Deans Columns

May 9, 2011 12:15 am

Lessons to learn from a Swiss watchmaker

 
Jean-Claude Biver, chief executive of Hublot

Business leader: Biver has brought three watch brands back from the grave

Passion. Marketing genius. Charisma. These three characteristics are just part of the reason I respect and admire Jean-Claude Biver, chief executive of Hublot, the Swiss watchmaker. The obsession with brand differentiation that Biver exhibits should be in the genetic make-up of every marketer, and to my mind the most gifted orators in the world cannot match his simple yet passionate public addresses.

Having essentially brought three brands back from the grave, Biver will forever be famous in the watch industry. In 1981, he and a friend bought the rights to the Blancpain brand, which had gone out of business in the 1970s. He turned the company around and eventually sold it to Swatch Group.

Swatch’s Omega, which suffered a decline in the 1980s, experienced a similar rejuvenation under his leadership – its sales nearly tripled in 10 years.

More recently, Biver bought equity in Hublot when the brand was losing money, and since then has led it to remarkable results. How has he done it, and what can executives, business school professors and deans learn from him?

As a marketing professor, I set out a few years ago to answer these questions. I met Biver in 2007 at a conference in Switzerland where he was the keynote speaker. He did not arrive with a PowerPoint presentation – he just spoke from the heart. I was impressed and afterwards approached him to see if he would be the subject of an IMD business school case study. He was open to the idea and responded promptly to my follow-up e-mails after the conference.

Many business leaders could follow Biver’s example with regard to responsiveness. Chief executives are extremely busy and face numerous demands, but quick responses to e-mails – even if only to promise more information in the future – show respect. It helps set the tone for their organisations.

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In the same way, there is much to learn from Biver’s approach to the media. Journalists tell me he will pick up the telephone in the middle of the night to do an interview. And when he does so, his passion and ability to deliver a message are evident.

Behind Biver’s words are common sense and pragmatism. He was smart enough to realise that the Fifa World Cup did not have an official timekeeper as a sponsor, and millions of football fans now see the Hublot brand next to the official clock at major football matches. He also realised that football cut across social categories, and that selling watches to wealthy players would help make the brand attractive to the masses.

Business leaders are often transfixed by keeping up with the competition, instead of thinking creatively. Biver has mastered the art of differentiation, setting an example for companies and business schools alike. In 1992, when watchmakers from Japan and Hong Kong were taking on the Swiss industry with inexpensive quartz watches, he kept Blancpain in the game by foreseeing the return to popularity of the mechanical watch. He marketed the brand with the slogan: “Since 1735, there has never been a Blancpain quartz. And there never will be.”

Biver, 61, is also in touch with new media. He blogs, is on Facebook and knows how to engage fans while raising awareness of the brand. Unlike many executives who regard social media tools as toys for their teenage children, he realises that these channels have tremendous power.

One of his more innovative approaches is to invite random fans to meet him at a restaurant for a free meal somewhere in the world. He never knows in advance who will come, except that they will be supporters of the Hublot brand.

During the meal, he discusses the company and its products, thereby mobilising his “ambassadors” while generating buzz. It is a model of how to keep customers passionate about a company.

Behind the on-stage charisma, a fantastic sense of curiosity and marketing flair is a man who understands balance in life. A case in point is the fact he produces his own cheese, just for himself, his close friends and a selection of restaurants. Of course, in his inimitable way he uses a particular flower that blooms only at a specific time of the year, which the cows eat, giving the cheese a unique taste. What else would you expect from “Mr Differentiation” himself?

Biver has visited the IMD campus several times throughout the years. His marketing expertise and passionate leadership have motivated many of the school’s participants. As an encore, he will speak at IMD’s most popular programme, titled “Orchestrating Winning Performance”, this June.

The aim is that participants will leave inspired by new ideas and with the keys to solving business challenges creatively. I can think of nobody who can do this better.

The writer is president of IMD in Switzerland

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