By  on January 19, 2012

GENEVA — China surpassed the U.S. as the leading market for luxury timepieces by the number of Internet searches for the first time in 2011, accounting for a quarter of all searches mentioning top watch brands, a survey published today showed.

China nabbed the top spot for the first time since the study launched in 2004, reflecting the purchasing power of its increasingly affluent population.

Digital Luxury Group, previously known as IC-Agency, published results for the 15 brands in the “haute horlogerie” category of its World Watch Report to coincide with the SIHH trade fair here, which ends its five-day run on Friday. The full edition of the report, which covers 40 brands, will be released in March at the Baselworld fair.

The poll found that China accounted for 24.9 percent of searches last year, versus 21.2 percent for the U.S., which saw a 5 percentage point decrease versus 2010.

“Search patterns in China tend to be strongly related to price inquiries,” said Florent Bondoux, manager of the strategy and intelligence business unit of Digital Luxury Group. “Contrary to assumptions, they are not very interested in counterfeits.”

IWC, Patek Philippe and Zenith continued to grab the lion’s share of brand searches worldwide with a collective market share of more than 50 percent, the study found.

They were followed, in decreasing order, by Jaeger-LeCoultre, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet, who gained market share at the expense of smaller brands such as Breguet, Franck Muller and Blancpain.

The most-searched watch model was the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

At number two was the Portuguese from IWC, whose Portofino, Pilot, Mark and Aquatimer models all appeared in the top 10. The Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso slid to third position, having previously held the top spot in the ranking for three consecutive years.

Reflecting the influence of emerging markets, the most popular brand ambassador was again Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar at Audemars Piguet, who single-handedly captured 26.6 percent of all searches, outpacing famous faces like soccer player Lionel Messi, actor Gerard Butler and tennis star Rafael Nadal.

According to the survey, watch fans are increasingly using their smartphones and other mobile devices to access information, particularly in Japan, where mobile searches account for 45 percent of the total, versus 16.6 percent in the U.S.

IWC led the pack on Facebook with more than 220,000 fans and a high engagement rate, though Jaeger-LeCoultre has emerged as a strong challenger on the social media front, namely by tailoring content to each platform. “They have done excellent work on social media, and it reflects in this year’s rankings,” Bondoux said.

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