Zenith’s reemergence as a key player in watch-making
Our heroes are ever evolving indicators of social value and culture. They act exceptionally in unprecedented circumstance; sometimes glorified by tragic fates; in other cases repressed or applauded as we make sense and gather foresight. What makes a modern hero? And how do today’s heroes interact with our dreams and collective goals?
Jean Frédéric Dufour, current Chief Executive Officer of Zenith Watches, would tell you a modern hero takes risks. Modern heroes take unprecedented leaps, and that is exactly what Zenith sponsored Felix Baumgartner did when he took the first ever free fall from the edge of the earth’s stratosphere in October 2012. Critics say it was the single best branded event in the last half century.
Although Red Bull made a much bigger footprint with the public, Zenith has invested in Baumgartner for the long term, making him a brand ambassador for their special edition El PrimeroStratos.
For the jump, they developed a watch movement with a frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour, roughly the same altitude as Baumgartner’s jump in metres. It was designed and succeeded in withstanding massive changes in pressure, temperature, altitude and acceleration. Baumgartner’s motto is also displayed on the back of the watch’s 45.5 mm stainless steel case: “Learn to love what you have been taught to fear”.
Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner is among several proclaimed brand icons who wore Zenith watches. This is part of Dufour’s new strategy to re-conjure the identity that Zenith once was for the Swiss watch industry. In the early 1960s, Zenith held a top five position within Switzerland, producing up to 360,000 watches per annum. Within the next thirty years, it lost its market share significantly, almost falling into bankruptcy.
What happened? Vast shifts came by the quartz movement in the late 60’s and how watch brands dealt with and adapted this technology into their models determined their market position for many years to come. Zenith made two grave errors during this period. Firstly, it switched from primarily mechanical to entirely quartz movements which muddled its brand DNA. Secondly, it sold its best mechanical movement to Rolex (which led to the launch of one of the most valuable series in the history of the watch industry, Daytona), and simultaneously lost control over its own collection. A lack of strategic vision coupled with unsuccessful takeovers resulted in gross losses as Zenith proceeded into a ceaseless limbo.
Purchase of Zenith by LVMH Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton in 1999 did not spur any immediate victories. Dufour was brought on in 2009 and his mission was to recharge the brand and introduce the high mechanical reputation that it once had. “I am keen to give money for innovation, the whole (Zenith) group is based on innovation”, he explains, eyes gleaming with entrepreneurial ebullience.
Dufour was not bluffing. 350 points of sale closed, 300 reopened, 850 models purged, and 164 new models on line. 2009 saw sixty percent growth. This was not your grandmother’s wallpaper remodel. Dufour disassembled every part of Zenith, back office to shop floor, and revived it. For the past four years, he has made sure to be involved in every aspect of the Zenith business, from manufacturing to product design. He built up a unique team, attracting designers from outside of the watch industry who brought forth fresh, non-traditional ideas, and he made sure to keep investing back into product development.
Re-branding was a journey of its own
Dufour’s strategy was founded in rediscovering the Zenith legacy, connecting it back to its classical era and this required some serious meditation. He and his team found the key in analyzing Zenith’s former clients during its successful period. “If you look at all the people who wore Zenith, they were kind of modern heroes. If you look at our history, it was much different than those like Patek Philippe. They had shops in Geneva – on Rue du Rhone – so their customers were very different. They were the high end people who visited Geneva and bought watches for a different purpose. The people who bought our watches really used them.”
Aside from its newest brand ambassador, Felix Baumgartner, other historic Zenith clients included Gandhi, Louis Blériot, Charles Vermot, even a former pope. They have all been coined as modern heroes or icons who did great things in their lives and had a Zenith on their wrist while they did it. “We are trying to work on emotions which do not yet exist” [in watchmaking]. The idea is that anyone can be a modern hero and that a Zenith watch is the wise accessory guiding them along through their journey.
Mr Dufour has been Chief Executive Officer at Zenith for four years and hopes at the short term to stabilize the many drastic renovations that have been made since his coming. He wants to continue to reinforce the brand he created and build a strong team to survive without himself. He explains that he wants “to be the one that made Zenith live again”, to leave a solid foundation that will allow his predecessors to build up rather than redefine.
He draws a compelling argument for Swiss watchmakers today. Do clients of luxury want to see their brands stay within the high streets of Bond and Rue du Rhone? Do they want to continue to look, and be seen? Or do they want to do, as heroes would, achieving the dreams and the collective goals of modern society?
Dufour’s attempts may be outlandish but they also could be the key to attracting a new type of energy to the Swiss watch industry. Only time will determine if the Zenith approach to the watch as an instrument of modern function rather than an old world legacy can sway consumers to its direction. Until then, it is no doubt there are many observers staring beyond the thick transparent shop front windows for a glance at this exquisite resurrection.
Article by Lindsay Michiels