Giving Timepieces a Celebrity Face

A celebrity face fronting a watch brand doesn't guarantee strong sales, but it certainly doesn't hurt.

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WWD Basel Preview issue 04/03/2008

A celebrity face fronting a watch brand doesn’t guarantee strong sales, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

This story first appeared in the April 3, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Marketing budgets have swelled in recent years as brands look to actors, instead of models, for advertising campaigns. Many were quick to embrace the country’s appetite for celebrity, but there are a few that are approaching it more cautiously, since the rules aren’t always clear.

One of the pitfalls, for example, was highlighted during Charlize Theron’s now infamous former relationship with Raymond Weil. The Oscar-winning actress signed a deal in October 2005 that stated she would only wear Weil’s watches. During the contract, the actress was spotted wearing a watch from a competing brand. It was reported that Raymond Weil sued Theron for a substantial sum and the news was picked up by virtually every tabloid and media outlet with an interest in celebrity. The case is still pending in a federal court, a Weil spokesman said.

Rolex has been working with notable names in sports and music, including Roger Federer and Michael Bublé, for decades (Arnold Palmer, for instance, has been wearing Rolex on the golf course for 40 years). But it goes against the brand to work with the “It” girl of the moment or a hot celebrity. “We don’t do short-term relationships,” said a spokeswoman. “We align ourselves with people who are in the areas we support heavily, such as golf and yachting.”

But the gold standard of celebrity tie-ups, according to some industry insiders, is Cindy Crawford’s long tenure with Omega. The Swiss company was ahead of many of its peers when it tapped Crawford in 1995 to appear in its ads.

“It was quite daring in those days,” said Stephen Urquhart, president of Omega.

When Crawford was hired, for a sum that Urquhart declined to disclose, the brand was actively trying to reach out to women, who at the time only comprised about 25 percent of sales.

“Now, women account for 50 percent of sales,” he added. “It’s not all Cindy or Nicole Kidman, but it certainly is a large factor.”

Under the terms of her contract, Crawford is still particularly involved with the brand, flying to events and making public appearances, including at the upcoming Summer Olympics in Beijing. Kidman will not make the trip, since the timing will be too close to giving birth.

George Clooney is also a brand ambassador everywhere outside the U.S. However, Urquhart said the actor may in time also do ads here. Kidman, for example, began working with Omega overseas and then added the U.S. later on.

Omega invests 25 to 30 percent of its marketing budget on brand ambassadors and also counts the James Bond series of movies as another important part of its marketing. The new Bond film, “Quantum of Solace,” will hit theaters in November.

“Those films have worked out fantastic for us,” he said. “We invest heavily in them and there has been a very direct impact on sales of the Bond watch worldwide during the film period.”

At Baume & Mercier, celebrities became involved as brand ambassadors in 2006, beginning with Kiefer Sutherland of “24” and Meg Ryan.

“We reintroduced the Baume & Mercier & Me campaign [slogan] that had run in the early Nineties,” said Larry Califano, vice president of sales and marketing. “We needed celebrities with a global appeal. They need to be recognized in China and North America.”

Last year, the brand hired Kim Basinger and Gary Sinise as brand ambassadors and this year, Teri Hatcher and Ashton Kutcher will appear in campaigns. Kutcher, who is younger than the past celebs who were hired, was brought on in part to reach out to a younger male demographic.

“Our core has been 35 to 54, but Ashton will appeal to a whole new audience,” Califano said.

He didn’t have data to show how successful the campaign has been; however, he did note the brand, owned by Compagnie Financière Richemont, has had a double-digit increase in same-store sales during the past three years. Hatcher and Kutcher are not under contract to wear the timepieces on the red carpet, but Califano said the company uses them “whenever and wherever we can during their contract.” He noted Hatcher was recently seen on a talk show wearing a Baume & Mercier timepiece. Overall, the company spends 10 percent of its revenue on media.

Di Modolo is still a relatively new player in jewelry and watches, but three years into its business, the brand tapped Tea Leoni as a brand ambassador. The relationship began during a photo shoot for Condé Nast Publications that involved Leoni and Di Modolo. President and chief executive officer Benny Shabtai was instantly intrigued by the actress because of her charity work for UNICEF. A spokeswoman for the brand said Leoni caught the attention of many and “put Di Modolo on the map.”

“She was instantly recognizable and embodied our brand perfectly,” said the spokeswoman.

When Leoni’s time was up as brand ambassador, the company asked Catherine Zeta-Jones to sign on for three years, beginning in fall 2007.

“A celebrity can invoke a lasting image and she has instant appeal,” said the spokeswoman, adding that brand ambassadors are not required to wear jewelry or watches in their daily life, but “in good faith, they make their best effort.” She added that having Zeta-Jones as the face of the brand helps establish credibility with consumers.

On the flip side, two brands that have not yet featured celebrities in ad campaigns and have no plans to do so are Cartier and IWC.

Frédéric de Narp, president and ceo of Cartier North America, said, “I think it’s kind of an easy way to go,” referring to campaigns that do feature the famous. “The product is at the center of everything and the star of our campaigns,” he added.

Cartier has worked with celebrities, such as on the red carpet and at events like the Oscars and its own initiatives. But de Narp insists that they are not monetarily compensated.

Another Richemont brand — IWC — doesn’t have the budget to pay for brand ambassadors, but insists it prefers to focus on the product alone in ads anyway.

“The product is the star,” said a spokeswoman. “We are approached by celebrities, but we only work with those that fit into our DNA and genuinely love the watches.” Eric Dane of “Grey’s Anatomy” is a friend of the brand and is asked to attend some events throughout the year. He also wears IWC on the show. Others who wear IWC include Orlando Bloom, Kevin Spacey and Cate Blanchett.

“We also do a lot of product placement,” said the spokeswoman, noting that watches have appeared in “Rush Hour 3,” “Jumper,” “Miami Vice” and the recently released “21” with James Sturgess and Kate Bosworth.

Versace, known more for clothing than watches, is introducing its new watch, Acron, at Baselworld. Patrick Dempsey, the face of Versace Man, won’t appear in a campaign for the watch, but it will be interesting to see if the soon-to-be-released pictures showing the “Grey’s Anatomy” star wearing the timepiece will be enough of an endorsement to his fans.

“Patrick is an international film star, but also a loving father who takes his children to school and then goes on the set,” said Donatella Versace. “And besides all of that, he loves fashion.”

Overall, though, most watch brands continue to focus on just their products in their ads, or to use models. Still, in this celebrity-obsessed world, some involvement with famous faces is a must, either in ad campaigns, inviting them to parties to be photographed or loaning them watches to wear on the red carpet.

As the spokeswoman at Di Modolo said, “You could do this [advertising] without a face, but it does make it a lot easier to connect when you have one.”