The moment that Chris Grainger, IWC’s new CEO, stepped onstage at IWC Gala during the 2017 SIHH to be literally and metaphorically handed over the microphone by Georges Kern, the former CEO who has become Richemont Group’s head of watchmaking, digital and marketing, was a seamless transition from one individual to the next.

Understandably so because the dynamic energy possessed by both men was shaped in the same crucible and in pursuit of the same mission: To conquer new market share through a uniquely narrative-driven message that transforms their ticking works of finery from mere pragmatic tools into global luxury lifestyle symbols and rallying points for all the prevailing themes and collective preoccupations in contemporary culture.

But Chris, or more formally Christoph Grainger-Herr, though he is anything but formal — letting his affable approachable nature belied by his fierce intellect speak for itself, is not one to rest on the laurels of IWC’s past conquests.

Far from it, in my first conversation with him, he has proven to be one of the most insightful, courageous and focused men I’ve ever met in the Swiss watch industry. And listening to his plans for IWC, I am convinced that he will be instrumental in shaping IWC’s ever-increasing relevance to the current and future generations of watch buyers.

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IWC was the first brand in the Richemont Group, as well as the first true, actively desired, luxury watch brand (apologies to Zenith), to be featured on Mr. Porter and Net-a-Porter. Is it true that this has proven to be extremely successful?

Absolutely. And when Georges Kern and I studied this, we saw that what has been so effective about a site like Net-a-Porter is the contextualization of our watches with fashion and dynamic story-telling, such as what they did with Xabi Alonso as one our aficionados.

What we do with IWC on our website is similar — we create an interconnectivity with watches and different universes, but we are not a specialist in fashion like Mr. Porter so they bring something substantial to the equation.

Incidentally, we are selling very well both on Mr. Porter and Net-a-Porter and the percentage of women’s watches that we are selling is considerably higher than in a traditional watch retail environment.

I love this because you are recognizing shifting consumer patterns in terms of how they acquire things, for instance, in the brief period of downtime they have, where they want to be entertained and have fun while online shopping.

There are so many things we need to change and we have to move so quickly in recognition of the fact that consumers have changed — the way they consume has been irrevocably altered by digital media and e-commerce.

People have also changed in terms of how they consume information and also how they want to be treated by us, the suppliers. At IWC, we are many years ahead of other watch brands, but we have to also catch up with many others in the other luxury sectors. We may be ahead of some of our competitors in our use of digital media, but we prefer to benchmark ourselves against the leaders of the wider luxury and consumer industries. In that context, we still have considerable scope to improve.

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When was the moment you and Georges decided it was time to work with Net-a-Porter and Mr. Porter?

It just somehow felt right at a certain moment in time. In some ways, it’s a natural extension of what we’ve always done. Which is to take the clients out of the context [of the traditional watch universe] and place them inside a narrative.

In a way, the approach is similar to what we do here at SIHH with our booth environment, we create everything: The environment, the music, the animation, the lights. And when all the elements come together, the audience feels like they are taken beyond the physical environment of the exhibition hall and right into the story-telling.

How is creating a narrative integral to gaining market share?

Extremely integral — to go from being a brand that people are aware of to their choice of watch to purchase. When you place a strong product inside of relatable and compelling story-telling, you can see the emergence of a new critical mass of watches on wrists.

This is what we have done very effectively in London where we were not well-known a few years ago. Then we staged a product launch exhibition in Selfridges’ concept store space and things began to change.

But your story-telling has to be effective for the specific market that you are in. So, for example, in the United States where although we have been very effective in communicating through our partnerships and entertainment initiatives, we also decided to explore new avenues relevant to our local target customers and are now in discussions with one of the leading US ski resorts.

But the leisure culture and skiing here is fundamentally different from Europe – our familiar luxury codes do not apply in the same way. Consequently, we have to adapt our tonality to the environment.

What you realize is that different audiences have different takes on luxury and we need to shape our message to meet their preferences, not the other way around. We, as an industry, need to start being receptive to — to our clients’ needs – how they live, what they like, in order to make our brand relatable and attractive to them.

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It’s like Jean-Claude Biver’s “king and queen” strategy where the king is the client and the queen is the product. And Mr. Biver’s job is to make them fall in love…

Yes, it’s this idea of zero-separation between client and product. But it is also about creating visibility and engagement outside the traditional city center luxury shopping context.

If you take a brand like IWC out of the familiar shopping context to places and activities relevant to our clients, then the impact and engagement changes completely.

Most watch brands were very late to social media because of the traditional watch industry’s inability to control it, but it’s very spontaneity is what makes it so exciting. What does social media represent to you?

It’s precisely this question that was brought up recently when we had a meeting on social media, and we were asked: “Well, what’s the validation process? How do you control the message?” And the answer frankly is that there are limits to the degree of control you can have over a social medium. It lives from being instant and spontaneous, the communication is very different from static print and advertising formats. You can set boundaries and you can shape the message – and of course you police it to ensure your communication respects the brand boundaries.

There is a peculiar parallel to raising children. You provide them with a strong set of values and morals, and you protect them, but you also have to let go to an extent to let them find their path in life. Always with the confidence that you’ve provided enough fundamental structure in the beginning that things will move in the right direction. Because its individuality, its spontaneity, its capacity to have a life of its own, these are all the things that make social media so dynamic. And you need to give it that freedom, otherwise you will not succeed.

Web opinion leaders, auctioneers, auction houses, media entities that sell vintage watches have all effectively gotten together to craft the message that vintage watches are cool and new watches aren’t, which is essentially self-serving, increasing the popularity and value of the pre-owned watches they sell. How will you combat this?

I believe our industry has by large focused mainly on creating, marketing and selling new watches. Our timepieces, however, are essentially made for eternity, meaning they enjoy potentially multiple cycles of acquisition, ownership and transfer to a new owner – be it through re-sale, gifting, inheriting, auctioning etc.

This creates an ever expanding market of its own and digital technology has made the vintage and pre-owned segments more visible and more transactional as clients can easily check the market valuation of their watch collections in real time.

To your point that leading pre-owned market participants are crafting a message geared in favor of pre-owned and vintage watches the question is not how do we combat this, but how do we compete? I believe we should be actively involved in every step in the life of an IWC watch.

In my conversation with the CEO of one of the big three haute horlogerie brands (OK, not Patek and not Vacheron), he said he is going to start officially sanctioning pre-owned and vintage watches because they can bring a legitimacy to the market that doesn’t exist yet.

Yes, I think there is a clear scope for watch brands to add a new dimension of consumer confidence and a service proposition to this market which does not exist today. It is an area we are actively exploring.

IWC went from being a cerebral, Germanic, tool-oriented watch brand to becoming one of the most dominant global luxury lifestyle brands. How did you pull this off?

I think the key was, we were not scared to evolve. For example, we were quick to cater to the tastes of the Asian market, where clients initially preferred classic round watch designs such as our Portugieser and Portofino lines. We embraced this and created an offering within our brand DNA that went beyond the Western sports instrument watch concept.

We also evolved our brand expression in line with our client’s preferences to add a warmer dimension to our store environment and continued to add new offerings such as a dedicated ladies’ collection with the Portofino 37 and now the Da Vinci 36.

And what I would like to continue doing is to remain timeless and iconic in our key references and our key brand identity, but around that, we will always innovate. This is the only way to keep a brand both timeless as well as current and relevant.

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Incoming IWC Schaffhausen CEO Christoph Grainger-Herr
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How can you tell if you are in favor or out of favor with the market?

It’s not always something you can rationalize but when you travel, you can recognize that certain brands have suddenly lost in currency, whereas others might’ve made a comeback.

But the point is, no one can afford to be complacent. You have to have a sense for this. You have to ask yourself, “Am I keeping the brand current? Am I being innovative? Am I connecting not just with the person that is my client today but the person who will be my client in a few years?”

It’s funny to me that so many old-guard guys were hating on the Rolex Air King, not understanding that it is the perfect Rolex for the social-media generation, because in a selfie it is instantly recognizable. Is the appeal of this generation important to you?

You can’t ignore that tastes are changing. We look at who is buying our sports watches in Asia today and we find that suddenly tastes in the younger generation are changing and our clients are looking beyond classic timepieces. It’s evolving. It’s dynamic.

With watches like the Pilot’s Mark XVIII, we offer a pure and iconic IWC pilot’s watch at an attractive price point allowing clients to buy into the brand and start their journey with IWC. We often find that those clients develop a love for IWC and later upgrade to more complicated watches and higher price points – but having access points is vital in developing relationships with a wider customer base and a younger audience.

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