While a gleaming statuette might be the gold standard for status in Hollywood, becoming a watch ambassador is also a sure sign that one has “made it.” And for athletes, signing a watch deal is like winning a championship in the endorsement game.
While a beverage company might line up 15 players and a shoe brand gather 150, a watch brand typically might link with one or two.
“It’s more selective criteria and there are generally fewer opportunities than many of the other categories for athletes,” said Lowell Taub, head of global sports endorsements at Creative Artists Agency.
Aside from physical prowess, an athlete’s personal style and the size of the market in which his or her team is based are factors to consider when executives size them up for an ambassadorship, ad campaign or even notable status as a “friend of the brand.” The downside is that basketball, soccer and football players can’t wear watches while performing. That’s why several watch companies have historically cultivated relationships within golf and tennis. Not only does Rafael Nadal serve aces while wearing a $775,000 watch by Richard Mille on his wrist, but his limited-edition timepiece also glimmers in photos next to the trophy as he hoists it over his head.
Some of the players and brands that Taub and his colleagues at Los Angeles-based CAA have coached into coveted deals were Cristiano Ronaldo and Tag Heuer; Tony Parker and Tissot; Dwyane Wade and Hublot, and Greg Norman and Omega.
“If you align your brand with an athlete, you get to borrow some of their brand equity and halo,” Taub said.
The same is true for actors. Movado signed Kerry Washington 10 years ago based not just on her status as a beautiful up-and-comer, but “because of the way she conducts her life and the other organizations with which she’s affiliated. We want them in our family because of what they represent,” said chief marketing officer Mary Leach. Now that Washington is a megastar with the hit show “Scandal,” she’s chosen to wear the Movado Concerto watch as part of her character Olivia Pope’s wardrobe. Washington has participated in six campaigns for the brand.
A name like Raymond Weil, which typically aligns itself with figures in the world of music and fine arts, saw an opportunity this year signing actress Katheryn Winnick, star of the internationally syndicated television show “Vikings.” “We wanted to open a door to the world of entertainment, where we felt the brand could still connect with a lot people,” said chief executive officer Elie Bernheim.
In the realm of entertainers, CAA helped George Clooney and Nicole Kidman connect with Omega, Kelly Clarkson with Citizen, Kate Winslet with Longines and Clive Owen with Jaeger-LeCoultre. The elite view watches as luxury plays, similar to beauty contracts, often with a global scope requiring a commitment of at least two years.
“We do not do one-shot relationships,” said Philippe Tardivel, marketing director of Hublot. “Normally in the industry it is three years and then we renew. It takes time to get to know one another and develop products.” For celebrities, “They’re looking at the quality imagery,” said Steve Lashever, co-head of commercial endorsements at CAA. Plus, philanthropy is integrated into the partnership to make “it more palatable for our client to address public relations elements,” he said. “Giving back is certainly a great component of it.” For Audemars Piguet, which signed Freida Pinto as an ambassador this year, duties don’t include posing for ad campaigns. Instead, the brand supports the ambassador’s charities while requiring personal appearances at brand events.
While CAA declined to divulge how much its clients earn from horology companies, an industry watcher estimated that a high-end brand could pay $5 million over two years. That’s a fraction of what an elite actor gets paid for one movie or what a superstar athlete can take home from a sneaker endorsement.
“This is about prestige,” said Kamal Hotchandani, cofounder and ceo of Haute Time, a New York-based magazine dedicated to luxury watches. “Everybody in the [NBA] league has a shoe deal. [Fewer than] 10 have a watch deal.”
Some players have to jump through a lot of hoops before closing a deal. Hotchandani introduced Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook to Zenith, the 150-year-old watchmaker from Switzerland. Before the deal became official in February 2014, Zenith had to overcome some basic challenges. Its closest authorized retailer in the region was 190 miles away in Frisco, Tex. “We got the Rolex dealer to carry it [in Oklahoma City],” Hotchandani said.
Indeed, proximity to a boutique helps attract big spenders to parties with the celebrity ambassadors. The fact that players on the pro circuit often crisscross the globe for tournaments enables marketers to stage multiple extravaganzas. In recent months, Maria Sharapova, the world’s fourth-ranked women’s tennis player who’s on the road 30 weeks a year, joined Tag Heuer for a friendly bout against fellow ambassador Kei Nishikori in front of its boutique on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Then, on behalf of the Make-A-Wish Foundation in Singapore, she lobbed balls on a floating tennis court tied to a pier.
Heading into her 10th year with Tag Heuer, Sharapova dismissed overtures from other watchmakers to work with the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-owned unit. According to Max Eisenbud, her longtime agent at IMG, it was important to be affiliated with a brand that didn’t sponsor any other female player in her sport. “That helps transcend her out of tennis,” he said. Being able to design watches and straps, wear both the men’s and women’ styles that she favors and work with photographers such as Patrick Demarchelier also intensified Sharapova’s fondness for Tag Heuer. “The whole package was important,” he said.
Elite players can turn egalitarian. When Audemars Piguet praised Novak Djokovic as “a man of simple and modest tastes” in August 2011, at the start of his brand ambassadorship with the Swiss luxury brand, it didn’t realize that the top-ranked tennis player would take the words literally. In January 2014, he jumped from Audemars Piguet to Seiko for a new three-year global partnership. With Seiko’s Lorus subbrand, the Serbian player created sporty plastic watches retailing at 45 euros or less to benefit his namesake foundation.
The lifespan of an endorsement can stretch to 20 years, as it did for Cindy Crawford and Omega, or end after one year as it did for Carmelo Anthony and IWC Schaffhausen. To his credit, Anthony is a connoisseur, collector and entrepreneur when it comes to timepieces. A forward for the New York Knicks with a reported $124 million contract, he invested and partnered in the launch of Haute Time with Hotchandani. He once showed off a $565,000 Greubel Forsey GMT Black on his tatted-up wrist to his Instagram followers, inspiring them with the phrase: “Life teaches us to make good use of time, while time teaches us the value of life.”
Partnering with a famous face to boost sales could unlock the sleepy wearables category. Some smartwatch makers have enlisted the help of celebrities and athletes in hopes of pushing beyond early adopter buyers to win over the mass market. China-based Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. tapped Karlie Kloss to star in advertisements for the Huawei Watch, which became available for pre-sale in September and goes up against the Apple Watch to compete for smartwatch sales. The watch is compatible with Android and iOS. It alerts wearers to incoming calls and texts along with activity tracking. But the watch is much more classical timepiece than gadget. It’s priced from $349 to $799 with materials such as rose gold plate, stainless steel and sapphire crystal.
“We’re trying to redefine what smart is,” said Yanyan Ji, vice president and head of marketing at Huawei Device USA. “It’s the marriage of fashion, design and technology.” Huawei looks to align its brand with influencers, not just celebrities, and it’s a finer point of distinction that can mean the difference between a successful product rollout and one that flops, pointed out Yanyan. “When we are working on our marketing strategy, we’re not only looking at the celebrities,” said Yanyan. “I’m looking at influencers. I want people who can have the influence, especially on the social channels that can engage the consumer. It’s not [about hiring] one particular person but more about [an] overall influencer strategy.”
Kloss made sense because of not just her famous face, but also her reach via social media channels. The model has about 3.4 million Instagram followers and 824,000 on Twitter. Other smartwatch makers are being more targeted with their marketing, aligning with athletes who can tell the watch’s story to a very specific consumer segment — other athletes. “Athletes, even more than other people, aim to improve their physical capabilities,” said Alpina ceo Guido Benedini. “The fact that they use it daily and the fact that the watch corresponds to their lifestyle not only functionally, but also aesthetically is the most credible message we can tell.”
The Swiss watchmaker has a history of using athletes as ambassadors. So when it introduced its smartwatch this year, the first model was designed to withstand the mountaineering environment and the second aimed at being a tool to enhance athlete performance through sleep and activity tracking. It has enlisted athletes such as polar explorer Børge Ousland, mountaineer Melissa Arnot and International Ski Federation World Cup skier Victor Muffat-Jeandet to wear and use their watch while competing.
The athletes did not have a hand in the actual design of the watch, but Alpina uses their feedback to make improvements to the watch’s technology. The watch began rolling out to stores in late October at retailers including Tourneau and Westime. The brand launches for the first time, with its smartwatch, at Saks Fifth Avenue.