Storytelling is a key element in branding. The narrative that accompanies a brand can tap into its unique characteristics; a good storyline touches on the things you want the audience to remember. It also, importantly, triggers emotions, which can make a brand intrinsically appealing.

No industry demonstrates this better than luxury watches. Timepiece brands don’t just master the art of craftsmanship, but also that of storytelling. In a dense market, the narrative is instrumental for creating a competitive edge.

Here, the full range of storytelling approaches are evident, from authentic narratives that stay close to a brand’s essence, to far-fetched messages that stretch the imagination. 

What can we learn from four storytelling concepts that major watch brands employ?

The heritage card

We all know those brands that put “since ….” or “est. ….” in their logo. Understanding the history of a brand is certainly interesting, but does a long heritage automatically mean a better product or more trustworthy brand? 

Emphasizing rich heritage is inseparable from watchmaking. Most Swiss luxury brands are between one and two centuries old: Vacheron Constantin even dates back to 1755. In a category where craftsmanship is key, people assume that more experience equals a better product. However, today, business decisions are more influential when it comes to a watch’s quality. We do know that a story starting with “Once upon a time…” tends to speak to our imagination. A personal founder portrait, a black and white image of the basement the company once started from, anecdotes from the early days — we love those, and we love these stories because they really touch on the essence of the brand rather than on what it is selling.

Exposing heritage never hurts. It can be a powerful tool for triggering emotions and increasing overall brand appeal. However, when there’s no proof that history makes a product significantly better, it should not make that claim and instead should be complemented by a product-focused narrative. 

Fable follows function

Selecting themes that derive directly from a product might be the safest bet. In the timepiece business, a watch’s functionality can open doors to interesting narratives. A waterproof Rolex is a great starting point to talk about submarine adventures, the stopwatch feature of an Omega has made the brand a trusted partner in athletics, and Breitling’s tachymeter has brought them to the racetrack — with all the stories that come with it. As the number of timekeeping functionalities is limited, few brands in the space have exclusive coverage of a specific theme. Consequently, some decide to focus on one or two function-derived storylines, whereas others try to create a unique combination of themes. At the very high end, brands like Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe have shifted to themes that instead showcase their cultural value and ambitions.

The function-driven approach is the most direct connection to the offering. However, it has its disadvantages. The stories are not always the most appealing and it can still be difficult to stand out. Therefore, there’s a constant need to add twists to common themes, which can make staying on message a challenge.

Where the customer is

What does a Rolex watch have to do with tennis and golf? Watches don’t count aces, nor the number of hits. Many timepiece brands tell stories that have no natural connection to their products. With a pinch of creativity, however, brands have found ways to bring them together. Luxury brand Audemars Piguet, for instance, says about its commitment to golf: “Whether on a green or in the universe of Haute Horlogerie, it is always a question of precision and elegance, the beauty of both gesture and performance.” This forced marriage exists because the brand wants to be where its customers are – on the green. Hublot deserves special mention here. With its strong commitment to soccer, the brand extends this category to “being where everyone is”. Smart but ironic; soccer is one of the most universal sports, whereas only a few people in the world can afford to buy a Hublot.

Sometimes, the creation of a connection between a story theme and the actual product takes a lot of effort — and creativity. When done with confidence and consistency, people might not notice the disconnect and even appreciate the brand more. When not done well, it can seem far-fetched, resulting in the loss of brand credibility.

Values and beliefs

Some stories don’t fall into any of the aforementioned categories. Instead, narratives have been created around what a brand values and believes. The IWC Schaffhausen brand is a good example of purpose-inspired storytelling; it aims to sharpen its image by building a community of people who appreciate similar things, teaming up with lifestyle brands that have compatible value sets, and being at locations that feel like a natural fit. In storytelling terms, one can say that the brand plays the main character in a (social) environment that breathes its identity.

Sure, a premium watch is a desirable product for many, and it makes sense to embed functionality in the story, but one shouldn’t ignore the fact that people buy into a purpose, too. This is true particularly when there are many players in an industry. Then paying special attention to stories that demonstrate your values and beliefs is key.

Storytelling sweet spot

Timepiece brands show us various powerful storytelling concepts, but each must be handled with care. A mention of a long history has the most value when the advantages are still relevant today, sticking to function-driven themes can limit messaging over time, being where the customer is might distract from the brand itself, and purpose-oriented narratives will sometimes need support from function-related themes. Depending on the brand’s industry and identity, one might decide for a different combination. Every brand has its own storytelling sweet spot. There’s definite value in finding yours.