BANGKOK – During the pandemic, when borders were closed, sales of Longines watches in Singapore – driven significantly by tourists from China – were affected.
“This was definitely one of the very few mistakes we made in the past,” says Longines chief executive Matthias Breschan. “We neglected in some places the domestic market, and we should never forget that the domestic market is always the priority.“
Local consumers, he adds, will stop thinking about the brand if the collections they find in their stores cater only to tourists who may have different tastes.
“It was for us an alert,” he says, adding that it prompted Longines to revisit and adapt its marketing strategies – from advertising campaigns to brand ambassadors to even product displays – to better address local needs.
The Swiss watchmaker’s efforts paid off.
“When you compare (the sales figures) of 2022 with 2021, we managed to achieve 2019 numbers, even without tourists in many markets,” says Mr Breschan in a meeting room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Bangkok, after presenting Longines’ 2023 novelties to regional press and retailers.
The pandemic also accelerated Longines’ dive into e-commerce, he adds.
“When I arrived in Longines (in July 2020), we had e-commerce in maybe six or seven markets,” says the head honcho who, before Longines, managed two other Swatch Group watch brands – Rado for nine years and Hamilton for seven.
“Within one year, we rolled it out to all the subsidiaries worldwide, so we now have e-commerce in more than 30 markets.“
After a spike, online sales have stabilised as the world gets back to normal. But Mr Breschan says the online-offline model is here to stay because it serves the brand well.
“You go online to make a selection because you have everything there. And when you go to the bricks-and-mortar store, your selected products are ready for you to touch and feel because buying a watch is a very emotional experience.”
The pandemic has been an interesting period for the tall and congenial Vienna School of Economics graduate.
“When I arrived, all of our points of sales around the world were closed. That was very complicated, but I also found out very rapidly that a strong brand, even in a difficult environment, is hurt very little,” he says.
Consumers, he adds, were spending money they would otherwise have spent on holidays and gourmet meals on luxury items, including watches.
“The second half of 2020 was good, although we were not able to catch up on everything we lost in the first half. 2021 was very good. And we are counting on a new historical record in 2023, and reaching two billion Swiss francs (S$2.9 billion) in turnover in 2025,” he says.
The company does not reveal figures, but according to a Morgan Stanley report, Longines had a turnover of 1.65 billion Swiss francs in 2019.
Only a handful of Swiss watch brands chalk annual sales in excess of one billion Swiss francs.
To do that, the company will leverage its three strongest suits – its heritage, women’s watches (Longines has a 50/50 split between its men’s and women’s collections) and classic watches.
With a grin, Mr Breschan confesses that before joining Longines, he did not know the 191-year-old company had such a storied history.
“I did not know that Longines invented the flyback moment; I did not know that Longines invented the GMT,“ he says.
The flyback function allows the interruption of an ongoing time measurement and a new one to be started immediately with the press of a button, while a GMT watch has an extra 24-hour hand to show two time zones at once.
Mr Breschan adds: “So if I didn’t know it, many others probably don’t too. To change this, we are now organising conferences for collectors, VIP clients and retailers, so that they can learn and know more about the brand.”
The brand’s heritage also means an enviable catalogue of historical and vintage models – especially divers’ and pilots’ timepieces – which has found favour with watch lovers, especially young ones.
Longines has worked this to its advantage, releasing updated models of vintage models, imbued with the latest horological technology.
One of the latest examples is the Longines Pilot Majetek, which is based on a pilot’s wristwatch that debuted in 1935 and was released in February.
Having a history and a heritage that are authentic is important.
“This is something nobody can take us on because our history is so rich. This is something important to the community of watch lovers and collectors and people who are passionate about watches. Because if you start to make up fake stories to make your watch interesting, the worst can happen. Brands that do that get penalised,” Mr Breschan says.
Meanwhile, Longines’ rich vintage catalogue is paying rich dividends.
“We see a huge number of young people getting interested in vintage watches. That’s already a very good sign, because if they are interested in vintage watches today, they are probably going to be interested in watches for the next 20, 30 or 40 years.
“And when young people become interested in mechanical watches, they discover these watches are the perfect accessory because it says something about themselves and shows the affinities that they have for the universe. It’s very important for them that these are products which are sustainable and last for a long time.”