With still no real rebound in the markets, except for China, you might have thought watchmakers would want to put their ambassadors on hold for a while. Or not, as it turns out, with the difference that Covid-19 means brands are harnessing this star power differently. For populations confined to their homes, glimpses of glitz and glamour can become a source of stress and frustration. But these are also captive audiences eager for distraction, and brands have latched on to this opportunity to produce content and storytelling that fit the image they want to project. The result has been a succession of new faces, original initiatives and innovative partnerships that offer a welcome break from the day-to-day.
So who are these new ambassadors and what do brands expect from them? Does actress and producer Charlize Theron sell watches as one of the three faces of Breitling’s new Chronomat Lady, alongside ballet dancer Misty Copeland and actress Yao Chen? And do women of “purpose, action and style” – the brand’s definition of the Breitling woman – identify with these three personalities?
Chief executive Georges Kern is convinced they do and to prove it has set up a webcast studio inside the brand’s manufacturing plant, from where he hosts product showcases complete with live interviews. They include a candid chat with Theron, looking remarkably stylish despite the early morning local time. Her relaxed demeanour fits the more laidback image the brand is aiming for. “Look at our stores,” says Kern. “We have pool tables, vintage motorcycles, red brick walls. Even our brand ambassador Brad Pitt, one of the biggest stars in the world, is an informal guy. We wanted to avoid classic luxury associations such as tennis and Formula 1.”
Anyone who thought we had seen the last of high-profile tie-ins can therefore think again. TAG Heuer recently signed up tennis player Naomi Osaka, reigning Australian Open champion and second in the current ATP ranking. Bulgari, meanwhile, has minted a deal with Zendaya, 24, winner of an Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a drama series, for her appeal to Gen Zers. It’s an age-old marketing recipe with a twenty-first century twist: convince the public that these stars of sport and screen are not only immensely talented; they are also very real and relatable.
For some brands, they’re even family: the name Richard Mille gives to its 42 ambassadors. Latest to date is the up-and-coming French showjumping champion, Flore Giraud. And so the new brand ambassador is just like you and me, heading off to New Zealand (back when borders were open) à la Benedict Cumberbatch for a spot of meditation and diving with a Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris, as captured in a short film by the brand.
This isn’t the only example of ambassadors as the actors of a carefully nurtured brand universe. In a film retracing his career, IWC draws a parallel between the tenacity of legendary quarterback Tom Brady and the determination of F.A. Jones who set up the manufacture in 1868. Sometimes brand and ambassador meet in other ways. The clothes of Yiqing Yin, who in 2015 was inducted into the elite Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, form a backdrop for Vacheron Constantin’s Egérie collection. Taiwanese actor and musician Jay Chou is meant to embody Tudor’s “Born to Dare” slogan for his innovative fusion of electro with Asian pop.
Artist collaborations are another way brands are shaking up their image. Felipe Pantone festooned the front of Zenith’s building in Le Locle with digital-inspired colour (an epic piece not unlike Christo’s wrapping of famous monuments). Hublot is another brand putting artists to work, most recently for a Classic Fusion as seen by Takashi Murakami. Previous collabs include one with sculptor Richard Orlinski and another with street artist Shepard Fairey. So is it because Nature has created so many masterpieces of her own that brands are embedding sustainability into their marketing efforts and forging a new persona as environmental activist?
Increasingly, watchmakers are announcing partnerships with NGOs involved with researching and protecting the natural environment, in particular the oceans and seas. One of the most recent collaborations to date is between Blancpain and Oceana, the largest international organisation working solely for ocean conservation. In a similar vein, Ulysse Nardin has teamed up with Ocearch, the leading scientific shark conservation non-profit – the shark being the brand’s “iconic animal”. Omega is giving its support to Nekton, a research foundation for the protection and management of the world’s oceans. Away from the ocean’s depths, Reinhold Messer is a powerful voice for the planet’s highest peaks. One of the twentieth century’s greatest explorers and mountaineers, his foundation – which provides Himalayan communities with vital resources including a school – benefits from the support of Montblanc. In 1986 Messner became the first person ever to conquer all fourteen peaks over 8,000 metres above sea level. History doesn’t tell us which timepiece he wore…