Speckled fine watches dazzled on the wrists of the reassuringly predictable high-end crowds at the Gurney’s Resort & Marina in one of New York state’s most popular leisure destinations for both locals and tourists. On a weekend in late summer, just weeks before the famed Hamptons lose their seasonal warm climate, Swiss watchmaker Ulysse Nardin showed up in a decked-out Airstream RV transformed into a mobile watch showroom. It sits right near a spot called “End of the World,” the eastern-most spot in New Year State.
The promotional partnership with Ulysse Nardin and watch retailer chain Watches of Switzerland is an interesting exercise in what can happen when luxury watch brands actually leverage their greatest marketing asset — and that is to bring interesting people together. The president of Ulysse Nardin North America, Francois- Xavier Hotier, knows something about the importance of watch brand marketing in the American market. Under his stewardship, the flavorful watchmaker has been able to garner zeal once again. His strategy is no secret. Armed with the trust of Ulysse Nardin HQ, he does exactly what wise brands do — he brought people together.
In this case, Ulysse Nardin brought together the founder of a military veteran’s charity supported by the brand, selected staff from its authorized dealer, and the esteemed area guests who holiday at one of New York state’s most exclusive destinations. Set against the backdrop of yachts and lobster rolls, this was truly “nice watch territory.”
What Francois-Xavier knows well about high-end watches is that engaging stories are really crucial when selling products. He also knows that good stories have no value unless the right people know them. This is where bringing people together is so important because it is when story sharing goes on. The story I’m being told on this pre-stormy day (sunny, but with accompanying hurricane warning) is how Mr. Alex West founded a philanthropic organization known as One More Wave. Working with disabled and traumatized Navy SEALs veterans, his charity produces bespoke boards for a special form of surf therapy. His work has been a hit, and watch brand Ulysse Nardin is a proud sponsor. Now Mr. West has come out to Montauk to tell his story, all in the good name of soldier rehab made possible by the generous donation of brands like Ulysse Nardin who specialize in making the rich feel good (when they do their job correctly).
Among the bigger trends at play in the luxury watch space is the need for many sold watches to have value above and beyond price and aesthetics. To be desirable, luxury watches need everything plus personality. Beautiful timepieces have a hard time finding new customers. Wearers these days want more authenticity from their wearables, and so an extra “something” is needed to push buyers over the edge into a purchase. In the case of the Ulysse Nardin Diver Deep Dive One More Wave (aBlogtoWatch hands-on here), the brand supports West’s One More Wave organization, which helps the daily lives of select veterans by training them and getting them into the water with their own boards.
Reports from many of One More Wave’s graduates claim that surfing was often the only time they didn’t feel suicidal or like a shadow of their former selves. Surfing is also a surprisingly communal activity, devoid of the typical aggressive competitiveness which can be common in many other established sports. With the backdrop of the ocean’s power of relaxation and the calm focus required to succeed in surfing, it makes sense why One More Wave’s system works.
What makes the charity more interesting is that it is also involved in making the bespoke wetsuits and surfboards for the physically handicapped veterans they work with. The organization’s founder, Adam West, is a graphic designer by training, with a set of invaluable skills that allow him to help craft items with visual designs meant to inspire and empower the veterans he is making them for.
Luxury watch brands do not approach the prospect of working with a charity — or any organization, for that matter — lightly. The public relationship between any luxury firm and a third party must strictly reinforce a long list of values, morals, and principles that old-world status symbols are compelled to abide by. Merely being supported by a firm like Ulysse Nardin is, in itself, a testament to merit (though it is true that not all watchmakers have managers as scrupulous as those at Kering Group-owned Ulysse Nardin). Several years ago, I met with Ulysse Nardin’s US brand president after he first met with the One More Watch team in San Diego. He wanted to know my opinion on how the watch enthusiast community would react to the relationship. I immediately responded that I thought it was a good idea.
Not only did Ulysse Nardin actually supply some watches for the US Navy in the past, but the brand has been making serious diving and marine instruments for years. Why not work with a charity that helps some of the people whose careers are connected to the brand’s past? More so, surfboards are an iconic symbol of leisure, youthful adventure, sex appeal, the call of the beach, and travel. All of these notions fit firmly in the cadre of values most high-end firms want consumers to associate with their preferred lifestyle. Lastly, I felt it was important that One More Wave was actually doing the positive work it was collecting money for. Many fundraising charities are mere clearinghouses that rarely engage in social or environmental help directly. One More Wave is rather open about the fact that it costs more than $2,500 to fully outfit and train a single veteran with surf gear and the skills to do so. It isn’t cheap, but at least it is an honest cost for a bespoke therapy.
Some of the latest Ulysse Nardin watches fit the surfer image surprisingly well. Many of the brand’s sports watches are contained in the “Diver” collection, which is the cousin to the boating-themed Marine family. A few years ago, Ulysse Nardin didn’t have anything solidly focused on a more modern, youthful consumer. Today, the brand has a new appeal for buyers more interested in contemporary design and engineering as opposed to old-world flair and functionality. This is well-personified not only in Ulysse Nardin’s high-end flavors of Freak and Executive watches but also in its distinctive-looking but approachable sports watch collections.
It’s hard for people to walk away from someone holding a surfboard — something I learned as I witnessed the magnetic power of man-meets-wave-riding-device while staying warm in the off-Atlantic sun as men and women in pastel colors glance at Ulysse Nardin watches on their way to the pool. Or was it the little RV’s surprisingly robust air conditioner? Hospitality is always sure to lure them in.
While boastful product launches and TV commercials are excellent brand-building activities, it is time spent in the field with actual consumers that will make or break a luxury watch brand tomorrow. Gaining market share in a long-depressed retail market in America is about groundwork like this: taking watches, talking heads, and notable experiences on the road to where the people are. Ulysse Nardin gets this. And as the brand continues to make good to stories and then share them, the appeal to new and existing watch consumers alike will thrive, as a result. Watch brand managers who lead with their sleeves rolled up already own the future. Learn more at the Ulysse Nardin watches website here.