Historically, the fine watchmaking industry has always revolved around two main events: the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) and Baselworld. As tradeshows targeting watch afficionados, journalists, retailers and members of the public (Baselworld only), these events saw luxury watch brands pulling out all the stops to present their full range of novelties for the year to visitors over the course of four to six days. Massively focused on the offline experience, one-on-one watch presentations followed by cocktail sessions, dinners or the occasional curated party experience were simply par for the course. Digital was a buzzword often tossed around but largely ignored – up until it became clear that consumers were evolving, and that the fairs had to evolve too.
Talk about the organisers (the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH) and MCH Basel) changing up the format of the shows were circulating from as early as 2018. While efforts to pivot towards digital were evident by the 2019 editions of the fairs, it was not till COVID-19 struck in late 2019 that real changes were afoot. Faced with a global pandemic that placed restrictions on international travel and gatherings of large groups of people, both organising bodies had to cancel their offline fairs in early 2020. The FHH, however, made the quick decision to take its event – now rebranded as Watches and Wonders – online. It also ended up hosting two offline editions of its event later in the year, in Shanghai and Sanya. As the only major economy in the world not on lockdown, China became the testing ground for much of the FHH’s new strategies and digital tactics – something that was clearly evident in the recently concluded Watches and Wonders Shanghai that ran from 14 to 18 April at the West Bund Art Center. A total of 19 brands took part in this offline edition. “We nearly doubled the number of exhibiting brands [compared to last year], including first-time exhibitors Rolex, Chopard, Ulysse Nardin, Tudor and Montblanc, as well as four new independent watchmakers, H. Moser & Cie., Arnold & Son, Ferdinand Berthoud and Armin Strom,” says CEO of the FHH, Mathieu Humair.
While the fair’s previous edition in Shanghai already showed signs of organisers and brands embracing digital on a completely different scale, this year’s edition proved that they were serious and committed to this new way of doing things. Last year, Watches & Wonders Shanghai saw the FHH and Net-a-Porter (through which Watches and Wonders mostly runs its digital activities on e-commerce) working with tech juggernaut Alibaba on the Watches and Wonders Tmall Cloud Watch Show to livestream the event on market’s largest e-commerce platform, Taobao/Tmall.
The tradition continued this year, but in a far more robust fashion. “The relay of the Watches and Wonders event on Mr Porter, Net-a-Porter and Luxury Pavilion with Alibaba has increased its resonance and reach,” affirms Humair. Its collaboration with Tmall came in the form of a Super Brand Day, also known as the platform’s key standalone marketing campaign for brands. The Watches and Wonders Super Brand Day saw the participation of 11 watch brands, with exclusive offers on Tmall Luxury Pavilion. Besides developing an engagement-driven mini game for the event, Watches and Wonders also tapped on top livestreaming KOL Austin Li (also known as Li Jiaqi) to host a three-hour livestream on Tmall – further indication of its willingness to break tradition in the face of today’s digital revolution. Li’s appointment as the event’s livestream anchor was met with interest in the industry, as the KOL is better known for his ability to sell lipsticks than for his watchmaking knowledge. While figures for conversions have not been revealed, Li’s livestream was viewed a total of 7.55 million times as of 19 April and received over 6.67 million likes.
As part of its online activation, Watches and Wonders also broadcast livestreams of its conferences and panel discussions at the event on livestream platform YiZhiBo, promoting these sessions on Weibo – both on its official account as well as through Key Opinion Consumers (KOCs).
Size-wise, brand booths at the fair were almost twice as large as they were at the previous edition of Watches and Wonders Shanghai – as were their digital efforts. Brands stepped up their push for offline to online content, with most of them offering some sort of digital experience at their booths. Some brands, like Jaeger-LeCoultre, offered functional and helpful online experiences in the form of digital guides that could be accessed by scanning QR codes located beside showcases. These QR codes would lead visitors to a WeChat Mini Program where they would find introductions in either English or Chinese, accompanied by videos, pictures and audio guides.
Others, like Piaget, opted for more immersive and interactive digital experiences. In this case, consumers were invited to explore a digital wall to learn more about the manufacture’s rich history and heritage. Once logged into a Mini Program, guests were tasked with locating specific motifs on a digital mural via their phone’s camera lens and capturing them within a frame, in order to trigger video introductions and stories related to that symbol. Following which, users could also download these illustrations as a keepsake.
As the Chinese digital ecosystem continues to mature and become more sophisticated, it has broadened the possibilities afforded to brands online and with it, raised the bar in terms of expectations from consumers as well. The latest edition of Watches and Wonders in Shanghai certainly displayed a huge step forward in the right direction – especially in an industry known to be steeped in tradition and slow to adapt to changes – but there is still more that can be done.
“The watchmaking industry and watches have long been built upon the notion of physical, tactile experiences and the emotions that go with it, so much so that taking all of that online might prove to be a challenge for brands initially as global consumers learn to embrace these digital experiences,” says Pablo Mauron, Partner & Managing Director China at DLG (Digital Luxury Group), a leading independent digital agency for luxury brands – some of which participated in the fair.
This, however, is not the case in China where consumers are used to experiencing everything through the screens of their mobile phones, he explains. “There is a lot of room for brands to develop digital initiatives to target consumers beyond merely designing immersive digital experiences via Mini Programs on WeChat, for example. To take things a step further, brands can also think about developing consumer journeys on WeChat that follow up with the consumer after that initial interaction with the digital experience through marketing automation, driving them to points of sale offline or to connect with a sales associate to continue the conversation if they are interested,” he says. “At the end of the day, the role of digital is not just to enrich the consumer experience, but also to capture data and profiles that would be relevant for the brand.”
If there is one thing Watches and Wonders Shanghai has displayed, it is that the digital revolution of the watch industry is not near – it is finally here.