A new era of marketing in the watch world

Digital marketing expert Carlos Gil runs a marketing agency and social media consultancy, serving Fortune 500 clients and helping them navigate their digital transformation. In his book, “The End of Marketing” Gil offers a wealth of insights and I will share some below. In particular, I’d like to dig deeper into my hypothesis that Vacheron Constantin has formally entered the world of micro-influencer marketing on social media… and it might be the first ‘big brand’ to do so.

The nature of marketing has changed

Historically, marketers used to depend on mass communication, logos and mainstream celebrities to influence how people perceived their brands. The shift to social media created a need to adapt, and connect with consumers on a personal level. Brands now need to enter into a dialogue rather than creating content for content’s sake. Instead of trying to control what people are saying about a brand, these brands need to engage with those who are already talking about it.

“People don’t buy from logos, they buy from people. People trust people.”

Consumers tend to be highly influenced by one another – and brand marketers need to harness the power of that interpersonal influence. They need to learn about their customers in order to turn them into influencers or “brand advocates”, within their own personal and professional circles. If a brand makes 50,000 timepieces a year – that is 50,000 opportunities to create circles of micro-influence which could have a significant impact – especially because within their own circles, these people tend to be more credible (to their audience) than a major celebrity endorsing a product to the same people. We will come back to this point later.

“Social media is more about understanding psychology and human emotion and less about traditional sales and marketing.”

The other thing which we don’t see enough, is the use of real people to be the face of a brand, and interaction with supporters which is relatable to other human beings. Brands often seem to turn to professional photographers and videographers for content when in fact, the brand’s employees could act as storytellers and regular customers could become advocates for the brand. This shift has happened over the last few years where the likes of Bark and Jack have built relationships with brands and become unpaid advocates by virtue of the relationships they have built – e.g. Adrian likes Oris, and appreciates what they do…so he mentions them often and that’s just the perfect organic marketing for the brand.

This sort of advocacy usually comes more naturally with independent watchmakers, and this is logical because they serve far fewer clients than mainstream brands. Similarly, smaller brands like Vertex and Smiths have successfully turned to their customers into content creators and storytellers for their brands. In contrast, Vacheron Constantin has historically been known to discourage their employees from ‘representing’ the brand publicly. Employees who are extremely passionate about the brand, are forbidden from discussing the brand externally with their ‘employee hat‘ on … the opposite of empowerment, as it were. This makes no sense to me; especially if I compare it to an independent like F.P. Journe; their employees are free to express their opinions about the brand, and can connect with collectors ‘as fellow collectors‘ despite the fact that they work for the brand. We all know nothing is perfect, and employees should feel free to point out BOTH pros and cons… unfortunately the big brands like to pretend they are perfect and don’t appreciate any cons being pointed out.

“Brands already have influencers that work for them called ‘employees’ and influencers who buy from them every day called ‘customers.”

Another thing big brands don’t do much, is celebrate small successes. For example when someone tweets about or tags a big brand in an Instagram story – it rarely, if ever gets reposted or acknowledged by the brand. Contrast this with smaller brands like MB&F or Unimatic – they will ensure they engage with almost every post about their brand, and thank the customer for the engagement instead of ignore it. MB&F even runs competitions which engage with non-MB&F owners – seems fairly logical to try and bring more people into the fold… These are little things, but this is fairly straightforward practice (and cheap, easy wins) when it comes to engagement. Sure, it might sound unrealistic for bigger brands to do this to the same extent as the smaller ones – but if big brands increased engagement from 2% to even 20%, this would be a tenfold improvement!

This is where it gets interesting… recently Vacheron Constantin has started to engage with the online community a bit more, even replying to comments on Instagram posts – this is a notable shift; can you imagine Rolex ever responding to anything on their Instagram posts? I can’t. Can you think of any random influencer who isn’t a huge Audemars Piguet collector getting allocated a 15202BC directly by the brand, and thanking the brand for helping them obtain it? I can’t. Rolex is a little different, since they don’t sell through their own boutiques. I am not saying this has never happened, and to a certain degree AP has done this subtly before, but never at the expense of annoying a large group of existing collectors… open to debate on this, but let’s dig further.

Using community management to build the brand’s following

Building a following has two parts: content marketing and community management. Community management relates to proactively seeking out opportunities to engage with people about your brand – across your industry, and including your competitors.

“The key to success for all brands is to be personable and as close to human as possible while working within the confines of a brand logo and guidelines.”

I reckon most big brands historically haven’t cared about out who is talking about them, or what these people are saying, unless it is a mainstream publication like Hodinkee or GQ etc. Carlos Gil suggests they ought to be doing much more. They should search for mentions, not only of the brand’s username, but, also, for organic mentions. Brands should search for instances when people mention the brand along with competing brands, and look for cases where consumers discuss how they feel about the brand or its competitors… Then, jump into these conversations.

To gain trust on social media, brands need to scrap the corporate tone… people will rarely feel heard if they receive a generic corporate reply. Again, I noticed this practice takes place frequently with smaller brands and independent luxury watchers… less so with big brands – but recently, it is something Vacheron Constantin has been pursuing. They maintain the corporate tone, and sign each reply with “Regards, Vacheron Constantin”… perhaps they ought to get a social brand manager who becomes the face for online engagement? They already have some candidates… perhaps.

What’s the point?

The book also explains how brand marketers need to shift from a mass communication mind-set to one of engaging customers individually, or at least in a more targeted manner. Many executives don’t understand the power of individualised marketing on social media, and continue to think of social media as just another means of ‘broadcasting’ with traditional marketing… but the way the social media corporations monetise their platforms makes it impossible for marketers to connect with their millions of followers. Just look at the engagement stats for any massive corporate social account, and it is often low single-digits.

What Gil suggests as an alternative, is that brand marketers should engage with and cultivate just a tiny fraction of those followers, who will use their influence on the brand’s behalf. This tiny fraction will have their own circles of influence – and so a small number of advocates will eventually give a brand indirect influence with many thousands, in a potentially more credible way than say, a mainstream celebrity would do.

Doesn’t this sound familiar, in the case of Vacheron Constantin, and the Everest? My hypothesis is that Vacheron executives have made a conscious decision to aggressively pursue micro-influencer marketing. I can’t think of another logical reason for them to knowingly annoy existing collectors, and sell an exceedingly limited and highly anticipated watch release to people who have never spent a penny directly with the brand. They must have concluded the upside was worth more than the downside – and you might be wondering how that could be…

Well, of the people who are getting annoyed with the brand because they couldn’t get an Everest – most are unjustified. I personally own a single watch from the brand, and London received 4 Everest pieces in total. I know there are clients who have spent a lot more with the boutique, and have probably been collecting the brand for much longer too – do I ‘deserve’ one? Absolutely not. Therefore, I have no reason to be annoyed. Many Vacheron owners around the world seem to overestimate their own value to the boutiques and exude a sense of entitlement which is really absurd. That said, there may be a few collectors who perhaps do have a reason to be annoyed, and for the most part this small group are older collectors who have fewer years left to spend money. The people being targeted by Vacheron Constantin via the micro-influencers, are a younger generation who, on balance, will have more years to spend money on Vacheron timepieces, than the ones who are regrettably being overlooked in the near-term.

Is it a good idea? I think, more generally speaking, yes! The brand is taking steps to protect its longevity, and focusing on the sources of future cash flow – cant fault that. However, the manner in which they went about it was, frankly, idiotic. I say this because even though the brand might be targeting a new generation at the expense of the older generation – the new generation is also witnessing this “injustice” and gets to see first hand how the brand can forget an old and valuable ‘relationship’ in favour of new business. So they know, when they get older, the same thing will likely happen again! A simple analogy is a cheating spouse … if you get together with someone who is in a relationship, and they cheat on their significant other and end up with you – can you ever be sure they won’t do the same to you?

I also find that these practices muddy the waters with regards to the independence of the chosen influencers… sure, they might have paid for the watches because simply being ‘allowed’ to purchase one, was itself the ‘favour’ from the brand – so strictly speaking, it might appear to be a normal transaction. However, the nature of the circumstances means these people are less likely to speak unfavourably about the brand in the future – ironic because their critical opinion is what led them to become ‘influencers’ in the first place. People knew they could rely on these influencers to be impartial, and would seek their advice for this reason.

Imagine if someone who has never bought a VC, but has a huge social following, gets allocated an Overseas Everest watch… do you think they would dare criticise the brand in a hurry? Usually, they would not – the idea of having preferential access becomes a social or moral ‘contract’ with the brand… and even if those people decided to stay true to their own principles and remain 100% impartial – I think the brand would simply not have the willingness to continue offering them preferential access. So ask yourself – what would you choose? Get more popular watches which you would never otherwise be able to buy, or remain 100% impartial in your public views and opinions about that brand?

As I have said a number of times already – these are simply opinions and musings on the subject – the people who DO get preferential access have done really well, and this is not at all intended to be critical of them. The fact that they own these rare watches means they deserve them! The purpose here is to share my thoughts on the bigger picture as I see it, and offer collectors food for thought. Most importantly, this goes back to the core of my blog posts – providing alternate viewpoints to help collectors navigate the barrage of content they consume on social media… which absolutely WILL influence you. So when you see a post, or you see situations developing online which seem unusual, ask yourself… Why is this happening? Who benefits? How trustworthy are your sources of influence? I have no doubt that many will say this has been going on for years… maybe you’re right, but thus far, I have never seen it happen so blatantly as it has with Vacheron Constantin. If you have other examples from other brands, hit the comments section below.


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