Recently, while cruising the world on my handheld from the comfort of my wingback, I was almost thrown right off it! I had just read that Patek Philippe, the holy grail of the watch world, would be selling online. In the larger scheme, I know the internet hasn’t been around too long. But for an industry (and certain brands) that has long outlived and survived the French revolution, two World Wars and an Economic Depression, the fact that the most coveted of manufactures in the field would be succumbing to the clime of the times and acquiescing to online sales is a sign of just how bad things are. For many watch collectors and even nifty businessfolk, if they weren’t taking the Covid-19 threat seriously earlier, this has come as the undeniable reckoner.
Buying a Patek is not an off-hand purchase that you do while pottering about on your phone in the middle of the night like, say, some rubbish fitness belt or a home massage kit. It is an occasion, one that is marked by many a praise that the store folk will shower on you for your fine taste (and fat wallet) and oft accompanied by a bottle of sparkler going pop somewhere in the background. To simply make a PayPal transaction to acquire such a celebrated timepiece, you’d have to be stinking rich and absolutely spartan at the same time.
A growing tide
But they aren’t the only ones. Rolex, people are now debating, might joint the fray. Hodinkee, the online portal and marketplace for luxury watches, is hiring people who may have lost jobs in the real space, providing online space for brands to sell their ware, as also putting the works of various writers in the spotlight, all in a bid to ‘keep things moving along’. There are discounts but there is also a contribution from all sales towards funds to fight against coronavirus.
Many other brands are already gearing up to reach their consumers in unprecedented ways. Luxury always has it tough because when budgets get tightened, the first thing to go is spending power and the list of wants gets relegated. I may desire to own a flashy watch or a pen, but right now I need to ensure that I have medical emergency funds ready for the days ahead. Indulgences therefore need to be monitored.
Time to build brands
In the last month, two great international watch events got canned, the Olympics stands postponed, the fashion seasons have been derailed, even Apple and Google are debating when and how to launch their next models. The virus has certainly hit us where it hurts worst and in a manner that no-one predicted. Since no business or industry can afford to be blasé about the state of things, this is where brand building comes in. Even if it doesn’t have the ring of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, the indomitable human spirit will find ways to conjure up marketing in the time of Covid-19, because inasmuch as this pandemic is bad for sales and profits, in the long run, it is a great time to earn some brand cred through socially woke campaigns. The time, thus, is rife for creating equity through contributions to noble causes — from liquor brands manufacturing sanitisers (Diageo, Goa Brewing and Paul John are doing it) to cooking meals for the stranded (ITC hotels and Cafe Lota come to mind), from making online courses free or discounting them heavily (BarSmart, Fondation de Haute Horlogerie), to creating virtual classrooms for everything from guitar lessons to fitness sessions. Even a sector like travel is finding ways to connect. Portuguese tourism is pushing on with their #CantSkipHope campaign (to replace #CantSkipPortugal) and Maldives has #VisitMaldivesLater. Alcohol brands, notwithstanding the non-availability of their product, which does put a damper on everybody’s never-ending weekend, are using this time to generate traction — like the #AloneTogether posts on the pages of brews like Beeyoung and Kati Patang. Bira91 went a step further and managed to send out ‘Stay-home’ hampers just before the lockdown was enforced.
The escape route
Meanwhile, most online stores — from sneakers to luxury goods — are offering huge discounts to keep buyers spending. The marketing messages have been one constant emphatic barrage. And there are other more generic trends, which will surely get picked up by brands to cash in on, from Dalgona coffee to home recipes from famous chefs, or working into a fitness routine (where Myntra will advise you what to buy, from a yoga mat to noise-isolating headphones).
The online space and all its apps have never had a more captive audience. Online engagements are fine-tuning themselves to become the chasm of escape, to give someone a chance to virtually get away momentarily and distract themselves from the ennui of their immediate confines, to be able to live and think freely even when the walls are closing in. Zoom, the video-conferencing app, has seen more downloads in a month than TikTok and WhatsApp will, combined!
Of course, money certainly makes the whole episode easier and it is a position of privilege to be able to even contemplate all such ‘getaways’ as the lesser fortunate are being doused like cattle by the roadside with pool cleaning agents. Life is anything but fair.
For example, Ethos watches has announced one of the most tempting online sales ever with discounts as high as 50% on some very exquisite and rare timepieces. They have managed to reach me through personal calls, messages, emails and even online adverts. They know their target client and they understand the urgency of the moment. And inasmuch as I know a fabulous deal when I see one, I also know that I shouldn’t (and can’t) splurge right at this moment, but I am enjoying the warm gratitude that at least I am in a position to be tortured with such ephemeral first world issues rather than anything that’s remotely immediate and threatening.
In the meantime, brands have little else to do but sit and wait this pandemic out, a curious case where our helplessness and inaction are the most effective tools in combatting this menace, even as it sends the economy and society into free fall.