Omega president Urquhart hopes to have presence in best retail addresses
London: Stephen Urquhart's mind is constantly ticking, like the Omega Olympic Countdown clock at Trafalgar Square which marks a silent but steady beat to the London Games. Like that timepiece in London's most visited tourist spot, Urquhart and his company's mantra is all about timing and movement. This is the fundamental reason of working for Omega and Urquhart defines this spirit having served at the helm as president for two decades.
The London Olympics will be the 20th straight Olympic Games for Omega in their capacity as official timekeepers. They signed on with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1932. Since then the company's involvement has been with the summer and winter editions of the Games. With each Olympic Games, Omega has pushed the boundaries of their technological expertise to fine tune their timekeeping assets and translate the performances of the world's elite athletes to the nearest fraction of a second.The process of preparation however, that reaches its climax every four years, is constant.
"There is never a time that we are not preparing for an Olympic Games," said Urquhart to Gulf News. "Even before we're finished with one edition — Summer, or Winter — both Omega Timing and management are in contact with every sports federation and with the Organising Committees at the future venues to work out what changes will be necessary and how we will be able to best support the next Games."
Since 1932, it has been a steady march into the future of cutting edge sports technology development for Omega. They have overhauled one milestone after another in the field of timing.
As Urquhart endorsed, "When we assumed the Official Timekeeper role for the Olympic Games for the first time in 1932, we were the first company ever to have done so for each discipline. Prior to that, timekeepers brought their own stopwatches to the Games. At that time in history, Omega was the world's premiere watch brand — we had a global reputation both as the Swiss watchmaker and for our technical know-how, so for the IOC, it was a natural choice. Of course, the timekeeping effort was much more modest in those days but no less important. Then, as now, the goal was to record the results as accurately as possible for the finest athletes on earth. In that respect, our main aim - in spite of the evolution of timekeeping equipment and processes - is much as it was 80 years ago."
Yet, for all its visibility as a brand, Urquhart prefers to let his company bask in anonymity for the London Games. To him, it is the clearest sign that all systems are in place and the job is being done. Undue attention is not necessary. As Urquhart reasoned, "I don't want it to be mentioned in the context of time keeping…this means that everything is working well and is a success. We obviously plan to promote the brand in a big way, but our main reason here is to time every single event in the Games and if the timing is not mentioned then it means that everything is going well."
To most observers such an approach would be deemed peculiar given that the company signs up some of the most blue chip names in the world of entertainment and sports to loudly endorse their timepieces. Urquhart puts it down to providing the everyday client on the street with a human and more believable persona.
"Our brand ambassadors bring human faces and emotions to the brand. We have a roster of outstanding men and women who are enthusiastic about what we do and who share a number of our core values. Also, they tend to have distinguished themselves not only professionally but also in their humanitarian efforts. Each of them has shown a commitment to improving the quality of life of the people around them," he stated.
Hollywood celebrities like Nicole Kidman and George Clooney, to name but a few, endorse the spirit of Omega, while Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps highlights his mammoth achievements in the pool by wearing his. The watch also breathes life into fictional heroes like James Bond who is portrayed as the spy every man dreams to be. A timepiece celebrating 50 years of iconic Bond movies has also been commissioned. While Urquhart advocates the benefits of anonymity for his brand in the London Olympics he is quick to defend the blatant display of the product as worn by the world's favourite spy on film.
"Your suggestion that the actors "make such a shameless exhibition" of the watches is, perhaps, a bit presumptuous but of course, we are happy when the brand is present on the screen. Earlier in the year, we had a press conference featuring Lindy Hemming, the Oscar-winning costume designer who chose the Omega Seamaster with a blue dial as 007's watch in GoldenEye in 1995. A journalist asked her why she had chosen it. She said, "I was convinced that Commander Bond, a Naval man, a diver, and a discreet gentleman of the world would wear this watch as opposed to the one everyone expected me to choose." She added, "I had also known contemporaries when I was in my twenties who were military and naval, and some who worked in field of energy and electricity, who all swore by their Omegas. Therefore, as one of the early tasks in designing the new Bond, Pierce Brosnan, I went to a props and hand props meeting and argued for the use of Omega, which I had of course first investigated to make sure they would be interested in placing their watches on Bond!"
So what to you might seem like a shameless display was, at least in the mind of the costume designer, a sensible choice about the very best possible watch for the world's favourite spy.
Much of Omega's success has been put down to timing. This is not just restricted to the movement of their watches — which, incidentally, is the core reason for their achievements thanks to the acquisition of the Co-axial Escapement technology in 1999 - but to the policy of making sound business decisions, sometimes when the odds were stacked against them. Weathering the storm generated by a financial crisis in 1999 and the economic crunch, which hit the Swiss watch making industry hard, in 2008 was a case in point.
"Obviously our business was affected a bit, predominantly in US and Japan, for reasons that were not linked to the crisis but in our own stores we increased our business. So it is a sign that in difficult times people look to be reassured and that's what stood out. We were able to maintain or improve our shares in almost every market," stated Urquhart. "We had positioned ourselves well with a global product and marketing strategy. Our focus remained on the quality and consistency of our products and the way we communicated that message kept the level of interest in our brand high.
"As you are probably aware, the Swatch Group in general has continued to perform well and has prospered during what for many industries were uncertain times — an indication that we and the other brands in the group not only weathered the storm but prospered during what for many industries were uncertain times. What was revealing is that business in our retail stores even increased, showing that consumers didn't jump ship and were looking to be reassured."
The same uncompromising approach has seen them reap a rich harvest in the Middle East, of which the UAE is a key market, where the political and social climate has done little to dent the company's equity.
"Our boutiques in the Middle East have continued to meet and even exceed their sales goals," endorsed Urquhart. "Obviously some of the markets in the region are more affected than others but we always keep things in perspective and are vigilant in our market research. We set ambitious but realistic goals in all of the places we sell watches. As a global brand, we understand both the cyclical nature of economies and the uncertainty of political situations. To your question about "combating" the situation, we work closely with our partners in every part of the world and ensure that we are prepared to deal with whatever realities we are presented with. About ten years ago we embarked on a complete revision and streamlining of our global distribution network, opening boutiques where it was appropriate and identifying ideal, committed retail partners. At this point we have about 80 points of sale altogether in the GCC and 15 Omega boutiques. There are also six boutiques in the UAE so we have a strong retail presence in that part of the world. The region is dynamic in terms of the distribution infrastructure — there are upscale shopping malls, lifestyle destinations and resorts. We are happy to be continuing the development of the network, especially in terms of quality, with our Rivoli partners."
The spirit of reliability coupled with a sense of adventure has also seen Omega register a strong presence in markets like China where clients with huge amounts of disposable income are picking up their watches.
"China has become our biggest market and the brand is very well established there," admitted Urquhart. "Omega has strong sales and marketing organisations on every continent so our markets continue to develop in Europe - where the economic climate is not friendly at the moment - and the Middle East as well. More recently we have been making substantial investments in our retail network in the United States. Despite the disaster caused to the Japanese economy by the tsunami Omega has managed to increase their market share there as well."
Speak for itself
The policy of letting the brand speak for itself, rather than resort to constant advertising, has created diverse schools of thought in the media and advertising industry about Omega but Urquhart is secure in the knowledge that the company's policy is a sound one. The company stands third in the list of TV spenders in the Pan-Arab region; seventh in newspaper advertising and tenth in magazine spend. Urquhart is not disconcerted by statistics and contests it saying, "Looking simply at advertising spend can be a bit misleading. A lot of our marketing is done through our boutique strategy - our aim is to have Omega Boutiques at the best retail addresses in the world and we are achieving that goal. Our events along with our high-profile participation in sports timekeeping also keep our name in front of a large number of people. And of course, with the Olympic Games coming up, it's useful to remember that the worldwide television audience, which is expected to reach around four billion people, will also give us incredible global exposure. We will always have multi-media, multi-tiered marketing calculated to reach our target audiences."
Yet, at the end of the day, while most observers would argue that a watch is after all just a watch, Urquhart is not willing to readily subscribe to such a simplistic view. "It is all about leaving a legacy," he stated. "Just like what the organisers of the London Games plan to do. Similarly in Omega we have two iconic hooks - the space programme with Nasa and the Olympics."
In 2009, the company celebrated the 40th anniversary of the moon landing with Apollo astronauts Gene Cernan, Tom Stafford and Buzz Aldrin but Urquhart admitted that, "In addition to this we have two more programmes going for us which I believe in as a man of this era — it's the Planet Ocean film we are making on the ecology and oceans of the world and working with Orbis, a non profit and humanitarian organisation devoted to blindness prevention and treatment in developing countries.
"Mind you," he cautions, "We are not trying to become a crusader for the environment but we believe that we have the means, being a brand with resources and scope, to tell the world what is happening out there. So in the end we have two highlights from the past and two from the present."
These varying approaches dovetail into what exactly is the unique selling point of an Omega. "I think people today are buying a brand and I mean that in a positive sense. In the old days they walked into a shop and wanted to buy a watch. You looked at the watch, liked it and then purchased it. But the world has changed and people are more knowledgeable.
"Today, magazines and supplements devote pages and pages on watches. This is how the world has changed. With Omega, half the job is done before the watch actually comes to the shop. Not just by advertising, although a lot of brands do that, but to be able to do things the way we do them. To communicate the way we do. I think its brand promise. It's a feeling I have, and I don't want to be presumptious, but it's a brand that people like to buy. People buy a Bond watch to be like James Bond and this is human. But must haves can be very precarious, they can stop overnight.
"Aspirational is a key word here," reasoned Urquhart. "In today's world a lot of people ask, maybe not so much in the Middle East but in Europe, if the prices are going down and I say ‘no.' I think in difficult times people look for something which gives them emotional confidence."
Without having so much as admitted it, it would appear that Urquhart subscribes to the view that great brands have the power to change the game. Over his two decades with Omega he has perhaps understood, intuitively, that each game has its limits and when that happens the players — both the customer and the brand get constricted. Stick to the same rules and you'll be bound to the same moves, on the same bench and in the same playing field for a long time. By that logic Omega has reached the moon and has dived into the depths of the ocean. Surely that is enough for a watch?
The answers perhaps lie in the Co-axial beat in Urquhart's ticking brain. Time alone will tell.