They sound like characters from an action video game – Orange Monster, Black Samurai, White Knight – but in fact, they’re three of the hippest watches made by Seiko and are much sought-after by wealthy enthusiasts and collectors, particularly in Asia.
This may come as a surprise, but Seiko watches are gaining an image as hip and collectable. In many parts of the world, the Seiko watch brand has been seen as reliable, but unremarkable. But look closely and an exceptional story begins to emerge.
Seiko burst onto the international watchmaking scene in 1969, when it caught off-guard and almost destroyed the Swiss watch industry with the launch of the Astron, the world’s first battery-powered quartz wristwatch. The Astron was more accurate and durable than the hand-wound mechanical Swiss watches costing several times as much. Overnight, demand for mechanical watches plummeted.
Many watchmaking innovations over the past three decades are probably due to Seiko: the first quartz watch; first quartz LCD with six-digit display (hours, minutes and seconds); first calculator watch; first quartz with day and date; first quartz chronograph (date, stopwatch and alarm); first TV watch; first thermic quartz watch (powered by the wearer’s body heat); first kinetic quartz watch (powered by the wearer’s movement)… and the list goes on. Seiko watches have been at the center of watch evolution, and its influence extends far beyond watchmaking: the LCDs in your clock radio, microwave oven or CD player all owe a debt to innovations made by Seiko.
Seiko, in fact, has been the innovator of so many industry “firsts” that it’s difficult to name them all. Recently, for example, was the 40th anniversary of the first quartz chronometer, launched at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Used to time marathons, it brought unprecedented precision to sports timekeeping, being accurate to within 0.2 seconds a day. Just a few years ago saw the 10th anniversary of the world’s first kinetic chronograph, the quartz watch powered by the movement of the wearer’s wrist, thereby eliminating the need for a battery. To celebrate the event, Seiko launched the Arctura Kinetic Chronograph, which takes kinetic movements to a new level of precision, being accurate to within 15 seconds per month.
While innovation and continuity rarely go together, Seiko has both. The company, founded in Tokyo by Kintaro Hattori in 1881, is still a family business. Although part of the business is a publicly traded company, the current president of Seiko Watch Corporation is the founder’s great-grandson, Shinji Hattori, who is also the nephew of the current honorable chairman.
Given Seiko’s history of producing revolutionary products and ideas that are emulated everywhere, you might expect that it would enjoy a reputation similar to that of Apple or Sony. Yet many people don’t few even realize that Seiko is the world’s leading manufacturer of watches, selling over 14 million watches annually. It also annually sells more than 350 million quartz movements to other watch makers. Here again, Seiko has revolutionized the watch making industry. Previously, only Swiss and Japanese companies could make reliable watches. But now anybody can simply add a dial, case and strap to a Seiko quartz movement and sell it under their own brand name. Although it doesn’t want to name companies it provides movements to, Seiko’s quartz movements are at the heart of many watches sold by some of the biggest name brands in fashion and sports.
Seiko doesn’t really get the respect it deserves. The product quality is phenomenal, but there’s a misperception of their brand.
Some people believe Seiko offers too many budget-price models. Cheap, in the public’s mind, means poor quality even if that’s not the case. Also, Seiko’s watch designs change too often. Some of the best Seiko watch designs never get the chance to develop a following, whereas the best Rolex or Omega watches stay in production for 20 or 30 years. For collectors, it’s a problem, and collectors add value to brands.
One Seiko executive recently stated the company is in the process of refining its brand. “We have very strong brand awareness, with around 70 per cent recognition of Seiko as a watchmaker. But there was some confusion about the brand. The company’s pioneering history, our dedication to producing elegant watches, wasn’t really understood. We’re proud of the company, so we decided to streamline and focus the branding, and emphasize our legacy.”
Until recently, regional Seiko companies sold the brand according to local tastes. But just recently the Japanese parent, Seiko Corporation, decided to overhaul its branding and marketing strategies. The company’s position is that customer perception of the brand should be the same in Tokyo, London, Paris, New York or Sydney. That means building a brand image that conveys core values, no matter what the market. Over a period of several months Seiko has revamped its public profile, from billboard and TV advertising to in-store presentation and packaging.
So far, the strategy has been successful. In line with company expectations, Seiko is gradually being seen as a premium watch brand. Not just trustworthy and reliable, but a real status brand. Technological innovation is at the heart of company, but Seiko watches have a certain refinement that they’re trying to emphasize also.
So, how might Seiko improve its brand status? Being the largest watch company, with an excellent line of products and constant innovation, perhaps Seiko could start by being a little less modest about their product.