Style / World of Watches (WOW)

Interview with CEO of Ulysse Nardin, Patrick Pruniaux on the Launch of Freak Out

From Apple to Ulysse Nardin, Patrick Pruniaux shares insightful thoughts on his experience, his vision for the brand and taking risks

Aug 29, 2018 | By Jonathan Ho

From Patrick Hoffman (CEO of Ulysse Nardin from 2011 to 2017) to Patrick Pruniaux, the new CEO of the brand is one with a sea of experience from inside and out of the watch world. He first started out with LVMH where he handled wine and spirits, then furthered his career at TAG Heuer and later Apple before joining Ulysse Nardin as CEO. In an interview with World of Watches, the new CEO of Ulysse Nardin shares insightful thoughts on his experience, his vision for the future of Ulysse Nardin and taking risks.

Interview with Patrick Pruniaux, CEO of Ulysse Nardin

Read more about the watch in our upcoming World of Watches issue

From wine and spirits at LVMH, to positions at TAG Heuer, eventually apple and now your stint at Ulysse Nardin, what is your greatest corporate realization about consumers and their reactions to product marketing?

I’m going to share with you a story. In my first job, I was an army officer. After I left, I joined Diageo, a loading company in spirits where I handled Guinness – Guinness is a beer, it’s a strong brand. I remembered I said once; I went to my boss a couple of weeks after I joined, and I talked about consumer. He said, “Patrick there are no consumers. I don’t know any consumers. I know drinkers.” To answer your question, I think this is a great way to illustrate the philosophy behind it. Meaning, if we start thinking as a businessman, we get it wrong. If we start talking about the passion of someone investing in a product – whether it’s a bottle of champagne, whether its an apple watch or whether it’s a Ulysse Nardin watch, it’s a different story. Because there’s a lot of involvement, passion and emotion behind the product they buy.

Going from TAG Heuer to Ulysse Nardin, watch brands at two distinct price positions, aside from price sensitivity, are each brand’s fans all that different?

Yes. Someone who would buy a premium product like a TAG is someone who’s very different from someone who is buying a manufacture watch like Ulysse Nardin. In most of the cases, someone would come to Ulysse Nardin with a little bit of education – someone who already know watches, who has interest in our watches with an understanding of what our manufacture stand for and what’s behind it. I think it’s a normal thing in life where you progress. Some people progress faster than others and for some is about buying power for others it’s a matter of personal taste or preferences or trade-off between the way they allocate their resources. I’ve once seen someone buy a luxury product, and that person has very limited resources and has been saving for three years and she paid in cash – something that probably costs over two thousand over dollars. So it’s interesting. Then there’s also personal preference. For instance, I look at your handbag – why do you buy your handbag, why does it matter? It’s a personal preference and whether you want to invest in that or something else in your life. Or maybe you can invest in everything; in that case, you’re just rich then it’s good for you.

So like you said so yourself, Ulysse Nardin watches usually appeal to watch connoisseurs – people who are educated and passionate about watches. So then, in terms of brand recognition to the masses, Ulysse Nardin seem to still be at a low point, re-surfacing every now and thanks to the Freak, how do you intend to grow the brand beyond watch connoisseurs? Or do you even intend to?

First of all, you’re right. We are very well supported by watch connoisseurs and watch lovers – not to say consumers (laughs). Do we want to increase awareness? I think I would not do it at all cost. I will not do it if it will alienate the watch connoisseurs in one way or another; which means to say I will do it very subtly. I think this way, naturally, by the attraction of the product and the story behind it – plus the fact that more and more people are looking for an alternative to mainstream luxury brands – people are coming to us (Ulysse Nardin) very naturally. We just have to do the right thing – like the Freak. And I think you can expect to see the Freak going beyond the current target group and reach to a larger number of watch lovers.

Do you face any other challenges approaching these issues?

Obviously maybe one of the challenges we have – one of the things we have to address is that traditionally Ulysse Nardin has been under-marketed. We never really say much of our story – why we do things, what we stand for as a brand etc. And I think its part of our mission to make sure that people know that not only do we have a wide variety of products but also the story that comes with it is explained clearly. And the reason why we make each product is also explained very clearly. The latest campaign with the shark in the city and there’s a twist behind it – that is the type of message we want to convey which is clear and understandable by the consumer and help serve the purpose. We have the story right; we just need to say more. And you know why our story is right? Because there is only one story. We didn’t make it up, it already exists. For many years it has existed and remained consistent.

During the launch of the Apple watch, some other watch CEOs saw it as a threat to the industry/ market. What do you think? Was it as much a threat as anticipated?

Let me tell you something even worse than some people believing that it was a threat – some people didn’t even see it as a threat. They didn’t even see it as a competition to traditional watchmaking. At the end of the day, there is always a battle for the left wrist real estate. We only have one left wrist. Who is going to take that space? So yes, there will always be a competition for that space. Having said that, I don’t see the connected watches as a threat; I see it as an opportunity. I think the Apple watch has a benefit. It has brought millions of consumers to wear a watch again – for a while people were not wearing watches anymore. So I don’t think it has taken a lot of people away from traditional watchmaking, but paving the way for some consumers who will eventually want something with more history and emotion on their wrist. Similarly, I think it’s all part of the education process. You know how people buy a pair of Stan Smith sneakers? They will think it’s cool until they try on a Saint Laurent sneakers or a Gucci Sneakers. You will feel the difference; it’s a whole other story. You start thinking differently.

Do you then consider it as a marketing disconnect when serious watchmakers sell “Eternal Classics” and then come up with a smartwatch (connected watch) with rapidly obsolete tech?

Well, I’m going to give you two answers. First, some brands are right to try. And we shouldn’t discourage or judge them for taking risks – honestly. Now, the question is: Does the risk bring value to the watch lovers? That, I think it’s the question that needs to be answered. For an instance, if you were to ask me “Patrick, do you see Ulysse Nardin creating a smartwatch?” My answer is I don’t think so, because I don’t see what buyers we could be creating. The best smartwatch in the market has already been made by my previous employer. What else can we bring to the table? We can bring many other things in traditional watchmaking. So I think we can always bring new ideas into fine watchmaking, which would be equally as attractive to the consumers at our end.

You have been at the helm of Ulysse Nardin for about a year now, what sort of changes have you made at the brand thus far? Can you share your perspectives on the paths you decided not to take from previous roadmaps (if there were any)?

First, when you are fortunate enough to lead a company like Ulysse Nardin, you are leading a company that has been around for more than 170 years. So there are already a lot of things. It’s a big responsibility, it’s like I’ve inherited something fantastic; it’s like inheriting something from your father and you want to make sure you make it grow. It is my responsibility to make it grow. We work really hard with the team to improve our storytelling and making sure Ulysse Nardin’s story (history) is being known and being told. Also, we don’t just create new collections, we adapted some of the older collections and have already come up with some very interesting products and there are going to be more to come very soon. We are also planning for the medium term and the long-term in of the way we make investments. And we will continue to make significant investments in the industry. There’s a lot happening within the company – you can already measure it when you see the Freak for instance. Now there’s a Freak and the Freak Out – that’s already a significant point. It’s super strong, the name, the design and the movement are so unique and iconic, it carries a lot of key features that will make a product a success.

Aside from the Freak, which pillar or model do you feel is best able to reach a wider market beyond watch lovers?

At the way our product offer is structured, it’s actually pretty clear. Between the Marine collection and the Diver – with the Diver collection being more sporty – both are equipped with our manufacture movement. The new Diver coming out will be equipped with our manufacture movement. Both are very unique in the market. The Freak comes at the top, the executive collection super-model is also highly recognizable such as the Marine tourbillon and the executive skeleton tourbillon. It all comes together pretty well and I think it makes it very readable for the consumers.

Finally, you are a disruptor in a traditional brand. A certain brand once attempt high concept innovations for a few years only to quietly return to their roots in simple timekeeping, is it a business of truth that one should “stick to their own lane”?

No way. We like to surprise ourselves, we like to take risks. If there is one tradition at Ulysse Nardin it is taking risks. I think the more risks we take the better we will be, and I’m not saying that because I lead a business of crazy people. It is the other way around – I am very fortunate to lead a company of very wise and smart people who see life as an opportunity to say something, to express and to take risks. I think you can expect us to take more risks. This year is going to be spectacular. I don’t want to over-promise but this year is going to be great – product wise and how we present it.

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