Following the recent SIHH event and in the lead-up to the colossal Baselworld 2016 next month, Luxury Society spoke to independent watchmakers about the trials and challenges of their digital evolution.

Late last year, Luxury Society published a piece panning 2016 luxury industry predictions from the experts, to gain insight into the future for different facets of the luxury sector.

Yet, amongst the various generational, behavioural and market forces that were highlighted as trends to watch, the consensus was unanimous that it is digital which will be at the heart of the luxury decision making process for brands in 2016.


 It’s estimated that 75% of luxury purchases are influenced by at least one digital touchpoint 


As Neil Cunningham, Managing Director of boutique media agency Cream UK explained: “Luxury businesses need to fully embrace digital because their consumers already have. Globally, 95% of luxury buyers are digitally connected and it’s estimated that 75% of luxury purchases are influenced by at least one digital touchpoint.”

However, examining more closely how the different sectors of luxury have each adjusted to the digital revolution, it’s clear that luxury fashion, beauty and jewellery brands have, for the most part, been the ‘early adopters’ of digital, with the watchmaking industry one of the slowest to embrace the new era and all that comes with it.

Daniel Saynt, CEO & Chief Creative Officer at Socialyte – The Influencer Casting Agency, says this is something he can attest to.


 Much of the industry is set in their way as to how to approach watch marketing 


As head of the world’s largest influencer casting agency providing curated talents and qualified stats for over 10,000 creators, his firm works with media partners such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, Nylon, Glamour, Allure, and Refinery29, amongst others, to cast and create influencer campaigns for various luxury brands across the globe.

Yet, he admits he has noted the cautious attitude of watch brands towards digital channels and, particularly, incorporating influencers into their marketing.

“Much of the industry is set in their way as to how to approach watch marketing focusing on celebrity endorsements, events and print. With that mentality comes a bit of fear when it comes to working with influencers, as well as a lack of innovation when it comes to social campaigns. The audience luxury watch brands are trying to reach is relatively small and in speaking with decision makers many feel that digital stars aren’t reaching the customers they want to reach,” he says.



The Carré des Horlogers at SIHH 2016 marked a turning point for independent watchmakers


However, the market is changing and demand is evident for watch brands to be digitally adept – so, as Luxury Society discovered at SIHH this year – the watchmaking industry is at a tipping point, and poised to actively make its mark on digital in 2016.

It is against this backdrop, and in the lead-up to the colossal Baselworld event for the watchmaking and jewellery industry next month, that Luxury Society investigated the digital aspirations of independent watchmakers in particular, who attended the SIHH event in 2016 for the first time as part of a new section, dubbed ‘Carre des Horlogeres’.

In the midst of SIHH, which had traditionally been dominated by subsidiaries of the luxury conglomerate Richemont, this year marked a change in the air when, for its 26th edition, the event inaugural welcomed nine independent watchmaking firms into the fold.


 There is a growing difference between what people call the luxury megabrands, and smaller players 


However, as the proverbial Davids in a sea of Goliaths – not only at SIHH – but also in the vast digital landscape, independent watchmakers are – once again faced with the age-old challenge of how to stand out and do things differently – as they always have.

For their part, MB&F – the legendary rebels who draw their strength from off-beat creations and collaborations orchestrated by founder Max Busser – don’t seem concerned about carving their niche – on the contrary, the brand’s Head of Communication Charris Yadigaroglou says the changing definition of luxury on its own is organically providing independents like his brand, with a unique digital voice which rings out above the rest.

“To set the scene, my little theory is that the definition of luxury is changing in a sense. I feel there is a growing difference between what people call the luxury megabrands, which are certainly a form of luxury, and smaller players.


 As an independent brand, you’ve got to be super authentic, and exclusive, but you also have to provide access 


“On one hand, those megabrands will be even more and more powerful, and because they’re marketing with more and more sophisticated and powerful machines, I think there will definitely be a need, with at least certain types of customers, for those crazy alternative, off-beat brands – because they’ll want a break from that sort of standard megabrand thing every so often.

“So as an independent brand, you’ve got to go all the way now, because you have to be super authentic, and exclusive, but you also have to provide access. To strike this balance – we do all of our social media ourselves, in-house.”

Explaining why their digital initiatives are managed internally as opposed to handing it all over to an agency, Yadigaroglou adds that because MB&F is an independent house, their target markets are niche and, increasingly, more specific than bigger brands – so a mass-market approach, on any level, is something they tend steer away from.



The futuristic-looking Horological Machine No6 SV, by MB&F


“We know with the customers who come to us, that MB&F is exactly what they’re looking for. So, if we were to serve them the same megabrand treatment, they’re not getting that alternative vibe.

Digital is just an addition to the mix though, and although it’s prevalence is increasing, Yadigaroglou says it’s not the ‘be all and end all’ for MB&F.

“In addition to digital, we are also out there and on the road, meeting people – because we want to maintain that hands-on, personalised contact with our consumers.


 I don’t think that we would exist with our approach, without the internet, but it also has negative effects 


“If we don’t spend time on the road, and Max (Busser) himself doesn’t spend time on the road to meet people, and they just get to meet the same old brand reps they’ll get from the megabrand, and that means we are not doing our job well.”

By comparison, URWERK – the award-winning watch brand based in Geneva, Switzerland, known for its avant-garde designs and helmed by Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei – has taken a different approach to date, mainly relying on its trusted retailers across its key markets to spread the word via digital channels.

“They know more about their individual markets and they can offer a local approach, and we have great relationships with them, they know our product – so we trust them to do that [digital],” he says.


 As far as digital is concerned, we are slow adopters 


Yet, Frei attests to the fact that digital is becoming an ever-increasing consideration for the brand – particularly in markets such as China, where social media platforms are poles apart from Western mediums, and often, a maze in themselves.

“Of course, social media channels particularly and digital is extremely important to us. I don’t think that we would exist with our approach, without the internet, but it also has negative effects next to the positive effects,” he says.

“China, for example – they have different tools there, and we don’t use them, so it’s something we have to look at going forward and invest in more.”




Crossing over to De Bethune – a brand renowned for its creativity and boldness in locating and utilising the rarest materials to push the limits and its limited production – one can clearly see the brand’s ethos proudly displayed on its official Instagram page which states that it’s about: “Not doing more, but instead,doing better”.

Yet, De Bethune Executive Director Estelle Tonelli, for her part, agrees with Frei that more can be done on the digital side of its business, they can “do better”. In short, she is refreshingly transparent as she admits that to date, De Bethune hasn’t been as active in its digital push as is required to best connect with new markets and attract attention from the ‘next generation’ of luxury consumers.

“As far as digital is concerned, we are slow adopters. So, unfortunately, we are indeed an example of the slow adoption of watch brands towards digital. Our website is not even responsive designed – and it’s a shame – although work is in progress for a new one with improved design and content. For the time being, our digital strategy for social networks [FB, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram] is also managed in-house,” she reveals.
“I personally think that watchmaking industry is a slow adopter of digital and social media because of the nature of its products. We are always concerned by the content of our messages and want to secure a deep understanding of our ‘know-how’. Also, communication is like distribution: very traditional and conservative. And many people still, wrongly, think that digital is not adapted for luxury products.”


 We are considering more effectively developing our presence on the digital scene… This will be a key priority in 2016 


In summation, she adds candidly, De Bethune has “not invested much in communication”, due to a limited budget – which was traditionally spent primarily on print media and events – but this is something that she is looking to tackle head-on in the year ahead.

“One has to live in this world and, therefore, consider customers’ changing habits and the daily adoption of digital networks and platforms, particularly taking into account the younger generations.

“So, we are considering more effectively developing our presence and actions on the digital scene. I would even say that this will be a key priority in 2016,” she says.


 After an event when people come and take pictures and post – interest in the product grows 


For Finnish watchmaker Kari Voutilainen, changes in terms of his disposition to digital are also on the horizon.

“I don’t do any market research on this, per se, but I have noticed, of course, that after an event when people come and take pictures and post – interest in the product grows, so I am being pro-active with that and it is a consideration in my business plan, more than before.”

But he adds that as an independent – and a watchmaker first and foremost – his focus will always remain on the intricate creation of the product, rather than the promotion and marketing of it – and that’s what he says is his strength, and that of the other independents in his league.



Kari Voutilainen, not afraid to stay niche


“It’s a very niche market and very specific. So, for me, customers are family. We talk to each other. They might purchase the watch, and then the next year, they come back, then again the year after, so I start to really get to know them,” he recalls.

“In the end, for me, it is obviously a case of two very different strategies. You have the independents who are more about authenticity, they are more authentic. We really take care of the craft and the art in making a watch, and we’re also very focused on a very niche customer base. Whereas, obviously, with the bigger brands, it’s broader. It’s much, much broader.

“They have a bigger production volume, so they do big advertising, spend big on marketing … Everything is big. But for us, everything is smaller, but more detailed. I feel like that to me is the difference between us, in almost every aspect.”


For more exclusive Baselworld-related coverage, follow Luxury Society‘s exclusive ’Baselworld 2016 Inside/Out’ series via: #LSBaselworld


To further investigate digital and the luxury watch & jewellery sector on Luxury Society, we invite you to explore the related materials as follows:

- In Conversation With Kari Voutilainen, Independent Watchmaker
- Optimising Social Media For Luxury: Instagram
- Behind-the-Scenes: Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève 2015


About the author

Daniela Aroche

Journalist & Co-Founder , The Ink Collective

Daniela Aroche is the former Editorial Director of Luxury Society, and co-founder of The Ink Collective – a full-service creative content & communications agency, specialising in the areas of fashion, luxury and lifestyle, with connections to an international network of writers, editors, photographers, translators and designers. Dually based in Paris and Sydney, Australia.