content of the message itself is irrelevant, and that it is the medium itself that creates emotional impact on the consumer consciousness. Half a century later, nothing could be more true… The proliferation of the Internet and rapid data-sharing sites has created the means to transmit messages through increasingly subversive viral methodologies. Similarly, in horology, there is one individual who has communicated the entire vision of his brand, while appearing to have barely spoken a word.
At first, the inclusion of François-Paul Journe amongst the great communicators in watchmaking seems somewhat misplaced. After all, isn’t Journe the solitary watchmaker who eschews marketing, demonizes hype and rails against the great corporate machinations of the watch industry? Don’t he and his watches represent the last stronghold of true legitimate watchmaking based on functional innovation? Isn’t he philosophically and spiritually the direct descendent of 18th century watchmakers like Antide Janvier and Abraham-Louis Breguet? Isn’t he normally a reserved man who only expresses himself in solemn, measured pronouncements of gratitude upon receiving his record five Geneva Grand Prix prizes? Yes, it’s clear that he is all of these things, but that you believe this to the very core of your being, demonstrates his efficacy in silently conveying his message to you.
How does he get his message across? Simply by creating some of the most stellar works of watchmaking in the history of time engines. This, coupled with a singular charismatic force of personality, makes him a phenomenon. There are two ways to communicate your brand’s value: through language or words, or the sheer bravado of your producs. And Journe is the undeniable master of the latter. Holding or wearing any Journe watch causes a double-barreled rush of emotions because he has carefully encoded his message into every timepiece he creates.
The clarity of his story, its precisely structured chapters, its emotive struggles and touching triumphs are wonderfully personalized and fantastically communicated without ever being sold overtly. Because the difference between Franck Muller and F. P. Journe is this: with a Franck Muller watch, you are emotionally invested in the product and the orgiastic dream world it represents; with Journe, you are emotionally invested in the machine itself. So you see, Journe himself is the message. And for that reason, he has achieved startling brand equity, evinced in high resale prices for his timepieces.
In spite of his transition into a commercially explosive brand, Journe is still able to endow every watch that leaves his manufacture with the feeling that it was created personally by him. There is simply no other brand in watchmaking that can do this.
What is the emotional power of the mechanical watch? From the perspective of a watchmaker, the emotional power occurs after all the planning and struggle; after all the work is done. When you have finished and subjected each piece to the full measure of your scrutiny… fitted them together, so they become unified in the symbiosis that is the mechanical watch. And then it happens. The precise moment when a watch first comes to life is like the birth of a child. It is hard for anyone who’s never experienced this creation of life to understand, but part of this power is imparted to its owner, who gives it life by wearing or winding it.
Nataf cleverly recognized that watches are, in essence, very expensive toys and must project emotion before all else… He began to toy with a three-dimensional aesthetic that would soon become a major design movement in modern horology
He saw a whole new generation of watch buyers who were eager to define horology on their own terms, with sexy, bombastic and ground-pounding designs
In spite of his transition into a true commercially explosive brand, he is still able to endow every watch that leaves his manufacture with the feeling that it was created personally by him