Known to be the world’s bestselling watch company, with over 100 years of history, Rolex could be written as the definitive textbook in branding, with an emphasis for luxury items. Unfortunately, for many customers today, branding has taken on a negative nuance. Pop culture ads that rely on fashion and polling trends, naming right battles, mass production that sacrifice quality through outsourcing – these are some of the different means that companies use to gain success. However, Rolex has stood its ground and has not resorted to any such means in building its image. It let’s its quality products speak for itself. Hence it stands as the standard in the wristwatch industry.
Quality, performance, innovation and stability are the pillars that Rolex has built its brand, since the introduction of wristwatches. The company first sold pocket watches and folding watches called travel clocks when it was first formed in 1905 as Wilsdorf & Davis. Interestingly, until this time, it was only women who wore wristwatches. Later it became popular when people realized how impractical it was to have pocket watches, this was during the Boer War of South Africa (1899-1902) when they noticed the soldiers with wristwatches.
Seeing the opportunity in this new market, Hans Wilsdorf, along with his brother-in-law, William Davis formed the company and began producing high quality watches. Around three years after W & D was formed, the company’s name was officially changed to Rolex, a name that was trademarked by Wilsdorf. Somewhere during that time, the benefits of having a logo and brand name to distinguish a product from its competitors was just being discovered, and Wilsdorf capitalized on this opportunity. In essence they wanted a name that was easy to pronounce by all, had no meaning as such in any European language and something that was short and easy to spell. Another example of simple brand name was George Eastman naming his camera Kodak.
It was from Herman Aegler’s Rebberg firm that Rolex got their mechanics in a watch. As a teenager Wilsdorf worked at Cuno Korten with Aegler, a watch exporter in Switzerland. Quite often Wilsdorf would set up 15 watches and check them each for accuracy and it was here at Cuno Korten that Wilsdorf’s obession with accuracy began. Also he would submit the most accurate ones to the Neuchatel Observatory for testing without permission. However this was overlooked since all the testing passed and he received much praise from his seniors. Much later Aegler’s company came to produce exclusively for Rolex, as it does today. Aegler’s descendants still run the company, although owned by Rolex.
With his new company, Wilsdorf’s obsession for accuracy continued. He was awarded the world’s first chronometer award for a wristwatch, after sending the first Rolex movement to the School of Horology in Bienne, Switzerland. Rolex began to gain a worldwide reputation for the finest quality watches, with this award. Rolex watches went on to win a number of awards. Rolex received numerous awards. In 1914, Rolex received the Class A Certificate of Precision award from the Kew Observatory in England, previously only given to marine chronometers. During the testing the watches were subjected to three temperatures and five positions. This entire testing lasted for 45 days. After, Wilsdorf insisted that all Rolex watches would be sold only with an Official Timing Certificate and all their watches would be subjected to a similar testing.
Performance and Innovation
Wilsdorf realized that his watches needed to be extremely durable, in addition to accurate. Under his leadership and direction, Rolex made many innovations in either creating the technology or buying patents that made wrist watches dust proof, water proof, and auto winding. Wilsdorf did not do anything in half measure and showcased its performance and advertised the new products in a dramatic manner.
After the world’s first truly water-resistant watch was created, the first example of this was illustrated. Two inventors named, Paul Perregaux and Georges Peret, developed a new moisture proof winding stem and button, which they put on the watch cases and on October 30, 1925, filed a patent for the same. Prior to this, the winding stem was situated inside the watches case, and wasn’t really practical to the masses as this meant that the case had to be opened everyday to wind. And so Rolex had the world’s only moisture proof case, now that the winding stem was outside the watch. From this design the Oyster watch was developed. On October1, 1927, when Mercedes Gleitze swam across the English Channel, she sported a Rolex Oyster. She came forth from a swim that lasted for more than 15 hours, with her Rolex in perfect condition. Wilsdorf capitalized on this and on November 27th of the same year, in London’s Daily Mail, he took out a front page ad of Gleitze’s picture and her story. Thereafter, the new Oyster was placed in small aquariums, wherever Rolexes were sold, to further exhibit its water resistant capabilities, this was on Wilsdorf’s instructions. In fact, Sir Edmund Hillary wore a Rolex when he climbed the Rolex, in 1953.
In spite of the company being more than 100 years old, Rolex, in order to maintain its stability as the world’s best watch, did several innovative things. And so, due to this stability, in the midst of changes that wiped out a number of watch manufacturers, Rolex not only survived, but blossomed. In the 1950’s, the quartz watch was invented, which created low cost time pieces. During the 1970’s about half of the watches sold worldwide were structured on this quartz technology. Hong Kong was the largest watch producer. Since its relocation in 1919, Rolex has been located in Switzerland and never used outsourcing which keeps excellent quality control.
Having made a short venture into quartz technology, Rolex stuck to its foundation and continued to market their basic craft, which was considered old in industry standards. A typical quartz watch has around 50 to100 parts compared to a typical Rolex which has around 220 parts and takes almost a year to produce. Combined with a strong brand name, true craftsmanship can still have value – Rolex was a testimony to this fact.
Rolex kept up to its name and image, and never ventured out to produce any other products, unlike many other manufacturers of luxury items, who lent their name to various high end products. While temporary profits may have been a gain for these manufacturers, their brand name often diminished. And thus, Rolex is a name synonymous to wristwatches only.
In comparison to many of today’s well known watch companies which are owned by the same two or three companies, Rolex never resorted to take shelter under any corporate or conglomerate. These well-known companies took advantage of their corporate resources and were able to promote their individual product lines. In 1960, Wilsdorf left the company to look after a foundation in order to avoid their interests being mixed or combined with those of various different watch companies. Wilsdorf’s original vision was that the company would never be bought or publicly traded by a larger company.
In terms of gross revenue, Rolex has emerged as the world’s number one seller of watches and will be able to compete for years to come. Customers are ensured that they are investing in a quality product, one that will be valuable in the future. The high class performance, innovative techniques, stability and its commitment to its foundation of quality, all these features provide value to all Rolex customers.