Yeezy, the line of Adidas sneakers designed by rapper Kanye West. Top Dutch DJ Martin Garrix. Coachella, the famed annual music festival held in California. Such topics do not typically emerge in our interviews with watch-industry veterans, but conventionality has never been an adjective associated with Jean-Claude Biver, the 68-year-old head of the LVMH watch division (which comprises Hublot, Zenith and Tag Heuer) and interim CEO of Tag Heuer.
In a Marina Bay Sands restaurant on a Sunday afternoon, the spirited Luxembourg-born executive – who occasionally thumps the arm of his chair for emphasis, blue eyes flashing – is sharing his views on what luxury means to the young, a demographic many marketers are trying to figure out.
“They have a different taste for luxury. They don’t buy what I buy. They don’t buy what their father buys. What is old, they reject. They are ready to pay $1,000 (on the secondary market) for a pair of Yeezy sneakers. How come? Ask an older man to pay $1,000 for a pair of Adidas, and he will say, ‘Are you crazy?’”
Lowering his tone, he continues: “But young people are not crazy. They are different, and we must understand this difference. If you don’t understand them, they will not buy what you think they’ll buy.”
We’ll take his word for it. Over nearly five decades in the business, he has shown an uncanny knack for knowing what will make people, young or otherwise, open their wallets. His unapologetic focus on what sells, and on “sex appeal” in his products, has won him as many detractors as fans. While he has had successful stints heading Omega and Blancpain, his achievements at Hublot best epitomise Biver’s divisive appeal.
After taking the reins at Hublot in 2004, he positioned the brand as a pioneer in combining unlikely materials such as ceramic, rubber and gold. As a firm believer of marketing as a 360-degree exercise, he also engineered its high-profile associations with football and brands like Ferrari. Under his watch, the brand saw a fivefold increase in sales from 2004 to 2007, even as traditionalists derided its showy style.
In 2014, Biver embarked on yet another vigorous shake-up, this time at LVMH’s mid-tier luxury watch brand Tag Heuer, where growth had slowed as the brand elevated its offerings – along with its prices. His changes, aimed at making Tag Heuer once again the watch of choice for the younger set, have come fast and furious. Aside from launching a well-received smartwatch in collaboration with Google and Intel, the brand has greatly upped its visibility with popular ambassadors such as Garrix and English model Cara Delevingne, and new partnerships with football clubs, as well as events such as Coachella.
A quick look at the functions that made the Tag Heuer Connected a hit.
This ubiquitous approach is what he calls “zero separation”. “Wherever the consumer goes, whatever he does, we must be close to him. When he sees us all around him, we will be part of his lifestyle. We want to speak to the new generation, including those who cannot yet buy our watches, and develop a dream in them. Five years later, when they have the means, they will buy what they dreamt of when they were younger,” he says.
The goal for Tag Heuer, says Biver, is to be the definitive affordable-luxury watch brand. Shortly after taking charge at Tag Heuer, he did away with its haute-horlogerie department, which had for several years worked on exotic, six-figure innovations such as the Mikropendulum S, a watch with two magnetic tourbillons.
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Instead, the manufacture has been concentrating on more accessible exercises in high watchmaking. When it was launched last year, the Carrera Heuer-02T tourbillon chronograph made waves with its retail price of 14,900 Swiss francs (S$21,000), the lowest for any Swiss-made tourbillon timepiece. According to Biver, 1,000 of these COSC-certified watches have been sold, a figure he predicts will double this year.
With characteristic candour, he asks rhetorically, “What is better? To make big, complicated watches that you don’t sell, and to make three per year to show you exist, or to make 1,000 tourbillons you can sell? I prefer to make the 1,000 tourbillons.”