Ming watches recently released and distributed their latest timepiece 17.09: a collaboration with the Massena lab. Overall it’s a great looking timepiece that embodies the distinctive Ming design notes (flared lugs, pebble case etc), paired with a honeycomb dial. The microbrand has enjoyed meteoric success since it’s founding a few years ago, producing limited batch timepieces with collectors in mind and building a cult-like following. I know a few of the Ming team personally and can honestly vouch that they are really nice folks with immense pride and passion for the timepieces they create – something I have utmost respect for.
The 17.09s sold out instantaneously to a small number of collectors – albeit with a few hitches that I wont dive into. After the allocations had been made and delivered a few months later, the lucky collectors were expecting to unbox their timepieces and share their latest acquisitions online. Everything seemed fine until a few Instagram posts of collectors posting hand alignment issues started being shared around the platform. The speculation and criticisms via photos, IG stories and memes ran rampant in a short space of time – Ming had to deal with this quickly.
This blogpost isn’t intended to bash Ming on their timepieces or their methods of allocating watches to customers. Instead, I’m interested in exploring the shortfalls made by Ming in dealing with this situation and the lessons that can be extracted from it. As someone who has had to learn from their own PR nightmares, I can sympathise with Ming in this regard.
Keep things simple with public engagement
As mentioned, the Ming launch had hand alignment issues where the hour hand was lagging – reportedly due to the GMT module being used. It’s not a great start to have with such an anticipated launch, there’s the obvious criticism around quality control (which is completely fair), but one would wager a guess that it’s ultimately fixable. The immediate response by some members of the watch community was arguably overexaggerated and a bit hyperbole – though that’s the case with any watch release. It’s not an ideal PR debacle to have but it was a good opportunity to showcase the values and capabilities that Ming had in terms of taking prompt action to uphold client satisfaction and brand reputation – and do so in an agile manner that lays rest to this problem as quickly as possible.
It isn’t the concern of the clients as to why this problem occurred and who/what was to blame – production issues happen to all brands, but that’s something for the team at Ming to discuss behind closed doors.
Customer service 101 states that in such a scenario it’s critical to acknowledge the customer’s concerns and offer options or assistance to resolve the issue. This entire thing could’ve been resolved with a simple statement such as:
“We’ve come to understand that a small batch of our watches have been reported to have some hand alignment issues, we apologise to our customers and would like to make this right. Please contact us and we’ll have this taken care of as soon as possible”
That took me 30 seconds to write and had a statement along those lines been made it would have nipped the situation in the bud and be regarded as an amicable resolution – I wouldn’t have any need to write this article and it would have minimised the PR damage. Ming could have then looked into what went wrong with production and ensure this doesn’t repeat, and a lot of the memes and criticism that arose from the production issues would’ve subsided as hot air. But that didn’t quite happen.
Social media is a double edged sword
“Status, bragging rights, influence, brand affinity, peer recognition, like-minded”.
Those are some of the terms I associate with the online watch community. A platform where collectors across the globe can share their passions and hobbies from all sorts of perspectives and price points. Nothing can match this level of democratisation in the entirety of the history of watchmaking. For microbrands, it has created opportunities to build relationships with clients. For collectors and enthusiasts, it has allowed new relationships to form with none of the red tape associated with large conglomerates. The brand is associated to a few faces as opposed to a team of suited executives and collectors love that.
Ming’s marketing strategy has relied very heavily on social media to this effect – the fact that you can count the proportions of online collectors who own a given model (with limited production numbers) is a testament to that.
I used the word democratisation to describe watch companies being able to access a much wider audience. The caveat of accessing a wider audience who knows who you are, also means there is wider accountability. With microbrands, you’re able to associate a whole company to a couple of faces, which in turn translates to a couple of faces representing the whole company. In the case of Ming the CEO, Ming Thein decided to address criticisms in the comments sections of some of the posts made by collectors who had received a faulty timepiece:
You can read the above screenshot and extract your own opinion on the matter. I included this as it provides crucial context and that was the response that spread like wildfire in the community.
Social media marketing and PR has been around long enough to establish a bunch of fundamental rules in the area. One of these rules are: don’t take the battle to the comment sections – you’ll make it worse. The first two sentences in the comment had the right substance (albeit a bit of polishing needed), but the following remarks became a traphole. The choice of words in this situation can be deemed a poor judgement call, and in an environment of where a fire is burning with criticism and speculation, you’ve ended up adding petrol to the flames in the form of community backlash. Observers and trolls will pick at each comment and replying back results in digging yourself further each time – you also don’t want to be making statements that you’ll be called back on. Ming eventually did make an apologetic statement, but the damage had been done.
I’ve been following the Ming label since its founding and have paid attention to every form of criticism and snide remarks the company has faced with the release of every timepiece series. I can imagine how frustrating and aggravating it would be in such a situation where it feels like you can do no right and responding via emotion instead of rationality is a risk that comes from that– I’ve been in those shoes myself and I know the repercussions of doing so are absolutely brutal.
Another unexpected blow to the brand was that this debacle created an impetus for clients to come forward with their previous negative experiences. Whilst the comments in the linked article were already public, they fall back into the limelight for observers who were on the fence – it gives the impression that these behaviours are affinitive with the Ming label. Of course, Ming has every right to contest this and clarify the picture, but it’s very hard to sway public opinion when most online commentary is stacked against you.
So in summary, what are the lessons I’ve learnt? Here’s my take:
1)Be proactive: assess the situation and gather enough information to start rectifying the problem.
2)Customers first: address the customer’s concerns and be flexible in terms of offering solutions –especially if there is no fault of the customer. Diffusing the situation is the priority, with luxury products the bar of customer service is set higher. Remember, a happy customer will speak to Three people, whereas an unhappy customer will speak to Ten.
3)Keep public statements concise and simple: if you’re still investigating what went wrong don’t start offering excuses instead of solutions. Even a simple explanation can be misconstrued. Instead of flame wars, you should focus on dedicating resources on fixing the problem and ensuring that customers are happy, so that the brand ultimately comes out in a positive light.
Ultimately this was a series of unfortunate events and I wish the team at Ming all the very best and hope this PR disaster provides growth points for the label.