What would Steve Jobs do if he ran a Swiss watch company?

After years of having the book on my to-read list, I finally got around to finishing the Steve Jobs biography written by Walter Isaacson. It is a nuanced and in-depth look into one of the most formidable business leaders and visionaries in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Throughout the book, I wrestled with and relayed Jobs’ management approach into what I know and love about the watchmaking world. I was captivated by an unusual, hypothetical question, “What would Steve Jobs do if he ran a Swiss watchmaking company?” It’s an easy question to dismiss on the basis of Apple and oranges (pun intended). One is a mass market, high margin software/hardware technology company whereas Swiss watchmaking businesses are usually the antithesis in both regards. Yet for the very reason this hypothetical seems preposterous, I want to take it seriously. Great things come from strange places.

So what fingerprint would Jobs leave on a Swiss watchmaking business? It would definitely come in each of these three domains: product, marketing, and retail. Here’s my speculative take on each below:

Product – “The devil is in the details, but so is the salvation.”

On the surface, Jobs’ product design philosophy appears either inapplicable to or already inspired by the luxury watch world – clean and simple, intuitive interfaces, well packaged. Although it doesn’t explicitly say so in the biography, it’s probably fair that the luxury goods industry influenced and helped shape some of Jobs’ focus on the last item above. Packaging has played an important role in luxury customer experiences far longer than they have in tech. That said, I believe Jobs would’ve found his own unique touch in the watchmaking world by latching onto very particular product details. The biography makes the following clear: when it comes to successful products, the devil is in the details, but so is the salvation.

Jobs not only obsessed over the functionality of Apple products, but also the feel and weight. He had a holistic understanding of user experience. For watches, I sense he would’ve intuitively focused on the relationship between our sensual experience with watches and our connection to them. As an example, Jobs would have lost sleep over ensuring the winding of the crown left a noticeable and pleasurable acoustic experience for manual wind watches. To both collectors and non-collectors, the moment of winding a watch is very intimate, and the feel and sound plays an important role in that intimacy. This is a minute detail. However, it’s one Jobs would have never overlooked due to how greatly it impacts an owner’s experience with his/her watch.

Marketing – “The message has to be bigger than the product.”

Though easier said than done, Jobs’ overarching business strategy was simple: “make hit products and promote them with terrific marketing.” Jobs’ tremendous success can be attributed to this simple outlook. Nothing exemplifies the marketing genius of Apple more than its Think Different, 1984, and the PC vs. Mac advertising campaigns. Today, all three occupy iconic positions in modern business history. Think Different spoke to the core ethos of the brand and its founder. 1984 tied into popular culture and soothed anxieties tied to the rise of computers. PC vs. Mac addressed the major differences between Apple and Microsoft products in a fun and casual way. All of these campaigns were conceptual and personality-driven. None focused too directly on the product, but rather gave everyone a very good sense of what the company stood for and what it wanted you to feel. The legacy of this work still persists today. When you think of Apple, you know exactly what it represents compared to say, Microsoft.

As I’ve discussed previously, the current marketing landscape in the watch industry is barren. Without a doubt, Jobs would’ve salivated at the abundance of opportunities. I can imagine a world in which Jobs’ creative marketing approach worked primarily on giving a distinct voice to a Swiss watch brand – something so direly needed. The average consumer today has no means to differentiate most Swiss watch brands. Whether it’s Rolex or Tag Heuer or Vacheron Constantin, everyone recognizes the names and sorts by price, but very few can tell you what they are about and what they stand for. If Jobs took the reins of a Swiss watch company, he would do some serious soul searching to figure out why the company exists, what is the story, and then how to communicate it effectively. Jobs would have returned to the fundamentals.

Retail – “It’s too important to be a weak link in the chain.”

With all of the triumphs we associate with Steve Jobs, revolutionizing retail isn’t often one of them, but it should be. Apple stores leave such a distinct feeling on the consumer, it itself has become a selling point beyond Apple products. The biography paints a clear picture that creating a next-level retail experience for customers was of utmost importance to Apple – “If Apple is going to succeed … we’re going to win on innovation. And you can’t win on innovation unless you have a way to communicate to customers.” For any business selling physical goods, retail is one of the primary languages used to communicate – it cannot be a weak link in the chain.

To many of us, retail experiences in the watch world are often mediocre at best. Boutiques are generally unwelcoming and sales staff undertrained. They are rarely ever a place to congregate around a passion for the brand. On the surface, the watch community should want to come together more often in boutiques to interact more directly with the brands and products we love and admire. Instead, we consistently prefer to wade through noisy bars and restaurants to avoid boutiques killing our vibe. I believe Jobs would’ve given the “typical” retail experience a full overhaul. Whether through organizing community programming/education or changing the dark and conservative vibe of most boutiques, Jobs would have ensured consumers wanted to visit. It’s not an achievement to merely have retail points of sale – the bar has to be set much higher than that. Jobs would have focused extensively on getting to that higher level of success: make people want to visit, see product in person, and give them a reason to come back for more.

If there’s one thing that comes across strongly in the biography, it’s that Jobs cared tremendously about all of the core components of business. It seems obvious that a leader would, but more often than not, management latches onto one specific thing, say product and then push everything else (marketing and retail experience) to a lesser position of importance. One can glean from this speculative survey, Jobs’ greatest strengths appear to be some of the watch industry’s largest weaknesses, at least based on how things stand now in 2020.

If Jobs ran a Swiss watch company, it wouldn’t be one with only a good product, or good marketing, or great boutiques – it would be a company that obsessed and labored endlessly over nailing all three. Mediocre is a failure in Jobs’ book; excellence is the standard. As a collector of watches, I’d truly love for nothing more to see a leader of this caliber operate a watch company. It would lead to much better experiences for both seasoned collectors and average consumers! We can only dream …

Another dream with the beast 😎,

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