In the Chinese market, who has not heard of Longines? The Swiss brand’s fame and performance in the country would never have happened without the contribution of its President, Mr Walter von Känel.
By Grace Geng
Amid the sweet sounds of Christmas carols, a special event took place recently at St. Mark’s Square, inside the Shoppes at Venetian Macao: Swiss watch brand Longines erected a Christmas tree with sparkling lights. Linda Chung, a famous Hong Kong actress, was present, ensuring the square was flooded with onlookers snapping selfies for their social media posts. Little did those onlookers know who the grandfatherly figure was when he stepped into the spotlight, making a surprise appearance. It wasn’t Santa Claus, but close: Mr Walter von Känel, President of Longines.
The tourists might not have known his face, but Mr von Känel is a legend in the watchmaking industry, not only among Longines staff. Just like the brand, which has built its public image through global sporting like equestrian sports, gymnastics or alpine skiing, Mr von Känel embodies the Longines spirit of elegance and excellence. And without him, Longines would not be as well known in the Chinese market as it is today.
For the past 30 years, since taking the President position at Longines, Mr von Känel has been pushing Longines further and deeper into the Chinese market. The number of passports he has been through attests to this: 29, of which 27 were filled up with stamps primarily from travelling to China (his first visit to the country was in 1971, while it was still deep in the throes of the Cultural Revolution).
Not only has Mr von Känel been into China frequently, but he has clearly traveled far and wide within in, too. Over the course of our interview, we hear that he often takes time to walk around the cities where Longines has a presence. It is his way of meticulously understanding market conditions of different regions, and gauging changes of demand for each of the company’s products in the market.
Q: How does Macau fit into your China strategy? Please elaborate.
A: The Macau market is greatly influenced by mainland visitors, which, for us, is good. Greater China is our largest market, with more than half of our products flowing to the region of which it is a part. This is a long-established relationship, you know. Switzerland was among the first to acknowledge the new China after the PRC government was established in 1949. We remain very optimistic about the country, which still has enormous potential. I am full of confidence in the consumer market here, because the numbers do tell the truth.
Our sales in China have never been as good as this past year, and we have never been so confident in our annual forecast as we are this year. It is really very strong! In fact, our sales volume in China makes up for losses in many other regions. It keeps us moving forward.
We have an excellent local team, who understand local customers well. Chinese consumers have a great sense of aesthetic taste, and we value their feedback. You can say that we know this market well.
Q: Can you describe your life during your long career with Longines?
A: Oh, it may take me an hour to do so! Yes, my life has been all about Longines. The brand and I have gone through 50 years together. I am still alive (laugh), after having been through 29 passports. I spent most of my career looking at our shops in different markets. For this job, you really have to know the actual situation on the ground, and at the frontier of our expansion. You have to know whether customers like our existing products or not. You have to know what your competitors are doing and what is missing in the sales process. It is really important to listen to the opinions of the frontline staff, as it is they who come into contact with customers every day. They have to be very confident in the Longines brand policy and know it thoroughly. As a result, you cannot stay in your office like a star. Instead, you have to go out to see and listen.
Q: How do your strategies adjust according to local market conditions?
A: Since Longines developed its first quartz clock in 1954, worldwide sports events have proved that quartz watches absolutely operate more accurately than mechanical watches. All watches have the same enemy, that is the earth’s magnetic field. However, all our models from the Conquest V.H.P. collection have a distinctive feature of being able to compensate for time lost by exposure to magnetic fields. As you can see (he takes off his watch to move it next to a mobile phone for demonstration), it will stop running, but when you move it away, it will automatically jump to the accurate time, and it does not need any manual adjustment.
No two markets are the same, of course. For example, people have different favorite sizes. A Russian woman will not wear a 24cm watch like Japanese women will. Another example is that in the Greater China region, mechanical watches are still the most popular. So, we prefer to hire local talents in different areas rather than assigning personnel from North America or Europe. We are clear that local staff best understand what local consumers really want. For example, our team in Asia will tell me which star is suitable to act as our brand ambassador, even though Europeans might not know who he or she is. It is important to observe local feedback. For example, we will adjust the sizes of watches in our product lines according to the demands of different regions.
In the past few decades, we have maintained steady, stable growth. We are anchored in our existing price range, and we have not tried to cover all product categories. We will continue to spare no efforts to be the best in our price range, understanding that one cannot do everything right. If one decides to make traditional watches, one should not think about how to enter the field of smart watches. This has worked well for us. Moreover, if you look at our brand positioning, you will see that we do not include ourselves in fashion circles.
We are still in the traditional timepiece industry. I always say that we need to work hard, stand firm to consistency, stay focused and take the lead.
Q: Can you describe the typical target customers of Longines?
A: After all these years, it cannot be doubted that the watch has become an object of emotional branding for most people. We are very focused on the emotional needs of a mature demographic, although we always are innovating to attract younger consumers who prefer more modern designs. They might be deeply attracted by smart watches today, but a day will come when they grow tired of their complexity, and then they will turn back to more traditional watches. We have very high repurchase volume, because customers love our products very much. Our brand also adopts reasonable pricing to attract younger customers.
Q: Will any new products be launched in 2020?
A: We will not drastically change the collection, because we have five to six product lines that operate very well. Perhaps we will add extra sizes, for the current trend is that people prefer larger watch faces.
Our diver look watches have achieved great success and we perhaps will increase the sizes of the series, maybe within six months. Our famous V.H.P. series will have annual calendar features.
In general, we will continue to improve and innovate on our existing series. However, if and when we do launch new promotions, Chinese customers can be sure to see them first. China is where we have always launched promotions first.