Jean-Claude Biver is a legend in Swiss watchmaking.
The Luxemburg-born 67-year-old is president of luxury brand powerhouse LVMH’s watches division, having learnt about the craft from Audemars Piguet and later Omega. He’s the man with the Midas touch, having revived the Blancpain brand in the 1980s after it lay dormant for 20 years, before he sold it to the company that became Swatch.
Biver did it again with a small stake in Hublot in 2004, when the brand was just 24 years old. That success led him to LVMH (which bought Hublot in 2008) who a year ago appointed him CEO of TAG Heuer hoping he would revive the flagging 19th century “avant-garde” business.
Business Insider caught up with Biver during a recent visit to Sydney, where he appointed Australian actor Chris Hemsworth a brand ambassador.
Hemsworth already owned TAG Heuer watches, leading Biver to joke that “It’s rare that our ambassadors have bought the brand before they became ambassadors”.
So what does the man who knows watches like few others in the world wear on his wrist?
The $2000 TAG Connected, the smartwatch due to be released in Australia in April.
A luxury Swiss watch brand with more than 155 years of history diving into the Internet world was always going to raise a few eyebrows, but even Biver didn’t predict just how strong interest would be.
TAG Heuer budgeted for 20,000 – and built – watches on release last year. They pre-sold 80,000. The curiosity was phenomenal.
The website devoted to TAG Heuer attracted 9 million visitors, including 3.8 million from the States, 1.5 million from Japan and 1 million each from the UK and Germany.
“We sold more pieces than we ever thought,” Biver said.
They sent the first batch to America as a priority, the next 60,000 to arrive next month. Australia will receive 500 just after Easter, and the $2000 price tag, in Australian dollar terms, makes it better value than in the US.
Biver says the Connected has brought new customers to the brand, and they’re not the ones he expected.
“The people who are buying it are not friends of the brand. That was the first surprise,” he said.
“The second surprise was the people buying it were not that young – the average age was 35.”
Biver thinks people are attracted to the Connected because, quite simply “this looks like an elegant watch you can wear on your wrist every day and to the office.”
“They could have bought an Apple or Garmin watch, but they bought this one probably because they liked the look,” he said.
“The functions are the same, so why would you buy a Tag Heuer when you get the same functions from Garmin or Apple?
“It’s the same price more or less – eventually the TAG Heuer is more expensive, but you buy it because you like the look, you like the weight – it’s ultra light, it’s titanium, it is Swiss and the Garmin looks like a sports watch.”
There’s another clever bonus to buying the Connected the Apples of the world can’t compete with. They watch is guaranteed for two years, then after that, you can exchange it for a Tag Heuer with a traditional Swiss mechanism.
“We think 15% of the people will come back and ask to change and 85% will say no, why should I change?”
But one problem the Connected seems to solve for TAG Heuer is signing up new customers.
“The most difficult part is getting on the customer’s wrist,” Biver says. “But it’s like a car, once you own a certain brand, you get used to it.”
And there’s another, deeper part of the human psyche Swiss watchmakers understand like few others.
“At the end we sell emotions,” Biver says. “You must be mad, crazy to buy a watch that costs more than $50. Why should you spend more than that when every $50 watch gives you exactly what you want, with the same accuracy and quality.
“So why do you spent more? Emotion. Irrationality. And once you are in the irrationality, it’s about dreams.”
Biver’s delight with the Connected is clear during our interview, as the soccer fan and Paris Saint-Germain supporter’s wrist pings with the latest news.
“Oh! Copa del Rey! [The Spanish football cup] Suarez, he marked 4 times!” he shouts excitedly after glancing at the watch.
“You see, it’s fun!”
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