How do you sell a watch to someone in the cell phone age? It’s a question being asked by dealers, journalists, and, of course, marketing teams at the big watch brands every single day. The day of the watch, in many ways, is past us. We don’t need them. So selling them as a necessity is out. But we all want something to aspire to, and that’s the key to understanding why so many big brands have had so much success selling watches through partnerships with big (and not so big) sporting events. The formula is simple: Identify Herculean athletic effort, emblazon the appropriate logo behind the athlete as she accepts her trophy, forever link said accomplishment to a small mechanical machine. Repeat once per year (or every four, if you have the Olympics account).
There’s an escapist appeal to luxury watches that has a lot of overlap with being a sports fan. As a weekend hacker, you’re never getting close to the Masters, but as you’re watching the pros tear up Amen Corner (or succumbing to it) on a Sunday afternoon, you bet you can be wearing the Submariner that Rolex is hawking during the commercial breaks. If you’re lucky enough to be in the crowd at The Open or any of the other major golf tournaments you don’t get a break from the advertising. The Rolex logo is all over the scoreboards, and strategically placed clocks with the coronet logo at least suggest that the players’ pace of play is being minded by someone.
Rolex’s history with golf is rooted in partnerships individual pros, and later expanded to supporting tournaments and playing a role in growing the game itself. Arnold Palmer was the first professional golfer to partner with Rolex (what we would now call a Brand Ambassador) in 1967. He was soon joined by Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, and with that Rolex had established ties to the biggest stars in the game.
In comparison to many of today’s partnerships, the Rolex relationship to golf seems more organic and pure. Maybe I’ve fallen victim to Rolex’s slick marketing, but it seems like they’re really is a common thread that can be woven through Rolex’s continued pursuit of manufacturing perfection on a massive scale with the precision and dedication required to excel in professional golf. It at least seems a little more appropriate than, say, the Richard Mille partnership with the Premier League’s Manchester City. Someone with more knowledge on the topic than myself can educate the writer on what one of the highest of high luxury watchmakers shares in common with notably working-class Manchester.
It can be argued that in terms of pure visibility, Rolex’s sporting partnerships taken cumulatively (which include endeavors as varied as F1 racing, equestrian sports, and sailing) are outgunned by Omega and their long-standing status as the official timekeeper of the Olympics. For two weeks, every two years, the Omega logo is permanently fixed to the bottom corner of television screens around the world as athletes in track and field, swimming, bobsleigh, hockey (ice and field), and dozens of other sports are timed.
Omega takes immense pride in their history in Olympic timekeeping, which began in Los Angeles in 1932 with straightforward production stopwatches. The modern Olympic timekeeping initiative involves high technology that Omega has largely developed in-house. Electronic timekeeping began in earnest with photo-electric cells that were able to capture the moment a competitor crossed the finish line with remarkable accuracy. The Mexico City Olympics of 1968 saw the introduction of touchpads in the swimming competitions, an elegant solution to a timekeeping problem that is still in use today. Omega even had a role in replacing the traditional starting pistol at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver: the Electronic Start System uses a “flash” gun that simulates the sound of the pistol electronically and links directly to Omega’s timekeeping system, which is currently capable of measuring time to the millionth of a second. To say that they’ve come a long way since the days of production line stopwatches is a massive understatement.
Unlike Rolex, Omega has extended their sporting partnerships (particularly when it comes to the Olympics) to consumer products. Rolex is not likely to ever release a “Masters Edition” Day-Date, for example. Omega, on the other hand? Well, of course, there’s a Ryder Cup edition of their Seamaster Aqua Terra. And nearly every line in the Omega catalog gets an Olympic edition. Everyone has different taste, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that some of them are actually well-executed watches (the Speedmasters for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics come to mind). Others, though, are unintentionally funny (looking at you, PyeongChang Planet Ocean).
Rolex and Omega are by no means the only watch brands to dabble in developing relationships with sporting events and athletes (indeed, this is something most brands do at some level, as the opportunity to expose your brand through televised sporting events is an almost unmatched marketing opportunity). They do, however, represent approaches that are almost polar opposites. There’s a subtlety to the way Rolex does it, almost as if they are above the fray of needing to advertise at all, their athletes casually strapping on their timepieces at the completion of a competition for a photo-op. The somewhat more in-your-face approach of Omega certainly drives helps strengthen the connection of their products to the events and individuals they sponsor, but enthusiasts wind up longing for purity, rightly or wrongly, in watch designs that attempt to tap into a temporal moment.
Regardless of exactly how a brand goes about tying themselves to a sporting endeavor, it’s worth pointing out that the end result is, hopefully, getting watches into the hands of people who have a strong desire to use them. These are tools, after all, and whether you’re a weekend sailor, attend the occasional track day, or just like to leisurely cruise around your local municipal golf course, there’s a certain undeniable pleasure in knowing that the best of the best in whatever competitive sport you pursue are using the very same tools.
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