May 9 2014, 10:37pm CDT | by Forbes
Basketball is a completely American sport, but Audemars Piguet - based in Switzerland – is a truly international brand. As of May 2014, the storied luxury watch maker and the Atlanta Hawks basketball team have announced a new relationship that will see Audemars Piguet not only as the team’s official timekeeper, but also as the official time keeper of the Philips Arena where the team plays.
Luxury timepieces have come a long way in the last few years in regard to integrating themselves with American culture. High-end purchase decisions in the United States are very different than those in other parts of the world, such as Europe or Asia. Furthermore, the US market is once again the main area of focus for luxury brands that have, until recently, been mostly focused on China and other areas of growth in Asia. While Asian purchasers are still important, many of them are known to travel to the United States to purchase their luxury goods.
However, the niche focus on basketball as well as the local Atlanta market represents an approach to luxury marketing that is entirely modern. Until several years ago, basketball was seen as too mainstream a sport for companies looking to sell products priced $10,000 and over (way over). Audemars Piguet was actually among the first major high-end watch makers to approach the sport and already claims star Miami Heat player LeBron James among their list of esteemed international brand ambassadors. Partnering with an entire team focuses less on an individual personality or player and is designed to promote brand awareness–especially to those top fans who view the game from box suites as well as court-side seats.
Audemars Piguet is aware that only a small percentage of Atlanta Hawks fans are going to be those who can afford their products, but that group is still important to their overall US strategy. In total the Atlanta Hawks estimates that about 1.6 million people visit the Philips Arena each year. Brands like Audemars Piguet seek out to find leisure activities and destinations that attract an area’s wealthy population. In many cities those are sporting venues. While the brand has a history of conservative, complicated timepieces, a major part of today’s Audemars Piguet product family are luxury sports watches such as the Royal Oak Offshore–which, in terms of sales, is exactly what most high-end timepiece buyers in America are purchasing.
For years, brands like Audemars Piguet have connected themselves with athletes and other sports personalities. Partnering with an American basketball team is no different than what they have done in other markets for years when working with race car drivers, soccer players, and other important personalities. Basketball just happens to be a relatively novel sport when it comes to doing business with the luxury industry. Nevertheless, its stars are quickly acclimating themselves. In addition to LeBron James, other players including Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O’Neal, Carmelo Anthony, and more are becoming deeply involved in the world of luxury watches. Swiss executives are becoming wise to their exposure and are looking to bank on their popularity as lifestyle influencers.
Basketball is joining a large portfolio of sports that have attracted the attention of luxury advertisers in a way historical sponsorship relationships could not have envisioned. A few decades ago it was golf, high-brow automotive racing, yachting events, and polo that experienced the majority of luxury brand sponsorship. Today, in an effort to attract both existing and aspirational customers, brands like Audemars Piguet have expanded their reach.
According to Audemars Piguet, the aspirational buyer is in many instances just as important as a current potential buyer. Audemars Piguet has been selling luxury timepieces for about 140 years so it understands that developing a relationship with the public is important because you never know who will grow up to appreciate and potentially afford your products. Today’s young basketball fan can easily grow up to be a business person looking for a fine watch. Audemars Piguet hopes to develop a relationship with the public so that they are among the first brands they consider when looking to reward themselves with a fine timepiece. Rolex has been the master of this practice in the United States and around the world, but by no means is it restricted to just one brand.
In fact, Audemars Piguet is among the relatively few major Swiss watchmakers dedicated to the production of high-end products that has fared particularly well in the United States. If Audemars Piguet needed to sum up the reason for their American market success it very well may be because of sporty products such as their Royal Oak Offshore timepieces, as well as the fact that they are associated with key lifestyle personalities.
Partnering with the Atlanta Hawks represents one further tactic important for foreign luxury brands to understand about the United States–that gaining traction in America is often best done one market at a time. The United States is so big and diverse that unlike smaller European nations, no one sponsorship is enough to reach every type of audience. There is no single sport or sports team followed by any significant portion of the US population. So the best approach is to focus on individual cities or demographics and appeal to their particular interests. While a luxury buyer in Los Angeles may not have much interest in what Audemars Piguet is doing in Atlanta, the Atlanta market does. To further help put things into perspective, the entire country of Switzerland has under 8 million people, while the state of Georgia alone has almost 10 million. In fact according the Atlanta Hawks over 22 million people visit downtown Atlanta annually who may be exposed to Audemars Piguet messaging.
Ariel Adams publishes the watch review site aBlogtoWatch.com.
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