Rolex and Cartier are two of the largest and profitable watch brands globally. How would you compete with these two brands if you were running a smaller, luxury watch company?

We recently interviewed a former Marketing Director at IWC who spent over 7 years building and bringing the brand to market to compete with the two giants of Rolex and Cartier.

We explore:

  • Why IWC doesn't segment customers and leads with the product and heritage
  • The power of using partnerships as a luxury brand to build trust with the consumer
  • How IWC positioned the brand versus Cartier and Rolex
  • The difference in heritage and storytelling between IWC, Cartier, and Rolex

I want to discuss differentiation in the watch space. How did you look at positioning IWC versus Rolex and Cartier?

That's a very good question because IWC at the time when we started was so much smaller than both Rolex and Cartier. Just to give you an idea, we'd say if Rolex at the time was building a million watches a year, which is probably about the quantity that it was, we would be building about 50,000. There's a huge difference in size. Cartier also being a huge company, but completely different positioning. Rolex was always a relatively masculine brand, but never neglected the women. Always a brand making a lot of gold watches, watches with diamonds with a big appeal to ladies, as well. IWC had almost no female models. Instead of saying, okay, we're going to make female watches, as well. We said, we're going to drop it entirely. We're going to focus on men's watches. Which doesn't mean that women wouldn't buy them. On the contrary, because the fashion for women wearing men's watches just came up 20 years ago and has never gone away since. We still marketed it all towards men. Cartier on the other hand is a jewelry-oriented brands. Cartier was at that time at least not too much focused-on watchmaking, but focused on jewels, on design, on precious materials.

On diamonds, on other precious materials, which was never important for IWC. For IWC, it was the movement, the technology, and the design. For Cartier, it was the material, the preciousness, the design, the link to the jewelry. A completely different positioning and very feminine. If IWC had 80 percent masculine clients, Cartier would have had 80 percent female clients. Completely different. Rolex is somewhere in between. More or less 50/50. Also, Rolex being focused essentially on one watch model in different iterations. The Oyster. It's always that divers' watch. If it's a Daytona or a submarine or whatever, it's always the same basic shape.

IWC was very different. It had families. The Portuguese watch is completely different to the pilots watch. It's completely different to the engineer or the aqua timer or the Davinci even. Each of these families had a distinct identity with a slightly different customer base. That was our strength, that we had five strong, almost equally strong product lines, whereas, the design of both Cartier and Rolex tended to focus on two iconic shapes, the tank in Cartier and very different iterations. Françaisethe classic tank, the tank American, whatever, but always that square tank shape. Of course, it was Pasha and others, but the bulk of the business was always the square tank shape. For Rolex, always the Oyster model. That's the key difference.

How did the marketing strategy change for each of those companies? How did you see the marketing messaging and approach to communicating with the customer different between Cartier and Rolex versus IWC?

Cartier basically never used a lot of storytelling. They kept very close to their purity. I was once product manager for Cartier watches, do I remember very well. The messaging for Cartier watches was always the product. The advertising of a Cartier watch was always the logo, the watch and that's it. Based purely on design, materials, and look. There was never anything about the technology. Or storytelling about it. It's really Cartier is a super brand, everyone knows it. It's the most famous jeweler in the world. That was very focused and enough to promote this brand. That's the reason why it's so big. Rolex is slightly different. They've always had their cultural messages and their sporting messages. They two lines of communication, but those have never changed over the years either. Rolex is about Wimbledon, about iconic sporting events, about golfing events, and about opera and classical music. That's it. They never branched out into any other messaging. Of course, those messages are always the same and they tend to get a little bit boring. At IWC, we reinvented every product line. We added new partnerships, new stories, so there was more to say about the brand. That helped us enormously.

How does that approach to marketing align with Cartier and Rolex's heritage?

It makes completely sense because the Cartier heritage is absolutely superior design. The tank shape is iconic. It's what has transcended hundreds of years and it's here to stay. It just makes sense to focus on that. I think there's no need to tell stories around that because this central message is so strong. Rolex would probably be just as successful if they did not have these messages. Rolex, of course, needs some sort of communication, as well, but I think personally, would Rolex only focus on their iconic designs, the brand would be just as successful. Don't forget, Rolex isn't owned by anyone, it's a foundation. They support a lot of sporting events and a lot of cultural events because they have these enormous resources that they can use for it because there are no shareholders that take money out of this company. They give back to the society in their way in terms of supporting technological and cultural events, which is great.

What are the biggest lessons that you learned from your time building brands, at both Cartier and IWC?

Well, I think if I get one basic message is, you have to be authentic and credible. If you are a marketeer, you tend to come up with fancy ideas and you get advertising agencies come up to you every two minutes presenting new ideas, great ideas. At the end of the day, the customer is very savvy. They will look through anything that's remotely just a fac or short-term oriented. If people spend a large portion of their savings or have saved up for a product over many years, and they've dreamt of owning any sort of luxury watch. They want to make sure it really is something that you buy for 25 years plus or hand it down to your children. Everything else fades away. You have to be authentic, credible. The quality has to be irreproachable. That's what it boils down to. Short-term, you can update, you can animate your brand, but never ever forget these core pillars of the brand because that's at the end of the day makes people decide for your brand rather than another brand.