Record time: athletes and sports watches

Athletes associated with products are a staple of marketing and advertising in the United States. Tiger Woods appears in commercials for Buick automobiles, ex-athletes help sell beer, athletes often have their own signature shoe and/or clothing line, and it’d be bard to list the number of athletes who spread the gospel of Nike.


Well, athletes and watches, especially sports watches, are a natural fit. Well-known, star athletes represent style, innovation, excellence, precision and reliability, all things that people look for in watches. There are many athletes who are currently appearing or have appeared in marketing and advertising campaigns for watches. Look at TAG Heuer’s new “What Are You Made Of?” campaign, OMEGA’s campaigns that feature tennis stars, Oakley’s event and athlete sponsorship, Maurice Lacroix’s racecar drivers and many others.

Some companies pay the athletes to endorse or wear a certain watch, while for other companies it is serendipity that the athletes choose the nixon digital watch they do. If a company doesn’t pay for the endorsement, however, the marketing is more word of mouth because the athletes’ images can’t be used in a formal campaign. If Shaq or Michael Jordan is seen wearing a particular watch, a watch they purchased with their own money, that really can’t be part of any campaign. The company has to hope that the watch is seen by a lot of people and word of mouth spreads.


Companies use athlete endorsements because they are a very effective way of boosting awareness. Watches are very visible on people’s wrists, and when an athlete wears a unique looking watch, people pay attention. It’s a little like product placement in a movie, but that appearance by the watch may play on ESPN’s Sportscenter every single day.

“You either have a $30 million budget, or you find other ways to increase awareness–through people wearing watches, through special events and so on,” says Francois-Henry Bennahmias, president, Audemars Piguet North America. “To be partners with athletes is one of the possibilities. Nick Faldo has been with us for over ten years. We offered this year a Nick Faldo Special Limited Edition watch, delivered with a Nick Faldo signed golf bag and a set of clubs, and it sold out in two days. We are in the process of working a deal with two other golfers as well: Rocco Mediate and Matt Kuchar.”

Athletes can be used to differentiate a message. If a company has never used athletes before, working with an athlete for a certain watch, or line of akribos xxiv watches, can be particularly effective.

“From a positioning point of view, we are using an athlete, Olympian Dick Fosbury, to focus the sport chic segment,” says Bob Filotei, president, Piaget North America. “The sport chic customer looks for something innovative and cool, and that’s the hook. We are selling a watch that has a different way of doing things, and that’s the parallel with the athlete we chose. We are going to use Fosbury around the country, to do in-store promotions, where customers can come in and meet him with his Olympic medal. His participation with Piaget’s Upstream makes sense, is a good story, and it works well with local press.”

TAG Heuer has always been associated with sports and sports watches, so athletes are a natural connection with them. The new “What Are You Made Of?” campaign uses several high-profile athletes, all asking that question. “The campaign speaks to the unique ability of certain individuals to distinguish themselves by the emotional nature of their success,” Susan Nicholas, president and CEO of LVMH Watch and Jewelry USA, says. “It communicates to everyone who has an active attitude and who shares the TAG Heuer values. TAG Heuer is a brand that does much more than merely measure seconds and sporting performance; it provokes a personal response in the consumer as well.”

Omega has long had athletes as ambassadors for the brand. “When you associate with a specific athlete, the testimonial-based advertising campaign gives the customer an association with that person, that sport, that personality, that style,” says Raquel Schuttler, director of marketing, OMEGA US. “It’s a tiered effect, using all the different levels of communication. For example, a retailer can use our ad campaign with an athlete to attract a particular kind of customer.”


Most people say yes, but athletic endorsements are only part of an overall marketing strategy. In combination with advertising, public relations and in-store efforts, associations with athletes certainly don’t hurt a brand (though if there is off-the-field controversy, it could). If the total marketing push isn’t there, however, it might not translate to a boost in retail sales.

“The success of an association with an athlete depends on the whole marketing effort, if there is a special promotion, giveaway, event or contest to play with the guys,” says Audemars Piguet’s Bennahmias. “We have to be creative enough, on top of this, to make it work. If I could be on the wrists of the top basketball players or the top football players in the country tomorrow, without having to pay millions of dollars, I would sign in a second. It works.”

Maurice Lacroix has been involved with the Indianapolis 500 race and the Indy Racing League (IRL) for many years, and they award special watches to the winning drivers. “These are some of the top athletes in the world in auto racing,” Bob Siragusa, president, Maurice Lacroix USA, says. “We don’t just do it for the brand prestige and the exposure, it’s also aligning a traditional, well-respected event like the Indy 500 with our brand, which is also a traditional, well-respected brand. It really gives us more credibility, and this is the first time in the history of the Indy 500 that a watch has specifically been designed for the winners of the Indy 500. It’s not just a sponsorship, it’s more of an involvement from a personal standpoint, from a traditional standpoint and from an unique standpoint. Anybody can buy a sponsorship, we’ve done more than that-it’s a partnership.”


Retailers have to get on board with the overall promotion, because one ad or one picture in a store window is not going to make that much of a difference. If the idea is to sell an experience along with the watch, like an autographed-by-Nick Faldo golf bag or a singles match against Anna Kournikova, retailers have to embrace the program and believe in it, supporting it with point-of-purchase displays and pushing it to their customers. At the same time, watch companies have to do the right thing in providing innovative programs that capitalize on the athlete’s involvement.

For an athletic association to really work, the retailers have to embrace it. “Having in-store points of sales, which signify that brands like TAG have ambassadors, can build credibility and create interest and prestige,” says David Savidan, vice president of marketing, LVMH Watch and Jewelry USA. “If someone is not sure about buying the watch, the visuals might help to swing the sale. We are leveraging the fact that we are affiliated with these ambassadors. Another good way to leverage at the retail level is to bring the athlete into the store to have signings, which creates demand and traffic for the retailers.

“Many of our retailers use our Duratrans in their stores,” Savidan continues. “We’ll have 700 in store by the end of May which show racecar driver David Coulthard. An appearance by the talent is expensive; we can’t do it in every store, so we do it in bigger markets. We fund the appearance, and we will offer it to the retailers as part of the total support package.”

Unfortunately for many brands, the majority of retailers just don’t bother to get involved. Sure, if every watch brand has a special event happening all the time, there’s no way a store can do it all. But the unique events, the events that no one else has, are the ones that retailers really should do to distinguish the brand and their store.

“Very few of the retailers take fullest advantage of the connection,” acknowledges Maurice Lacroix’s Siragusa. “Most of them are ignorant when it comes to marketing. There are great opportunities out there that they don’t take advantage of–they see the marketing opportunities as more work. However, a store being associated with a unique event makes them special and unique from anyone else. The majority of dealers don’t pick up on this: They just don’t get it; they don’t understand that these things bring notoriety to them and long-term value. They look at the effort and the time it will take–they should be making time for it, because it makes them different and special.

“It’s not just what a store gets on a given day, it’s really about notoriety, uniqueness and being different,” Siragusa continues. “No other retailer can do it, it’s only available through Maurice Lacroix, yet still some retailers decide not to get involved.”

To be fair, however, the brands themselves have to get involved with the store. It’s not enough to put an athlete’s face in an ad and expect the retailer to sell great quantities of stuhrling skeleton watch. For it all to work, it has to be a partnership, where the brand helps with national exposure and supports the retailer at the grassroots level with materials, appearances, special promotions and more.

“On a local level, if there is a sporting event in the area, we encourage retailers to utilize the materials within their stores and in local advertising, and we try to support those areas with billboards,” says Omega’s Schuttler. “We do local events with them, matching their schedule. If an athlete is in town for an event, we’ll bring in the retailers. There are good retailers out there who have good PR departments who leverage everything they can. There are accounts who make an attempt, and there are accounts that are more focused on their particular stores. It makes sense to leverage the connection, to utilize the strength of the brand.”

Athletic endorsements aren’t cheap, and the companies that enter into agreements with athletes are anxious to make the most out of them. For such a program to work, however, retailers have to work together with the brand, getting the word out with signage, local PR and advertising.

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