From Cara to Clooney, the lucrative art of celebrity watch endorsements

Story highlights

  • Certain brands prefer longstanding relationships, like Rodger Federer with Rolex
  • By choosing Cara Delevingne, Tag Heuer hope to appeal to a younger market
  • Some brands have no ambassador, or, like Elvis for Hamilton, choose one who is dead

This is part of a series dedicated to Baselworld 2016. Josh Sims is a freelance writer, watch expert and author of "Icons of Style".

(CNN)Florence Welch may not be a well-known name to people of a certain age, but that didn't stop Gucci from announcing the singer as their new face of watches and jewelry.

Her music, notes Alessandro Michele, the creative director of the Italian fashion giant, "in many ways evokes the spirit of Gucci".
    Come Baselworld this month, other watch companies will certainly be announcing their own attempts to express their inner beings through celebrities.

    What's in a name?

    Some names may be more familiar than others -- Tag Heuer recently introduced Tom Brady, Jeremy Lin and Giancarlo Stanton to represent its new Connected smartwatch for example (all American athletes). Regardless of their level of fame, it's their effect on the future of the product that matters.
    Indeed, Tag Heuer raised eyebrows last year when it signed model Cara Delevingne, putting her in a billboard ad in which she wasn't even wearing a watch. Her role, as the CEO put it, was "to open our minds to the brashness and boldness of today's youth".

    Star power

    Fame for hire is not a new marketing ploy of course. Some celebrities have enjoyed long relationships with their watchmakers: Roger Federer for Rolex, Kate Winslet for Longines, and so on. But others are much less consistent.
    Hugh Jackman signed with Montblanc last year after a spell showcasing the watches of Harry Winston, while Raymond Weil slapped Charlize Theron with a $20-million breach-of-contract suit when she was caught -- and photographed -- wearing a Dior watch to an event rather than one of the Shine watches she was being paid $3 million to wear.
    Kate Winslet has enjoyed a long relationship with Longines.

    Long-term relationships

    According to Rod Kohler -- managing director of Revolution, a marketing agency that works with Rolex on its sports marketing program -- while a two- or three-year contract might work to launch a new watch line, the long-term deals are more successful by far, lasting long enough to get beyond the sense that this is simply a cash-for-credibility relationship. You need someone who might be said to epitomize the values of the brand.
    "It has to make sense to have any ambassador," agrees Breitling's vice-president Jean-Paul Girardin. "John Travolta [a long-term Breitling ambassador] is a famous actor, of course. But he's also an active and very serious pilot. It has to feel like a real collaboration."
    It is to this end that, for example, Richard Mille's sports ambassadors, among them Rafael Nadal and Felipe Massa, actually use their watches while playing and driving. It helps, of course, that sports personalities account for the biggest single share of Facebook and Twitter usage.

    The brand is the star

    Arguably there is a growing divide in the watch world as to the use of ambassadors, or "friends of the brand," as they are often called. Patek Philippe, Tudor and Roger Dubuis are some of the brands that have decided against their use, perhaps with good reason.
    "Whatever ambassador you pick, it's a big risk, and there are many examples of it going wrong," suggests Dorothee Henrio, Roger Dubuis' global marketing director.
    She might well cite Tag Heuer's close escape in ending its contract with Maria Sharapova last December, a few months before her recent drug scandal.
    "The idea for us now is that Roger Dubuis, the brand, is the star, which works because our customer is doesn't aspire to sports stars or Hollywood types, even if that might make sense for luxury products in general."

    Dead or alive

    There is a third way however: Hamilton's main ambassador is already dead. The brand works with the Elvis Foundation -- the King wore a Hamilton watch in Blue Hawaii, and on other occasions -- to secure Presley as one of their faces.
    "Sure, traditional brand ambassadors still work. So many watch brands wouldn't still use them if they didn't," argues Hamilton's CEO Sylvain Dolla. "But the consumer today is much sharper.
    They're ready to look into the authenticity of these relationships; they can read about it online. Consumers today don't just buy a watch because some famous person is fronting it."