Rolex: A New Business & Marketing Strategy

Recently I was discussing watches (for a change), with a good friend. He has an excellent collection and of course, like of all us he intends to continue to grow his collection. To that end the subject of Rolex came up. Specifically which Rolex's are worthy of ones collection without being a victim of the HDT?

In other words, Rolex is not an honest company as it stands (overall), but despite that fact, every collection has room for a Rolex or two, but you need to know how to navigate the various pitfalls among the various models. It's as if the Rolex model range over the past 100+ years is a a big minefield and its super easy to get blown up. Tread carefully and patiently; however, and you will end up with an awesome watch.

So, this article is about a new business and marketing strategy that Rolex not only should employ immediately, but should have done so since day-one.

What Rolex is not

The first thing Rolex needs to do is accept what they are and are not. Denial, as they say is not just a river in Egypt, and Rolex is NOT a luxury watch company.

Let me say it again very clearly (because it deserves repeating): Rolex is NOT, in any way shape or form, a *true* Luxury watch company.

But Rolex wants to be. This is why they took a perfectly good dive watch, the Submariner and started making it out of gold. Its also why some other models are lambasted with diamonds, and so much more in their model range is more garish and irrelevant than anything worthwhile owning. This has worked for Rolex thanks to its marketing strategy. In fact, if you want proof, just ask the average Joe he will tell you "Rolex is the best", "Rolex is quality", "Rolex is at the top", etc.

There is no substantive basis to these claims, but there’s no need for there to be, because marketing is a powerful tool and people are easily fooled, especially when marketers tap into their deepest desires and ego. Hans Wilsdorf understood this more than anything, and from a business point of view, who can blame him? Rolex has survived the "Quartz Crisis", continues to maintain their independence and have sold so many watches they are now the one and only company (at this price point anyway), that produces more than 1,000,000 watches per year. In comparison, Patek Philippe produces about 60,000. 

Speaking of Patek Philippe, they are a true high end luxury watch brand. Their technical prowess is not only unmatched by Rolex, but very few can even get get close. It is also my opinion that besides money, wanting to be like Patek is one of the key driving forces behind the Rolex need to market themselves as a luxury watch brand. It literally feeds their ego to be mentioned in the same breath.

What Rolex is

So, if Rolex is not a luxury watch brand in a Patek-kind-of-way, what is Rolex?

Rolex is to the watch world, what a muscle car is to the car world. Rolex is to the watch world what Rock ’n Roll is to the music world. Rolex is to the watch world what a hamburger is to the culinary world, etc. Essentially Rolex was born a watch meant for everyday wearing, not just special occasions. A watch that you could wear on land, under water, climbing a mountain without worrying about damaging it too much. It is also supposed to be a watch that could do all those things wile being precise, attractive and that could be passed down generation to generation. A quality watch not for the 1%, but that the 1% would want anyway.

The main ingredients were steel (strength, durability, etc.), water resistance (practicality, functional, etc.), and simplicity (easy to maintain; attainable).

And it all centered around the case.

The Oyster Case

I’ve often said that Rolex are the “masters of illusion, not innovation”, but in one area they truly did innovate and that is with their cases, specifically their Oyster case.

When Rolex invented their Oyster case, it was meant to be the first water resistant watch case every made. It was, and this in turn removed watches from our pockets and slapped them on our wrists (the way women of the day wore watches). This transformed the industry, most likely in ways Wilsdorf never could have imagined.

This is, and will always be Rolex’s greatest legacy.

They even nailed the name (and the metaphor that comes with it): Oyster.

Just like an Oyster in the sea, the Rolex Oyster case was extremely comfortable underwater and its robust strength protected its own “pearl”, the movement inside. In fact, even the shape of an oyster influenced the design of the Rolex Oyster case, as it was extremely practical in how the lugs were integrated with the watch head, and how it lay flat on a person's wrist.

This is what set Rolex apart, because while other brands certainly made excellent watches in steel, the combination of a stainless steel case that was also water resistant was unique. This is also where Rolex should have focused all of their attention and what they should have built their brand strategy and image around, forgoing the whole “luxury” B.S. altogether. 

The Rolex Movement

There’s always been controversy surrounding the early Rolex automatic movements. First, the use of the word “perpetual” to describe what everyone else in the industry calls “automatic” is misleading. Misleading, because everyone else in the industry reserves the word “perpetual” to describe a perpetual calendar movement. Rolex has never ever made such a movement, but to the ignorant, they do. Once again, marketing trumps actual innovation.

Rolex ref.1931

Rolex ref.1931

Another controversy surrounds the 360 degree rotor. Just like the person who looked at a window and thought up the idea of a door, Rolex looked at John Harwood’s automatic movement whose rotor bumped back and forth over 270 degrees and thought up the idea to have it rotate a full 360 degrees. It was a good idea, and it really was better. But when Rolex introduced this “innovation” to the world, they advertised it as the first commercially viable automatic movement ever made. This was of course false, because the Harwood bumper was the first commercially viable automatic movement ever made. The controversy ended in June 10, 1956 when Rolex published a formal apology to Harwood in London’s Sunday Express. 

Of course, by that time Harwood as a brand was long gone. Once again, more marketing trumping actual innovation, and in this case honesty.

The Rolex apology to Harwood in 1956

The Rolex apology to Harwood in 1956

On the positive side, however, Rolex did get something extremely right in my view (which is further proof they’re in no way a true luxury watch brand), and that is they avoided making any kind of really complicated movements. All of the Rolex movements were simple time and date movements. Their chronographs were made by someone else until the 1990s, and it wasn’t until 2012 that they made their first annual calendar, which by Rolex standards is extremely complicated, but to everyone else its just *meh*.

Where this would have been a negative for nearly every other brand, this was a positive for Rolex. All Rolex had to do was take their one and only movement and modify it in the simplest of ways to suit the variation of watch they wanted to make. This is exactly what they did with their GMT for example. Instead of making a complicated dual timezone movement, they simply added a 4th hand which rotated half as fast as the hour hand, then gave the bezel an insert which was divided in 24 for each hour of the day letting the wearer rotate the bezel as required to calculate in their head the time of the second timezone.

Its not complicated or particularly technical at all, but its ingenious in its simplicity. Once again, a core characteristic of the Rolex DNA, which contradicts the notion that they are about luxury.

Current Marketing Strategy

The current Rolex marketing strategy, even their entire business model tries to make more out of less, instead of exploiting that fact that less is often times equal to more. 

For example, whats the difference between an Rolex Explorer and a Rolex Oyster?

They both use the same Oyster case, they both have the same 3132 movement, they’re both 39mm in diameter.

So what’s different? 

The explorer has a black dial with arabic numerals at 3, 6 and 9. Thats it!

Think about that for a second, and then consider that somehow their MSRPs are not the same.

Earlier this year Rolex introduced a new Air King. How’s the Air King different than the Explorer or Oyster?

The dial looks like Christmas and its 40mm instead of 39mm. Thats it, everything else is the same.

How does that constitute a whole new model?

Well, actually it doesn’t. More than that, it's deceptive, its disingenuous, and its dishonest.

This practice of creating something using marketing and not technical innovation is the norm in today’s Rolex and it should stop.

The New Rolex Business Plan and Marketing Strategy

The first thing we’re gonna do is wipe the slate clean. 

Next, we’re gonna place in this new clean slate the Oyster case. 

This will represent the first pillar or column in the Rolex model range. All watches within the Oyster Pillar will have this exact same case. On occasion, the proportions will grow to 41mm when extra visibility is needed, other times it will shrink to 36mm attracting a more vintage customer as well as women, but by and large, the case will always be set at a very contemporary 39mm.

Different finishes will be used (similar to how is done now), to adapt a watch to a particular use. For example, dive watches will not be highly polished, they will be brushed. Time-only dress watches, on the other hand may be either, etc.

Next, we will take their most recent 3200 series caliber movement and make it the core of each model. If its the GMT, it will get the additional GMT hand as well as its own reference for clarity. If its the Chronograph, it will get the additional Chronograph module (although in this case, the Chrono will be an integrated design based on the 3200 series instead).

But, no more of the nonsense where old movements are kept in the collection to give the illusion that there are in fact more than one core movement in the collection. There isn’t and who cares if there isn’t?

As was the point from the beginning to not have many different calibers, sticking with one core movement means all the focus is on that movement. Reducing the number of parts (which is the Rolex way), making it easier and less expensive to service, easier to regulate precisely, and giving it longevity.

Most importantly they need to be honest about it. There is no need to hide behind the fact Rolex is essentially a one-movement company (with variations), because its a damn good movement!

Now that we’re done with the all important Oyster Pillar, the structure of the company is set to create new parallel pillars. Its important that they be parallel in order to give them equal billing.

A great example of why this is necessary is the disaster otherwise know as the Cellini. I say disaster, because who in their right mind would buy a Cellini over any of the other Rolex models? Yet, the Cellini is a pretty good watch. The Cellini even has a display caseback and a movement that is finished quite nicely. There’s even a rectangular shaped watch to boot!

Who knew?

The problem is that in the current structure, with the lack of honesty, etc., there is no room for the Cellini. It gets drowned (no pun intended), in a sea of Oysters, hence the “poor man’s Rolex”.

But, give it equal billing, with its own parallel pillar, and I guarantee that image will change. 

If you don’t believe me, consider the dilemma over at Jaeger LeCoultre. How many iconic “pillars” do they have? The Master series, The Master Extreme, The Reverso, The Geophysic, The Duometre, etc. Then, within each pillar they've introduced different variations to the same case: a time only, a chronograph, a tourbillon, even grande complications, etc., etc.

It gives their customer equal choice among the different watch cases and nothing is considered a “Poor Man’s Jaeger”.

Of course, if you superimpose the Jaeger Pillars with the proposed Rolex Pillars, Jaeger will have a lot more. But the beauty of this strategy is that it doesn’t matter.

Switching to a different industry for a second, does anyone care that Ferrari has essentially only 1 pillar? Or depending on your perspective, 2 (V8s and V12s, or Turbos and normally aspirated). Of course not, because its an organized concise collection of cars that kick ass in what they do best, and guess what? Its not about luxury either!

Ego is the Enemy

I got all carried away there, didn’t I? Because the reality is this will never happen.

It won’t happen, because just as is described in an aptly titled book by Ryan Holiday, “Ego is the Enemy”, Rolex’s problem is their ego.

When they've actually done something good, it was an outlier. A moment when they controlled their ego and were humble. Thats how we got the Submariner. But, overall this is not Rolex today, their ego is everything. Thats how we got the Yacht Master, the Gold Submariners, and all those diamond encrusted catastrophes (to name just a few). 

In fact, thanks to it’s marketing strategy and the ways in which they literally brainwash people into thinking what they want them to think, they’ve made the ego of their customers the problem too. We see this clearly in the Rolex collecting world, where people pay hundreds, if not thousands of percentage points more for the smallest of details, because it makes a watch rare despite no actual technical substance to back up that rarity. Remember, form is supposed to follow function, not the other way around.

In Conclusion, Buy Vintage

This is why, getting back to my friend’s collection, the best option is to always buy vintage, or at least pre-owned. 

An early Rolex Explorer 1016

An early Rolex Explorer 1016

First, you will save a bundle. Rolex hardly allows its retail network to discount the watches, and it is no secret (despite what anyone says, *sigh*...), that markups for all brands are quite high (and I do have this on a very reliable source). So waiting for a watch that is even a couple years old could save you thousands.

Second, if you can afford the 4-digit references, you will get a watch from the very best Rolex eras. You’ll need to do your homework to make sure its all original, etc., and you will need to get it serviced most likely, but that too is part pf the watch collecting fun. 

Finally, and as it pertains to this article, by going vintage, especially back to the 4-digit references, you will get a more honest Rolex. Rolex was never perfect, but a 4-digit reference Rolex will be far more honest and far closer to the true Rolex DNA than just about anything else they've made.

If you have to have a new Rolex, though, I would recommend the Oyster or the Explorer (and even then, I’d wait a couple years get them pre-owned).