Code 11.59 By Audemars Piguet: How To Fail At Marketing, AKA To Break The Rules You Must First Master Them
Imagine, for a moment, that you find yourself taken back in time several years and plunked down in the CEO’s chair at venerable watch enterprise Audemars Piguet. As you survey your empire, you are struck with two inescapable conclusions:
- Your leading product line, the Royal Oak with its Offshore extension, is one of the greatest blessings in consumer products history as it is eagerly sought-after by collectors, immediately recognizable, and has maintained its popularity over decades.
- Your leading product line, the Royal Oak, is a curse as you sense that at some point it must begin to decline, and your market research tells you its buyers are beginning to skew older. Your other core lines, the Jules Audemars and Millenary, have languished in the massive shadow of its success, and increasingly consumers see “Audemars Piguet” as synonymous with, and limited to, “Royal Oak.”
In the hundreds of case studies I analyzed back in my business school days each ended with, “what should the CEO do?”
What Audemars Piguet did
In real life it appears that Audemars Piguet concluded that the answer to its problem was to create an entirely new line of watches sportier and edgier than traditional dress watches while still being on the dressy side of the Royal Oak. And to launch it with great fanfare at SIHH 2019, the brand’s swan song at the Geneva fair.
The initial online response to the new Code 11.59 collection was extremely negative, and even among those who withheld judgment until handling the watches I’d say the word “lukewarm” was the general view.
In the Quill & Pad team’s SIHH 2019 retrospective, I went on the record to say that I didn’t think the watches themselves were the crimes against humanity some deemed them to be, but that there were substantial problems with Audemars Piguet’s marketing strategy and tactics on Code 11.59.
Having let the dust settle a bit, let’s take a look at the anatomy of a dismal product launch.
What went wrong?
There are a number of dos and don’ts when it comes to new product strategy, and Audemars Piguet fell afoul of many of them.
1. Clearly separate the new line from other ongoing product lines. As noted above, the Code 11.59 line is positioned somewhere between dress and sport. That’s already a bit problematic from a product portfolio perspective as (at least to me) the Royal Oak already sits atop the dividing line between dress and sport watches, and it’s tough for a single manufacturer to establish two distinct offering personalities in the same space.
Then there’s that case band – octagonal in profile as seen from above and intended to mirror the Royal Oak’s bezel shape, and ditto on the hexagonal screws at the spring bar positions on the lugs. There’s way too much talk about “DNA” in the watch business for my taste, and in this instance I feel that a misplaced desire to maintain visual similarities to the Royal Oak substantially diminished the ability of Code 11.59 to stand on its own.
If you imagine a wall-sized product positioning map on which the Royal Oak and Code 11.59 lines are plotted with pins, the pins would be almost touching and surrounded by ample areas of blank, unserved market potential. That’s not good.
2. Test, learn, adapt. While the Code 11.59 watches are perhaps too close in type to the Royal Oaks, they are quite different from the Jules Audemars watches they replace. In addition to logistical constraints, there are good reasons why companies (including luxury product leaders) roll out new sets of products within a family over several years using a disciplined product/derivative roadmap.
Whether it’s Ferrari with the Berlinetta, Spyder, and Competizione versions of a particular model or Nikon with successive tiers of products within a given line, starting a new product family with one or two initial models helps with a smooth transition as well as allowing time to judge market reaction and improve subsequent variants.
By contrast, in January of 2019 Audemars Piguet introduced no fewer than thirteen different references across six watch types (time/date, chronograph, perpetual calendar, automatic flying tourbillon, openworked tourbillon, and Supersonnerie) and three new movements.
Had I been in charge, I would have introduced one reference – likely the chronograph with Audemars Piguet’s new fully integrated movement, a significant advance for the brand – and then tuned subsequent releases over several years based on consumer response.
While we’re on the topic of test and learn, a well-placed (but unconfirmed) source told me that Audemars Piguet had conducted some feedback sessions with customers during the development process, but in the end decided to ignore much of the counsel received. While it’s true that consumers are often bad at identifying new classes of solutions to problems, it’s also true that they are pretty good at telling you whether your idea is pure genius or a stinker – and if you decide that you know better, you’re on your own.
3. If you’re trying to establish a sub-brand, go all the way. Audemars Piguet gives us a hint with its labeling of this line as “Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet,” suggesting that it is intended to stand somewhat apart from the core brand. However, there was nothing that I saw in the launch of Code 11.59 that followed through on that suggestion, unlike when Vacheron Constantin launched its FiftySix line with its own promotional positioning clearly aimed at younger, fashion-forward male consumers.
Is this line mainstream Audemars Piguet or meant to be a separate proposition under the AP umbrella? And just who is the intended customer for this set of pieces? Other than CEO François-Henry Bennahmias’ almost comically vague statement that “it’s not a men’s watch and it’s not a woman’s watch, it’s a watch,” we’re left to guess.
4. Choose a brand name with meaning – to consumers. Okay, I’ll admit that my home area of Silicon Valley is the birthplace of some of the most nonsensical brand names ever conceived, but I’m a bit of a purist about at least attempting to give products brand names that have a chance of creating affinity with one’s intended customers.
The “Code” part of the brand’s name (I had to look it up) refers to “Challenge, Own, Dare, Evolve”: four words that may be fine as part of a corporate values statement, but don’t have any apparent linkage to consumers’ needs and wants. And 11.59 is meant to refer to being “on the brink of tomorrow.” Why not go right into tomorrow instead of hanging on the edge?
I wouldn’t be surprised if “Code 11.59” weren’t the internal project development designator for this line of watches, and the marketing folks ran out of imagination around the time a proper brand name was needed.
5. Underpromise, overdeliver. From the bombastic and self-important pronouncements associated with this launch, including the repeated statement that this was the single most important product launch for Audemars Piguet since 1972, these products would have needed to be nearly miraculous to stand up to the hype.
Then there was the presentation itself: I was at the AP booth at SIHH, and every several minutes the main reception area would darken for the panoramic showing of a self-congratulatory video accompanied by thunderous music (a version of which, if I’m not mistaken, can be seen on the brand’s site at audemarspiguet.com/en/watch-collection/code1159byap/film).
Had the presentation been the announcement of a cure for pancreatic cancer or the rollout of the Mars booster missile, it would still have been 50 percent too long; for a set of new watches, it was overblown enough to remind me immediately of the “Stonehenge” scene from the satire “rockumentary” This Is Spinal Tap, in which an intended concert finale is ruined due to the main prop having been made 18 inches high rather than 18 feet.
By the way, if you have a spare three minutes and you haven’t seen the full scene before, I’d heartily recommend it.
6. Don’t think you can control the message. There was a time in which it was possible to hand-pick the media through which a brand introduced a new product and carefully shape the messages consumers received. In the Internet era that’s all gone, and brand managers act otherwise at their peril.
With Code 11.59, a few media outlets received previews of the new watches prior to SIHH. On launch day, January 12, Hodinkee for example published Introducing CODE 11.59 By Audemars Piguet under Stephen Pulvirent’s byline that was considerably more laudatory than the immediate reactions from the great majority of the watch community and included a five-minute, slickly produced, Hodinkee-hallmarked video in which Audemars Piguet CEO Bennahmias tells us why Code 11.59 is the greatest thing since sliced bread.
The small number of selected media partners, and the marked difference in enthusiasm for Code 11.59 between the views of the chosen outlets and others, led to entirely predictable speculation that opinions had been bought and sold, at minimum with preferred access and likely with hard cash; this is not the sort of buzz that you want surrounding your product launch.
At the show itself additional media outlets were shown the watches in an abbreviated way (in at least one case I’m aware of without the facilities for photography being made available, for instance), and by the time our collector group saw the pieces three days into the fair the time-and-date references were no longer being presented for viewing.
In the famous words of heavyweight champ Joe Louis when asked about opponent Billy Conn’s plans to “hit and run” in their 1946 bout: “He can run, but he can’t hide.”
7. If you apply new technology or design innovation, make sure it delivers a benefit. At the launch, much was made of the introduction of applied Audemars Piguet logos on some of the dials manufactured through the use of galvanic growth methods. Bennahmias noted that these were developed “going against initial warnings regarding the feasibility of such a logo.”
In my view, the AP team should have heeded the warnings as the resulting chunky-looking characters with tiny bridges connecting the letters give the impression of those laser-etched metal detail kits you can buy to enhance the look of a plastic car model.
As a consolation, the unintended good news is that the applied logos (and for that matter, the hour indices and hands) are next to invisible against the darker dials in the series. Our group found it very difficult to capture any images in which the applied logo showed up at all, and the same is true even for many of the shots in the articles from sympathetic press partners.
I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to the double-curved crystals (radially curved from 12 to 6 and spherically curved beneath) as I haven’t personally compared them with other watches, but my impression in the room wasn’t of a significant decrease in reflections or increase in legibility.
What about the watches themselves?
For me, that’s largely a matter of taste. The watches are not particularly to my liking, but I can imagine that others might find at least some of the pieces appealing.
The time-date watch seems particularly problematic; from photos I’ve seen and from the report of a friend who was finally able to handle the watch in Hong Kong, the ultra-thin bezel and wide open spaces of the dial coupled with super-skinny hands and indices are particularly unkind to this simple watch.
I thought that the rectangular hole punched in the dial to reveal the date just looks cheap.
The buttress lugs, integral to the front bezel and stopping just short of the rear bezel, are somewhat interesting but as the owner of a Grönefeld 1941 Remontoire on which the lugs have tiny gaps to the case, I can guess that Code 11.59 owners will spend a decent amount of time fishing hair, skin cells, and other assorted crud out of the more pronounced gaps on the AP cases.
I’m sure that the new calibers developed by Audemars Piguet Renaud & Papi are as excellent as we have come to expect from this top movement design shop, and there were two pieces with established movements I thought had particular merit. The movement of the openworked tourbillon is just lovely to see, and the textures and tones are especially easy on the eye.
And while I liked the look of the prior Jules Audemars version of the Supersonnerie better, to my ear the sound of that complication in the new Code 11.59 case was actually superior.
Super sound: Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 Supersonnerie (video courtesy AllenS)
For me the visuals of the other pieces in the line still need work; for instance, the aventurine-dialed perpetual calendar has enough going on to fill its dial, but was illegible enough in the bright lights of the AP booth that my friends took to photographing it (and several of the other calibers) under the table.
Product pass, marketing fail
In a pass-fail grading scheme, I’d be inclined to give the majority of these watches a “pass” as individual efforts (although, as mentioned above, I see real problems with them as a group from a portfolio perspective for AP).
From a marketing perspective, though, this was a clear “fail.” And if I were grading the effort as an exam response and feeling particularly snarky, I might scribble “to break the rules, you must first master them” in the margin of the blue book.
I have no idea whether Audemars Piguet will succeed in selling out its total first-year production of 2,000 units (across 13 references!) to consumers at full retail prices through its monobrand boutiques (perhaps I’ll return to this retail channel strategy topic another time), but it will be interesting to observe.
These are only my opinions, though. I have confidence in my views based on my experience as a business and marketing strategist and as a long-term participant in the watch scene, but also have plenty of respect for the principle of “test and learn” and look forward to hearing your observations in the comments below.
Note: while friends and Ian Skellern contributed some of the images for this article, the opinions expressed are solely mine.
Quick Facts Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 Selfwinding Chronograph Reference 26393
Case: 41 x 12.6 mm; white and pink gold
Dial: lacquered dial and counters (in blue or black) with applied gold indices and galvanically grown gold logo; glare-resistant double-curved sapphire crystal
Movement: automatic Caliber 4401 with column wheel and vertical clutch; 70-hour power reserve; 28,800 vph/4 Hz frequency
Functions: hours, minutes, subsidiary seconds; instantaneously jumping date; flyback chronograph with continuously advancing 30-minute and 12-hour registers
Production years: 2019 onward