Within the last five years, a few heritage watch brands have enjoyed a bout of resurrection and returned to the world of horology; Off the top of my mind, Angelus, Favre Leuba and Ferdinand Berthoud. Then, within the subset of heritage watch brands, there are another subset of niche brands which are inspired by (and sometimes tenuously linked to) historical watch brands which are either dormant or no longer operating, off the top of my mind – Perrelet, Stowa and Arnold & Son. After the recent spate of heritage watch re-issues, I started to wonder: What happens when heritage watch brands revive without the key heritage watches either iconic or a signature to the brand?
What happens when Heritage Watch Brands revive without the Heritage? Part 1
But first, a primer on the phenomenon:
Marketing academics refer to heritage watch brands or brands no longer active in the market but still retaining potential brand equity as “sleeping beauties”. Given the tenure of the watch industry (slightly north of 4 centuries), it is fertile territory for many brands which have fallen prey to business economics of the day but yet still retain in one form or another, potential brand equity which if properly shaped and communicated, can conjure a potent brand story in the minds of consumers.
Heritage watch brand revival strategies
Obviously differentiated revival strategies are required and dependent on the brand’s existing reputation in the market pre-revival. Other things to consider in the process: to what degree are the new owners of the brand going to utilise its brand history and which product will serve as the heritage watch brand’s re-introduction into the marketplace. One key element in such an endeavour is the way the brand can resonate with collective memory (accurate or rumoured) and then critically, every step thereafter pertains to the management of these heritage watch brands and how executives can continue to shape the value proposition of such brands using their heritage.
While it had existed before, heritage as a component of brand equity was never fully articulated until 1996. Given that the majority of this generation of watch consumers and collectors have grown into their own (and with the accompanying spending power to boot), it was only in recent years, the heady heights of 2013 recognised for wanton luxury watch consumption, that the idea has been better defined and now, in business terms, occupies a distinct conceptual category. Heritage watch brands calculate heritage as a component of value proposition because it is not only specific to the brand but also makes it difficult for potential competitors to emulate and copy. Furthermore, the nostalgia and emotion invested by the customer and other stakeholders, contribute to the market perception and literal brand equity of the revived brand. In that sense, we can glean why they’re termed “sleeping beauties” – it is for their potential by which they are named.
But what constitutes heritage? By examining core attributes of heritage watch brands and consumers’ perceptions of them, the new owners can nurture, maintain and even extend their heritage to generate even greater brand affinity for their market.
Heritage Watch Brand Revival Strategy: Retrobranding vs. Brand Revitalisation
While the starting point and objectives of retrobranding and brand revitalisation strategies are often rooted in revitalising or relaunching a historical brand, the execution is vastly different. To wit an example: Angelus and Favre Leuba are revitalised brands which modernise a familiar name in Swiss watchmaking but downplays its traditional roots of brand equity in order to create new ones which while tangentially linked to a distant ancestor, is meant to transform the perception of an “outdated” brand from decades of hibernation into a new contemporary brand.
In contrast retrobranding specifically relaunches a brand by associating it with its past. To use an example, Ferdinand Berthoud doesn’t simply reproduce a product from its history, an exact reproduction while historically authentic, would not serve the needs of the modern watch collector, nor would it embody the marriage of traditional techniques and technologies that have raised the product to contemporary standards of performance and taste.
“By reinforcing the heritage and know-how of Berthoud, we remain true to classical watchmaking traditions while still innovating and keeping Berthoud’s watchmaking philosophy at the core of the brand.” – Karl-Friedrich Scheufele
Indeed, while both brand revitalisation and retrobranding strategies both indulge in temporal work, we can see here that a revitalised brand like Ferdinand Berthoud, while respectful to the horological innovations of its namesake founder and the aesthetic codes of the era, are still thoroughly modern renditions of vintage know-how. On the other hand, Angelus pursuing retrobranding – does not pursue a path for which the historical Angelus watch brand is known – chronographs and calendars, instead opting to pursue tourbillons. In this sense, this retro brand is distinguishable from the nostalgic original brand because the new collection bears little collection to the historical collection. Yet, in order for a brand to be suitable for retrobranding, it must have existed as an important or iconic name for that era or for that generation and still capable of evoking vivid and relevant associations for its targeted consumers. In that sense, while Tudor is not a retrobranded or revived brand in the strictest sense, Tudor is the most successful example of the commercial headway a brand can make by cleverly utilising historical brand archives and executing them in a manner which titillates their market with said vivid and striking heritage re-issues and interpretations.
In this manner, Tudor, already a cult brand in its own right, shakes off the shadow and perception as “Rolex-lite” given the historical connection between the two Hans Wilsdorf brands and establishes itself with identity codes and watchmaking know-how that is separate yet politely linked to the brother brand from which it once received support. As a cult brand, Tudor has successful traded on consumers’ nostalgic feelings and personal memories but as a standalone watchmaker, Tudor is showing how its heritage can be respected while still pursuing a path of individualism and independence away from its rich heritage. This is perhaps best evidenced in two Tudor Baselworld 2017 models: The two-tone Tudor Heritage Black Bay Steel & Gold and the daring Heritage Black Bay Chronograph.
The danger of Heritage cynicism
In the centuries old watch industry, it is easy to find mang “sleeping beauties” or heritage watch brands which retain no reputation in the market. Particularly fraught is also the practice of tangentially hinting to specific provenance which in reality is not associated with the modern brand – in this instance – Perrelet, Stowa, and a lesser extent, Arnold & Son.
To many, Abraham-Louis Perrelet, inventor of the self-winding mechanism (1776) which led to the automatic rotor as we know today, is probably one of the least remembered watchmaking masters (along with the obscure Berthoud, which Max Busser referenced a year before Chopard’s revival of the brand a year later); but Perrelet won’t exactly be chomping at the bit to highlight the fact that they are in no-way associated with the historical Abraham-Louis Perrelet. This strategy is known to watch cynics as “revisionist histories”. Founded in 2004, Perrelet is literally 13 years old banking on over 200 years of heritage and either fortunately or unfortunately, employing a blood descendant of Perrelet to reinforce that perception. To their credit, the brand DNA consists of putting the “turbine” rotor architecture front and centre, playing up the link to its namesake inventor but such a practice contributes to cynicism and undue critical commentary of watch which is arguably cool yet potentially marred by drama.
Unlike Stowa whose name (but not know-how and manufacturing) was acquired in 1996 for its name only, the Stowa today has very little link with the maker of watches for the German Luftwaffe in the 1930s and ‘40s even though the design codes are heritage inspired; A brand like Arnold & Son is an “inspired brand” which doesn’t exactly claim nor disprove perceived claims to the historical company founded by Breguet’s partner and contemporary – John Arnold, inventor of the chronometer. After 1843, John Roger Arnold, the son in “Arnold & Son” started producing watches under Arnold & Dent and later on, after purchase by another watchmaker Charles Frodsham, enjoyed a brief period as Arnold & Frodsham. The present Arnold & Son owned by Japanese Citizen Watch Co. and using the manufacturing capabilities of movement maker La Joux-Perret has a tenuous link but is at least still respectful with how it produces watches in line with Arnold’s historical pet projects – specifically chronometers, precision time display and the cooperative project with Breguet, the tourbillon. While the brand doesn’t evoke any personal memories or shared associations, Arnold & Son draws on shared nostalgia – nods to its namesake muse while being highly interpretative of his historical creations.
While to most consumers, authenticity of heritage is not really an issue, the business of luxury is itself deeply rooted in centuries old traditions and history that the potential danger of knowledge of “invented traditions” is one which cannot be underestimated. While the strategies used to revive these heritage watch brands need not be authentic and in fact distorted to a certain degree, complete fabrication in the age of the internet is like playing commercial roulette. If your decision lands badly, you could risk alienating your core audience of collectors (and the collective knowledge which accompanies them). That said, surviving archives for many of these brands are extremely limited and even more difficult to source, further compounding the issue of provenance, an attribute central to the hobby of watch collecting.
Stay tuned to What happens when Heritage Watch Brands revive without the Heritage? Part 2 where we explore brands like Dubois et Fils (world’s oldest watchmaker recently revived) and Favre Leuba (world’s second oldest watchmaker, also recently revived). Can these brands authenticate both their heritage and rearticulate their history?