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Fusion of tradition and future: Jean-Claude Biver on digital marketing and luxury brands

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Within the highly traditional, risk-averse luxury Swiss watch industry, Jean-Claude Biver, president of LVMH’s Watch Division, has always been something of a maverick. In 1982, with the mechanical watch industry on its deathbed, he bought and revived the 282-year-old Blancpain. In 2004 he transformed Hublot from a small brand into a major global name, emphasizing “the fusion of tradition and future.” More recently, he’s introduced a smart watch with Tag Heuer with the idea of repositioning mechanical wristwatches for a new generation, saying, “the connected watch is the best promotional tool for the mechanical watch.” We spoke to Biver about innovation and tradition and the role of digital marketing and luxury brands.

Mechanical watches are based on 15th century spring technology, is there an opportunity for Swiss watch brands to adapt to new technologies?
I think that there is the Swiss watch industry and Swiss watch making. The industry is linked to technology, the future and modernity. The tradition of watchmaking has nothing in common with the industry; handcrafting, small quantities, excellence, tradition and culture drive it. These are two different approaches and each one has advantages and disadvantages. There is this idea that tradition and technology are mutually exclusive. I happen to disagree. There is this idea that new innovative technology will threaten the industry – a lot of this comes out of the concern over the entry of smart watches. But I think that the Swiss watch industry will find a way to catch up. In the end art doesn’t care about technology. I use the example of Coca Cola and a fine wine from Napa Valley. Both are sold in a bottle and drunk in a glass. The watchmaking industry and the art of watchmaking are two different products but both are worn on the wrist and tell you what time it is.

Where do you see the industry and the art of watchmaking coming together?
I did this at Hublot. One of the ways we approached this was to say let’s connect the watchmaking art with the future in how we chose to present our timepieces. For instance, for the past 300 to 400 years watches were only made out of gold or platinum. These are the materials of the past. I said why not use materials of today like carbon fiber or ceramic? One of the things I wanted to do was to demonstrate that mechanical watches could adapt to a new generation. I believe that watches should be like paintings and sculpture and adapt to its century. We put a million dollar watch on a rubber bracelet. This was not only unique but considered very radical.

You have said that you don’t view smart watches as a threat to traditional mechanical watches, why?
There is a lot of discussion that smart watches will take business away from mechanical watches but I don’t see them as a competitor to mechanical watches in the same way that Coca Cola does not compete with a Napa Valley wine — and anyone that thinks so is an idiot. They are complimentary. Why can’t you wear a smart watch when you travel and a beautiful, slim mechanical watch to the opera? Both have their own way to be worn; one does not necessarily kill the other.

If anything a smart watch can only help mechanical watches. When a young person wears an Apple Watch, that’s good, it’s teaching him to wear something on his wrist where maybe before he wore nothing. That can only help to educate people. Once they have something on the wrist that they call a watch it’s then easier to sell them something called a mechanical watch. If these “connected watches” did not exist, it is likely that this younger generation wouldn’t be wearing a watch at all – now they are starting to wear them. One day they will notice there is other options outside of connected watches and they will discover traditional watches. I see the smart watch as a beautiful entry point for mechanical watches.

Luxury has been slow to exploit all of the avenues of digital marketing, how can brands approach the integration of online and digital in the luxury message?
At Hublot, we decided to talk to millennials. They are a driving influential force even if they aren’t buying mechanical watches today — they will buy them tomorrow, and they have a very influential presence in the market. Our strategy has been to go to where the potential customers are. It was a brilliant decision. We used social media to talk to and with this new generation. Today, we are the biggest watch brand on Instagram with 2 million followers. We were the first to begin communicating with bloggers in social media. When we began doing this it was 2004, a bit late but within the Swiss watch industry we were ahead. We ended up giving up on traditional magazine advertising, shifting 80% of our budget to digital. We started doing many different things; we had a dinner for Hublot in London and sent out invitations through Instagram. We said the dinner is tomorrow night and the first 100 people who send us their email address we will reserve a seat at the dinner. It was very different from the usual exclusive approach but that is what you have to do.

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