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Watch out - longevity is no longer the key to promoting a profession

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One sure sign of hard times is the appearance of huge advertisements for luxury goods. Jewellery, expensive clothes and houses vie with exotic cars and watches. Already Porsche is the most profitable motor manufacturer in the world, and Ferrari the only non-ailing branch of the Fiat Empire. As for watches, everything about them is strange. While posh cars are a love match and expensive houses are bought because of where they are, costly watches lead a bizarrely cosseted life of their own.

Certified capable of enduring desert heat, arctic cold and the depths of the ocean - but always unnecessarily heavy - they seldom go elsewhere than the journey from the wall safe to the opera and back.

Nonetheless their economic performance exceeds that of any other techno-bauble by a huge margin, even though you can find a perfectly reliable Chinese watch in the goodie-bag your child brings home from a birthday party - costing practically nothing - or buy a beautifully designed lightweight Swatch for not much more.

As a result of people's paradoxical attitude to the value of watches, the nearest to a piece of genuine nanotechnology that most of us ever come to, luxury watchmakers today must be living lives of quiet desperation when it comes to promoting their product.

There is only one kind of luxury watch advertisement these days;

one that shows a picture of a watch (except that is for Patek Philippe ads, which also show a picture of the small child who will inherit yours when you die). All other watchmakers are torn between extolling the virtues of their space-age chronometric technology, and trying to glue it to their ancient tradition of craftsmanship. They do this either by larding their advertisements with background images of jet fighters and pilots (Breitling), or by depicting a watch with four dials which 'Uses your body's energy to create electrical power' (Seiko).

Others less imaginatively lay as much emphasis on the leather strap as the watch itself (A Lange & Sohne), or throw technology to the winds and come up with an antique face and a gasp-making claim of longevity. In the lead are Omega with 150 years and Ulysse Nardin with 156 years, but both are topped by the unsinkable Breguet, which claims to have been in the luxury watchmaking game since 1775, before the Declaration of Independence, let alone the French Revolution).

Clearly there is not much about technology that can be taught to these heritage advertisers - one of them (A Lange & Sohne) even boasts about having a 'handwinding movement' instead of an automatic one - but there is a parable.

Ever since the 'rogue trader' Nick Leeson and the collapse of Barings Bank, it has been axiomatic in advertising circles that you can no longer promote any organisation, not even the Church or the Royal Family, or possibly even the architectural profession, on the basis that it has been around for thousands of years. In a world of branding and rebranding, instability and ceaseless change, once you do that the market reads a different message. It knows that the claim is a message in code. What it really means is: 'This company is about to issue a thrombotic profits warning pending the absconding or suicide of its board of directors.'

Alone in their palatial underground workshops, never watching TV or listening to the radio, the luxury watchmakers of Switzerland seem blissfully ignorant of this rule and certainly never urge their advertisers to comply with it. Instead, day after day in the print media, we see the same seductive images of chunky manacle-type watches eerily programmed to tell the time with split-second accuracy until the year 2200.

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