In 1983, the two leading Swiss watchmaking groups convened for an emergency meeting in Biel, Switzerland. The goal of SSIH and ASUAG was simple: to figure out a joint strategy to combat an alarming trend that in just two years had bankrupted a third of all Swiss watch manufacturers: quartz technology.
The solution was to consolidate the two groups, and it led to the creation of Swatch. Today it’s still the largest watch manufacturer in the world as well as the supplier to almost every high-end watch brand out there, up to and including Rolex and Patek Philippe. Recognizing they couldn’t hope to compete on functionality and lower prices with the quartz industry, the two financially troubled Swiss groups did something very old-fashioned, which was to change the way they marketed watches. Specifically, they moved from a functional approach to an emotional one. Swatch wasn’t about telling time; even a sundial tells time. Instead it was about fun, fantasy, youthfulness, and individuality.
Thirty years later, I can’t help but wonder whether this old strategy of appealing to emotions over functionality still works.
Last year Samsung rolled out the Galaxy Gear, Sony its Smartwatch 2. Last month it was the Moto 360. And now Apple finally announced the eagerly anticipated Watch, which is expected to appear on peoples’ wrists early next year. Will unlimited access to all your apps, maps, social alerts, and messaging condensed into a single Star Wars-looking device be such a slam dunk that it knocks the industry sideways, just as quartz technology upset the analog industry? Are watches really about telling time, or do they provide users with something else entirely?
For years now I’ve worn a Rolex. I’ve never cared much for the thing either. My Rolex loses three minutes of time almost daily and the calendar function is completely hopeless. Will I rush out to replace it with an Apple Watch? No. The fact is, most businessmen see a luxury watch as one of the Big Three mandatory items, the other two of course being a well-cut suit and a necktie.
Along with my Rolex, for years now I’ve carried around an American Express Centurion card, better known as “the black card.” I’ve managed to convince myself that I carry the Centurion because of its amazing array of benefits–a dedicated concierge and travel agent, personal shoppers at Saks and Gucci, various hotel privileges and so on. When I tell people this, my own voice sounds strange to me, as though even I don’t believe myself.
Recently, I opted out of the card. Amex no longer wished to honor the points they’d given me over the years–poor service, from my point of view–so I replaced it with a Visa that offers more than double the points. Great, I thought, which is when the loss hit me. What was I losing? Status. What would people say when I slapped my candy-rainbow-colored, devastatingly commonplace new credit card on the table? Nothing. All the self-importance that black card gave me was now history.
I’ve made it my life’s work to point out how as human beings we are almost entirely irrational. And though it might be cool that your watch calculates everything from how many potato chips you’ve eaten to the time left on your parking meter, remember that having a watch isn’t about what it does, it’s about how it makes you feel.
Time after time studies show that our emotions will always triumph over our rational side. This perhaps justifies why fashion is still a big deal, but it also shows why the strategy Swatch laid out decades ago is still unbeatable–-even, I predict, by Tim Cook. At the end of the day, human beings are emotional creatures. We crave status and recognition by our peers. Which is why the Swiss watch industry continues ticking along, with its understated yet essential message about our true concerns as we wade through life. What watch is that guy over there wearing? Is it stylish? What does his watch say about him? Do I like what it says about him? In short, forget the minute hand and the second hand. In the world of human emotions, time stands still.