Is history a thing of the past?

For luxury brands hoping to engage “new” consumers, heritage and tradition are apparently more hindrance than help. Really?

By Christophe Roulet

In the fourth volume of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the dolphins depart Earth with the message “So long, and thanks for all the fish.” Must we say the same frivolous goodbye to history, heritage and tradition in watchmaking, consumed by the flames of social media? So it would seem from Deloitte consultancy’s latest analysis of sales by the 100 largest luxury goods companies globally. One remark in particular makes the blood run cold: “The reality is that ‘new’ luxury consumers only care about the brands that have created value for them in the last 24 hours.” Centuries of history dismissed in one click. These days, the culture of immediacy isn’t just for shareholders, hung up on the latest quarterly figures. To exist, you have to be born yesterday.

A closer look at Deloitte’s ranking and it’s tempting to buy into this reality. Of the nine Swiss companies in the Top 100 - all in the watch sector and all but two privately-owned - age counts for nothing. The proof: Richard Mille, a brand established in 2001, has been recording 15% sales growth for years. In 2018, it generated some CHF 300 million in revenue. As for the Franck Muller group and the eponymous brand, established in 1991, Deloitte calculates 13.2% growth in sales for FY2017. Only Audemars Piguet, in existence for 144 years, can stand comparison with a 12% rise in sales for the same period. Neither Rolex, nor Breitling, nor even Patek Philippe measure up.

You can always argue that these brands have different business models, positioning and distribution networks, there’s still no getting away from the fact that Richard Mille didn’t get where it is today on the back of tradition. But what about the vintage tidal wave sweeping Planet Watch? Whether as a thriving pre-owned market or deliciously retro styles, vintage takes its source in the past. Hence brands would be wrong to disregard the way things were. What matters is knowing how to use this heritage wisely and not just in endless marketing messages. History is a gem that must be allowed to shine. For those who know how to use it, it is the voice of truth.