October 4, 2020
by Ariel Adams
I recently noticed some aBlogtoWatch audience survey data that prompted weeks of questioning in my mind. The result of a particular query on wristwatch design preferences suggested that just 13% of respondents claim to be interested in “contemporary or novel designs which I haven’t seen before.” That number seemed really low and tends to suggest that, for the time being at least, consumers seem to prefer classic versus futuristic designs. This sentiment seems to be a departure from consumer sentiment we measured just a few years ago, and vividly different from consumer preferences over the last couple of decades.
I combined the survey data with a lot of experiential observations I’ve made over the years when it comes to the watches people prefer or respond to best, via commentary, in order to attempt an understanding of what appears to be a strong dispreference for futuristic or contemporary watch designs. Let me first explain why this is an issue, to begin with.
Watch design tends to fall into one of two categories most of the time. The first category is what I call “familiar” designs. These are mostly “classic” looks that add minor aesthetic variations to visual styles that already exist and are probably familiar to the people who see them. Familiar designs can simply be a copy of another popular product, or they can be suggestive of a nostalgic theme, era, or pursuit. In any event, the entire value of “familiar” designs is that they help remind the wearer of something they actually remember or that society is currently thinking about as part of a sort of collective zeitgeist.
The second type of watch designs are those that are inherently supposed to be fresh and distinctive, rather than present a familiar face to consumers; “fresh” designs tend to try new things while looking ahead, design-wise. Fresh designs are not always inherently futuristic, but because they experiment with new ideas and value state-of-the-art aesthetic inspirations, most fresh designs end up being “futuristic” or at least “modern” in their aesthetic results. There are certainly exceptions, but I posit that the majority of today’s watch designs fall into the “fresh” or “familiar” category.
My educated assumption is that, historically speaking, consumer preferences were more or less evenly split between favoring fresh versus familiar designs. It isn’t that a consumer needed to be entirely interested in either of the two design directions, but rather that watch purchases tended to show a relatively even split between fresh and familiar designs. Today (and for the last several years I believe), familiar designs tend to be much more popular with consumers.
Observational evidence of what people wear on their wrists, what retailers say is selling, and generally how timepiece enthusiasts react to the plethora of new watches aBlogtoWatch debuts for brands each year, has given me a robust set of data to pull from in order to come to such conclusions. What I have found is that futuristic “fresh” designs are not testing particularly well with consumers, these days. It isn’t an absolute law that futuristic-looking watches aren’t being purchased, but their popularity is certainly being eclipsed, from a volume perspective, by “familiar” classic watch designs in new wristwatch products.
I contrast this with what was popular in the early 2000s until about 2012: When the market for futuristic-looking (especially at the very high-end price segment) traditional timepieces (I’m not talking about technology items, such as smartwatches) was very hot, as brands attempted to outdo each another when it came to imagining the most interesting and often wild-looking futuristic wristwatches. How is it that in just a few years the wristwatch consumer market has made such a radical taste-shift from mixing fresh and familiar watches to focusing so heavily on familiar-looking timepieces? The implication is that the exact same consumer 10 years ago might have purchased a futuristic watch, while today they would not. That’s a big change in consumer behavior since it affects current consumers, as opposed to representing a generational shift in taste as new people come on board to purchase high-end watches.
From a utilitarian and price perspective, there really aren’t any fundamental differences between fresh and familiar watch designs. Either can be just as comfortable, legible, attractive, wearable, collectible, or affordable as the other. I do not believe it would be correct to suggest that an economic reason is behind the shift in taste. This would, for example, help explain things if futuristic watches were routinely priced higher than familiar-looking watch designs. That is not the case at all when looking at the entire industry as a whole. Fresh or familiar watch designs are given equal treatment when it comes to being either affordably priced or extremely high-end, often use the same materials, and for the most part share mechanical characteristics of equal value, complexity, and price. All that really changes is the external aesthetic of the watch, which either suggests something contemporary or futuristic, or something familiar-looking from the past.
What exactly causes a consumer to prefer one type of design over the others? In fact, futuristic, fresh designs should be winning. Consumer electronics, architecture, and automobile design have the most impact on male consumers overall, and if you look at those areas today, most of them are what we would consider contemporary or futuristic. Very little in each of those product areas that populate our urban landscapes are what most people would consider classic or familiar. This is especially true in the large economic zone where most luxury watch purchase activity occurs. Thus, the obvious result of advancing city aesthetics on the human psyche seems to not be affecting wristwatch tastes as might have been the fact just 10 or 20 years ago.
Is there something else happening that is not only clouding our interest in fresh designs but actually making familiar watch designs more compelling for most consumers? I have some theories, but there are still a lot of questions to be asked.
One simple answer to why consumers are interested in classic watch designs is as a result of vintage watches being popular over the last 10 years. Vintage watches started to become popular when the Internet allowed collectors to purchase less expensive older watches instead of much more expensive brand new watches. This created a lot of collector fervor around vintage timepieces because of their comparable value — that is, until a lot of watch speculators and auction houses came in trying to paint relatively modest vintage watches as valuable collectibles. Vintage watches went from being cheap starter watches to highly promoted valuable collectibles. All of this together has clearly had an impact on consumer preferences when it comes to people wanting to look like they are part of the in-crowd wearing a cool vintage timepiece. This effect may have been so great that it thoroughly left an impact on watch designers who started to create new watches that looked like old watches.
Recent trends in consumer and collector behavior have more than likely had some impact on consumer preferences, though I don’t think that tells the larger part of the story of why familiar designs seem to be so overwhelmingly preferred. A key aspect of the traditional wristwatch wearing experience is that the timepieces allow the wearer to feel a particular emotion or to “sit on the shoes” of a particular character or personality. That personality might be the adventurous diver, successful industrialist, fearless pilot, virtuous soldier, or bold space explorer, except fewer and fewer people seem to be interested in being space explorers today, at least when it comes to watches that are inspired by the space exploration technology of the 21st (versus the 20th) century.
When asking questions about consumer preferences, I always ask myself about consumer moods. People buy what they feel they need or what they feel will give them positive emotions to look at or use. Wristwatches are functional items whose function is actually secondary to why people purchase them. People purchase traditional wristwatches as self-expressive trophies. That is, the primary purpose of wearing a wristwatch is to both express something about the wearer, as well as his or her mood.
To wear a futuristic watch implies that you are not only excited about the future, but also that you are ready for it. To wear a familiar watch might imply the opposite sentiment — that you are fondly thinking about the past when perhaps times were better. What if the cause of watch lovers preferring familiar watch versus fresh watch designs is directly related to consumer sentiment about the future? If there is a mass sense that the future looks positive it could be argued there is more interest in fresh, futuristic watch designs that evoke a sense of optimism. Alternatively, if there is a mass fascination with nostalgic elements of the past, then perhaps people, in general, are more pessimistic about the future and rely on memories of a real or romanticized past when “things were better.”
An interesting side note is that collective nostalgia for the past is highly error-prone. When looking in hindsight, people tend to mostly recall the good and forget the bad. When looking forward to evaluating new things, we do not have the test of time with which we can discard the less impressive from the more impressive. It is actually much more challenging to evaluate the quality of fresh designs, given that adopting them is riskier. It is far easier to look back and see what worked particularly well, and then pick and choose the best options. Thus, it is very rarely the fact that the past was actually “better” than the present. The past may have not had today’s problems, but it had its own uncertainties. Also, it is interesting to see that most all generations throughout history have looked back on the past with varying degrees of nostalgia. In any event, the sense of being more interested in a “familiar” (and often happier) past is a social construct, as opposed to a representation of actual history. Nevertheless, when the future seems dim, uncertain, and fraught with risk, we look to the past for comfort. This is a core part of human behavior (for better or worse).
If you apply this logic to wristwatch design preferences, you could easily explain how a social mood that is not excited about the future might explain why we prefer familiar versus fresh designs. If the social mood were to change and thus our interest in the future was more exciting, then I think interest in fresh designs would increase. Few would argue that collectively, as a society, we do not see the future as a great challenge, full of risks and problems we don’t currently have answers to. Combine uncertainty about the effects of climate change, political instability, human over-population, tepid technological innovation, and sluggish economic growth, and you have a perfect formula for a population whose minds will look to a nostalgic past for comfort, as opposed to bravely focusing on the unknown future.
I would argue that for the last decade or so, popular culture has gradually shifted away from thinking about a better future to trying to seek lessons from a better past. The nostalgia generation — as we might be known in the future — seeks to recreate or remain in the past, as opposed to facing the future. This same sentiment exists in the minds of watch enthusiasts and could easily explain a predominant interest in familiar versus fresh watch designs.
What does it mean to be interested in futuristic watches in times like these? I happen to be one of the 13 or so percent of the aBlogtoWatch community who is mostly interested in fresh, futuristic designs. This is probably because I have enough design sophistication to judge for myself whether a fresh design is worth caring about or not. Plus, I am so experienced a watch collector and enthusiast that familiar designs are likely to bore me. In order to remain excited about watches, my brain probably needs novelty. That doesn’t necessarily mean I feel particularly more optimistic about the future than anyone else, but rather that I hunger for original designs more than others. That said, on a personal note, I am excited about the future because what comes with it is change, and change is always exciting (at least for some).
If I am correct in my theory about how current social moods affect a watch enthusiast’s interest in futuristic (fresh) or traditional (familiar) designs, then it could go a long way in explaining a lot of consumer behavior overall. When it comes to the world of wristwatches, it can help brands and designers when it comes to designing new products and in their marketing. What about designers who still want to release fresh designs? Is it simply not the time? Perhaps. It is also true that perhaps, in the design and marketing phase, it would be wise to connect a futuristic design as much with the past, or as much with existing aesthetics, as possible. We live in risk-averse times, and I find it interesting how that sentiment can have a serious impact on the watch design choices we make when outfitting our wrists.