Has the Apple Watch poisoned luxury watch marketing for ever?

I can’t think of a single thing since the advent of social media that has altered the nature of luxury watch marketing as much as the Apple Watch has.

It’s not so much that Apple has decided to enter the luxury market — I don’t think it has per se. Tim Cook didn’t simply get up one morning and decide to sink the Swiss luxury watch market for kicks. And I disagree with those who claim that Apple is — or has always been — a luxury brand. That’s simply not true if you go by Kapferer’s luxury marketing “bible” and its 24 rules of luxury “anti-marketing”.

Apple does not purposely introduce product flaws. It does pander to customers’ wishes (notwithstanding their claim to the contrary), it does not try to keep non-enthusiasts out, doesn’t make it difficult to buy their product, it does relocate factories, does mass-produce outside California, does create non-artisanal products that become obsolete, doesn’t just sell marginally on the web, and has one of the best customer care approaches in the world. No my friends, Apple is definitely no Hermès and will never be.

Yes, Apple is exhibiting certain traits of a luxury brand — but not all. What Apple does is apply selected principles of luxury marketing to products of mass consumption.

And the reason they’re doing this is simple. As Scott Galloway of L2 explains in this eye-opening video (19:55): “The best neighborhood in the world is luxury. You want to be in a business that leads with your heart, not with your head. It results in irrational wants and needs which translates to high margins.”

“Apple is the best brand in the world in a bad neighborhood. People lead with their heads when they’re talking about tech which is a terrible business to be in because if you don’t re-invent it every year your stock gets hammered…the board of Apple decided they would be ignoring their fiduciary duty not to get into the business of luxury…and you will have the first trillion dollar market cap company.”

In a crappy global economy, luxury is one of the few remaining refuges. Luxury has always thrived during downturns and upturns. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Tim Cook and his board just did the math. No rocket science here.

Fine, so what does this have to do with luxury watch marketing? Here’s the scoop: even in early 2010 when I started in the industry as a full time social media and community manager, something became apparent to me fairly quickly.

Strategically, you cannot market a luxury watch product to a watch audience alone. Why? Because it’s too tiny. I don’t care how many forums, communities, blogs, magazines, reviews, and blogger outreach you do, if you stick to the “watch people” only, there just isn’t enough volume to become significant. Even in the best of saturation scenarios — at some point — you hit a wall.

Some brands got that quicker than others. The small independents figured it out first, as usual. They started to do what’s now called content marketing. They figured out that to attract watch outsiders, you couldn’t push out content about watches — because the overwhelmingly vast majority of people cannot care less about watches. So you have to talk about something else. And in the process, if you do it right, guess what: you sell watches!

Or, if you’re my old Hublot boss Jean-Claude Biver, you place watches in mass entertainment venues — like James Bond or global sporting events (soccer, Formula 1, NBA). And you get brand ambassadors to wear your watch as a vector because they, in turn, get slapped across every imaginable world media outlet. As does your product by osmosis. And you sell watches! Lots of watches — to people who would never have gone out to get one purposely.

The Apple Watch phenomenon perforates that “membrane” between watch people and the rest of the world. Because assuredly, millions of people who never gave a rat’s ass about watches will now be wearing one. But the majority of them won’t care about history, artisanship, manufacturing techniques, materials, source of origin, or movements. Traditional luxury watch communication themes and content has become obsolete — what’s a traditional watch company to do if they can’t talk about product, history, or craftsmanship exclusively any longer?

The solution, of course, is to start communicating about everything except watches. This is what new age brands like Seven Friday is doing — very successfully at that. This is what the brand I work for, CLERC watches, is doing with its own line of personal luxury submersibles and its Openwater Heroes conservancy program. None of which has anything to do with watches except the testing and materials part.

The watch becomes an afterthought. People want watches that “look cool” and “do stuff” and watches they can associate with “doing something” or “joining a cause”. The watch becomes secondary to the message — it’s almost an afterthought. It must be an afterthought.

For many watch companies, this is a death knell. The democratization of the watch is poison to a brand without a story beyond product. As almost every watch “looks cool” and will now soon “do stuff” — like any other connected wearable — unless you have something else of value to offer, you’re irrelevant.

Unless you have a Story, a cause, any sort of enduring, valuable and emotional content to anchor on, you have in effect nothing.

Apple is gunning to become the next iconic “luxury” watch company. Who should be worried? Pretty much every brand relying on product and features alone to do marketing. Pandora’s box is open and the rules have changed. Now let’s go party somewhere for a good cause and find that “cool watch” everyone else isn’t already wearing!

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