We’re currently at a time in human history where it seems everything is politically fuelled and it’s nigh on impossible to be a functioning member of society without being immersed in some kind of political affair some way or another. As a result, it’s bloody difficult for companies to operate on any mass scale without getting involved in any political conversations.
It’s not uncommon for businesses to be associated with philanthropic ventures or causes such as education welfare and the environment. You can probably argue that there is some mild political fuelling behind this, but they’re subtle and don’t leave an obvious paper trail for external parties to track – nowhere near as blatant as taking a public stance on divisive current affairs.
Moritz Grossman (I’ll call them MG for convenience) unveiled a new ‘commemorative’ piece to mark the summit meeting of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump. The watch is a modified version of their ATUM pure timepiece and features a silhouette of Trump and Kim Jong Un facing each other. They randomly posted a picture on the eve of the summit only to be met with harsh criticism in the comments section of their original Instagram post.
I’m quite familiar with MG as a brand and I know their timepieces and team personally. I have admiration over their cause as a Glasshute brand producing German horology using traditional techniques. I can’t say the same however, for their marketing strategy. I thought it would be interesting to draw a parallel with another watch label that’s also utilised a political theme in one of their marketing campaigns: I am of course talking about Moser (yet again – but how many other watch labels are doing this?). The example I’ll be using is Moser’s #makeswissmadegreatagain campaign which was Moser’s instrument to express their concern over the misuse of the term “Swiss Made”
Setting up context
When it comes to disruptive marketing, the key element you need to focus on is people being able to relate where your proposition is coming from. Moser has been dubbed the enfant terrible of the watch industry but I think another name would be watch industry edgelords. They’ve had some good experience in the field of experimental marketing – with a mixed bag in terms of PR outreach and reception.
The #makeswissmadegreatagain campaign was something that Moser had been hinting at several weeks ahead of the official at SIHH 2017 and as a result Moser got people talking and asking questions about what they were up to. Their prior escapade with the Swiss Alp piece set the precedence that this is a company that is capable of causing surprise and delivering a message. The online climate at the time had politics ingrained heavily in pop culture and it was the ideal incubator for such a campaign – the watch industry was wondering how the adjusting of ‘Swiss Made’ legislation would affect their businesses, and the rest of the population was anxious over everyday politics.
When Moser eventually did unveil what they had to offer (which if you don’t know by now, was a watch made of Cheese) it was received with less of an explosive shock as by now people were anticipating something crazy.
Moser made it clear that they were parodying a concept and had no intention of endorsing the origins. The mixed reviews from watch enthusiasts and the media was a success in that they received polarised publicity. The question of being a ‘tasteful’ act is up for debate since you have multiple sides with opposing views. But the outcome is that they’ve differentiated themselves amongst the watchmaking crowd to the extent that they were the first brand people referred to when talking about MG – even though the methods used are completely different.
In the case of MG, they randomly pinned up a post with a brief description saying that the watch was about and provided no additional context or made any follow up (at least up to the point of writing this article). If you’re going to even remotely affiliate your brand in any political conversation, you better be ready to clarify exactly where you stand and then when you think you’ve clarified; you need to clarify some more. Because the moment you go to the extent of actually having political leaders on a watch dial, you’re assumed to be culpable for the actions of those individuals – irrespective of the actual intentions you had in the first place. Most audiences have a negative view of mentioning anything vaguely political and the mentioning of any political buzzwords will make your value proposition diminish.
I really had to pick at thin threads to try and see what MG was trying to actually achieve. I contacted MG’s brand manager Lars Schwurack to get an explanation. Here’s what he had to say:
“The basic idea as with the World Cup and Superbowl watch is to show that we can and are open for customisation. Also the watch industry must not always be taken so seriously”
OK. I think I can see where you’re coming from. Without inadvertently giving too much credit, I have two ways of looking at this:
- Is this an attempt at satirising how the watch industry has a tendency to commercialise pretty much everything for a few extra sales? Because if so, then you’ve lacked in the irony department since the message has been taken too literally.
- Acknowledging an important political event and having something to keep record? This is the concept that you’re alluring to the most. And if it’s supposed to be funny, then you’re missing the mark by trivialising it
I managed to gather that this was MG’s way of showing how quick they are to respond to current affairs and be able to produce a high quality timepiece inspired by events. I just feel that the summit was a poor choice and there could have been plenty of alternative avenues to choose from if you wanted to do that: they’ve produced watches for sporting events as an example.
You can’t be surprised that nobody had any idea what you were actually trying to achieve and then call out lack of humour. Robin Young, the UK agent for MG talked about German humour being alive and real. Is this a distinct type of German humour that I’m missing, or is it an inside joke that the rest of the horological community has been left out of?
A brand that takes a vague stance on anything political will have to be prepared for backlash and negative commentary. I had to actively ask questions and dig to be able to paint a very vague picture of what was going on – now imagine taking those variables away and leaving it up to the judgement of mass audiences? What else can you expect?
Stick with culture and not direct politics
You have to ask whether it’s a brand’s obligation to actually take part in any dialogue. In the case of Moser, they would have been impacted by updated legislation, and the culture of being ‘Swiss’ is rooted into their identity. They chose to take a commercial approach in doing so and they followed through. Moser built purpose with their actions by incorporating philanthropy. The funds raised through the sale of their timepiece went to a foundation to support independent watchmaking – following through their commitment to the cause throughout to this day.
Their established core beliefs make the actions come across as more authentic with empathy.
My original view of MG is that it’s a brand that produces some mighty fine German watches. But other than that, there’s no additional ethos or affiliation that I’m aware of. The brand has been marketed on a pure technical basis and as a result it has no identity infrastructure to support anything other than “we make some high quality watches” and even then the competition is fierce because there are dozens of other brands that say the same thing. There’s a theme of ‘message fatigue’ where certain dialogue has been repeated too much and people aren’t as easily impressed.
They’ve done nothing to suggest that they support other causes and so their latest exploit comes across as being opportunistic and divisive for the sake of it. With the case of the summit piece, they claim it’s completely neutral with no motive – which means if that’s the case, it’s a watch that serves no ideological purpose; you’re trying to be so neutral that you’ve gone sterile.
Identify your demographic
One of the risk assessments you have to make when going on a venture like this; is asking just how much of your existing customer base or target audience will actually be able to relate to your motives?
In general, any kind of marketing messaging will be picked up via various mediums, but the most important medium of all is how messages resonate with consumers.
Experimenting with new concepts has the tricky problem of leaving you isolated among a crowd. That could work in your favour as it distinguishes you for those unique traits; such as Moser with their yearly campaigns. You also polarise your audience where those who agree with your actions will affirm their support, whilst those who don’t agree will affirm their displeasure. However, if the execution and the communication is off from the start, then you’ll be left alone to cover for your actions. So far every bit of supportive commentary has been shot down by a much larger majority who simply aren’t impressed.
That also leaves another question of the current and prospective client outreach. MG pieces have the risk of being associated with a miscommunicated brand message and that risk is shared by current owners. The chain reaction is that the brand inadvertently appears to endorse a political figure and that trickles down to the current clients. You’ll be associated as the brand that made ‘the Trump watch’ and it doesn’t really serve as a confidence builder for people who are on the edge of buying into the brand. It’s up to a brand to avoid marketing messages diluting the brand or causing distractions from product offerings. Mixing a political topic is the very opposite of that. People absorb sentiments extremely quickly and marketing off edgy topics of any kind is like playing a game of minesweeper blindfolded.
I was having a discussion about the principle of marketing with one of my favourite meme accounts: @hodonkee. The general summary is that communication with watches often falls into technical details directed at watch enthusiasts. The thing is, watch enthusiasts have a lot to choose from so unique value propositions are more critical than ever. MG might recover from the bad PR over a period of time, but this weird escapade has shown the shortfalls in delivering messages and marketing capability during a period where sending a brand message is extremely delicate and complex. Posting virtually anything on social media – especially if you have a large following – will result in it being churned up through a process of self validation and you’ll receive an exaggerated reaction in any instance. The idea of ‘responding to the times’ in the manner that MG has done, comes across as short sighted and looks to utilise interest for short term gain since it’s clear you can’t follow through with long term commitment (The Trump summit actually ended up a failure as it ended far earlier than expected and no decisions were reached). I just hope MG is able to take a step back and observe everything that went wrong and refocus its core competencies to deliver a fresh brand message as a result.