Timing Is Everything

Marketing Maven

Just as Crocco knew what he wanted his watch to look like, he also had definite ideas about how it should be positioned. To capture the attention of well-heeled buyers, he pinpointed exclusive jewelry stores. "Image is critical," he stresses.

The distribution of the watches was also important. Rather than turn the distribution process over to a wholesaler, Crocco set up offices in key European cities and set his sights on breaking into the U.S. market.

Once the distribution machinery is in place, it takes time, patience and lots of high-class selling to launch a luxury product, according to Goldstein. "This is not a fast-buck business," he says. It requires a subtle blend of sophisticated marketing and advertising, superior service and low-pressure selling. And even if all those factors are working together, it still takes about five years to build relationships with exclusive jewelry stores.

"The watch market is crowded," Goldstein adds. "There is plenty of competition in all price ranges." In Crocco's market, the very high end, that means facing off against formidable superstars like Rolex, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Cartier.

Getting retailers to commit to any watch line takes arm-twisting. And persuading an exclusive watch dealer to plunk down hefty sums for a pricey watch that may be difficult to sell requires the patience of Job. "You can't blame retailers for being skeptical," says Goldstein. "We were asking them to invest thousands of dollars in a watch they'd never tested."

Most exclusive jewelry stores didn't know what to make of the offbeat timepiece. Some felt the rubber watchband was absurd, a radical break from tradition. In short, "many dealers were afraid of being pioneers," says Edward Suhyda, the company's western regional sales manager for the United States. "They were afraid of going out on a limb."

Nobody understands the dealer mentality better than Suhyda. Prior to joining the company, he owned a jewelry store in the Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, area and was the largest Hublot dealer in the United States. He loved the watch so much that in 1994, he asked to join the company.

The key to the Hublot's success was committed salespeople like Suhyda who believed in the product and could walk into exclusive jewelry stores and make a compelling presentation. "Selling the Hublot was a two-step process," Goldstein recalls. "First, we had to convince retailers to try it. Once they were convinced, we had to teach them how to sell it to their customers."

Americans were a particularly hard sell. Crocco introduced the Hublot to the United States in 1984 but didn't make real inroads until 1990.

"Breaking into the States was an uphill journey all the way," Crocco says. "In the mid-1980s, the American market wasn't ready to understand the concept. Even after potential buyers got past the quirkiness of the rubber strap, they didn't understand the watch was a long-term investment. They couldn't see spending a lot of money on this watch when they could buy a sturdy Japanese watch for much less."

"Most Americans were unwilling to buy the Hublot because it had no track record," Suhyda concurs. "They'd heard of Rolex, but they had never heard of Hublot and were skeptical. They mistakenly thought they were spending a great deal of money for a rubber watchband. We had to explain to them that they were spending a lot for the watch, not the band."

Crocco wouldn't give up. Building his family's watch line had taught him that a sophisticated publicity campaign using slick print ads in top consumer and trade magazines would eventually work. In 1993, he launched a marketing campaign to let potential buyers know that an impressive lineup of the rich and famous proudly wear Hublots. The list includes King Carl Gustav of Sweden, Prince Albert of Monaco, Giorgio Armani, Sylvester Stallone, Candice Bergen, Elton John, and former New York Knicks coach Pat Riley.

By 1985, the Hublot was enjoying well-deserved recognition throughout Europe. But just as sales hit a steady upswing, Crocco discovered an unforeseen problem: Counterfeit knockoffs of the Hublot were popping up all over the place.

Imitation is said to be the highest form of flattery, but Crocco wasn't amused. The Hublot knockoffs put a serious crimp in sales. Although Goldstein says most were "cheap imitations," some of the copies were so good, it was hard to tell them from the real thing. Stopping the counterfeiters was a long and expensive process. It took a few years and eye-popping legal fees, but Crocco prosecuted and put the counterfeiters out of business.

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This article was originally published in the July 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Timing Is Everything.

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