Ulysse Nardin ad campaign

PARIS — Sharks are the stars of a new advertising campaign from Ulysse Nardin as the high-end watchmaker stakes out territory in a crowded sea of brands jostling for position among discerning luxury consumers.

The first public image drive from recently named chief executive officer Patrick Pruniaux — he was appointed last August — the campaign will run in print and online and is meant to be contemporary and atypical. In one of the images, designed by the French agency Extreme, a giant shark hovers over New York’s Fifth Avenue, facing the viewer with a toothy grin, its back splashed with sunlight refracted by water. Anchoring the scene is a navy blue timepiece from the Freak collection that sells for around $90,000; above is the hashtag #freakmeout.

“There is the symbolism of the shark, you go fast — if you stop you die, by the way. There’s also the fact that it’s an endangered species, so there’s a message about the environment,” said Pruniaux, who joined the Kering-owned company with experience in the luxury and technology industries, as well as the watch sector.

The executive belongs to a fresh generation of ceo’s running high-end watch companies, with much of the new blood recruited to tackle the issue of securing relevance amid a flood of choices and the growing ascendancy of the Apple Watch. In Pruniaux’s view, Ulysse Nardin is up against a broader playing field, not just watches.

“The trade-off today in investing, in spending some money or spoiling yourself with a watch, is not competing against another watch brand…but it’s also very much competing against some other type of spending. It could be a trip, expensive sports equipment, it could be more options on your imported car,” explained Pruniaux, who contends that consumers don’t behave very differently when buying a car or a handbag. The executive makes a point of spending time with his counterparts in fashion, noting that while their business models are different, and there is probably less inertia in fashion compared to the watch industry, in the end “the consumer is the consumer….We don’t think differently whether we’re going to buy a luxury car or a luxury watch or the new iPhone.”

“Globally, but also in the U.S., we could express our values in a much stronger way,” he noted.

Recruited to push the international profile of the company, which was established in 1846 and purchased by Kering in 2014, Pruniaux said he thinks the brand has traditionally communicated less than others, not just watch firms.

“There is another aspect that is underutilized at Ulysse Nardin — talking about our history,” he added.

One of the first discoveries by a historian hired by the executive to dig into the archives was that the brand was practically the only supplier to the U.S. Navy for nearly 40 years, at the start of the last century. The company intends to play on this history with specific products that will pay tribute to the past, even as it continues with avant-garde designs and a focus on innovation. Ulysse Nardin bills itself as a pioneer in the use of silicon among mechanical watchmakers, for example, with the launch of its first Freak model in 2001 featuring a dual direct escapement in silicon.

Among new hires made under Pruniaux’s reign are a former LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton executive, François-Xavier Hotier, for the Americas region and Chi Zhang, who previously worked at L’Oréal, to head operations in China as well as elsewhere in Asia. A French native who worked in Cupertino, Calif., as well as London before relocating to Switzerland for his current job, Pruniaux referred to the company as a “mix of people that come from different worlds that know about watches and love watches with a blend of people that have been in the company for a long time.”

As for buyers of Ulysse Nardin watches, which range from just under $7,000 up to $1 million, they usually come to the brand with past experience purchasing luxury timepieces, according to Pruniaux.

“It’s rarely your first luxury watch, there is a learning curve. You learn about watches, then one day you discover the manufacture, the values of the brand…and then you move to something you feel is in tune with who you are and you want something that will help differentiate you from the crowd,” he said.

Ulysse Nardin has around 60 points of sale in the U.S., a market that Pruniaux terms as “sizable” and a “priority” market for the brand.

Kering, which also owns Girard-Perregaux and Jean Richard, accounts for around 1 percent of the Swiss watch market, according to analysts at Morgan Stanley, who estimate the global wholesale value of annual Swiss watch sales at just over $20 billion. The group likely generated around 190 million Swiss francs, or $191 million, in watch sales last year, according to the analysts. In terms of revenue, this places Kering slightly above Hermès International, which reported 158 million euros in watch sales last year.

Pruniaux said Ulysse Nardin is gaining traction, echoing a message relayed by Kering executives during the group’s first-quarter sales presentation, noting he was referring to interest with consumers, not necessarily sales.

Will celebrities be brought in to give a face to the brand? “I can already give you the name of the celebrity: one is the Freak, another is the Executive,” laughed Pruniaux, referring to two watch models. “The celebrity, honestly, is really the product. We already have so much to say.”

Pruniaux wants consumers to see the brand as symbolizing freedom. “We see ourselves as a manufacturer of freedom…maybe the watch is a talisman of freedom,” he said.

“In our world where we move all the time, where owning a car has probably much less value than it had in the past, or you have as much pleasure renting a luxury house as buying one, owning a product, a talisman, that says something about you and your values…is super important,” Pruniaux said.

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