Although Apple has never been a stranger to style, the release of the Apple Watch in variations that include an 18-carat, solid rose gold option at a cool ten thousand US dollars, marks their transition from pioneering tech company to fully realised luxury brand.
Apple has always prided itself in its aesthetics, from the famed user-friendly interface of its iOS operating system to the sleek, sharp and decreasingly thin exterior chassis. But until now Apple has been in competition exclusively with tech companies such as Samsung and Microsoft who have traditionally treasured functionality ahead of appearance. When it comes to the latter, neither can be championed for setting any design benchmarks.
The Apple Watch is an altogether different beast from Apple’s existing product line because it marries tech with jewellery. Whilst the introduction of smartwatches has pushed timepieces into the tech arena, they still exist primarily as accessories.
The fact that the Apple Watch is a fashion accessory first and tech piece second alludes to the shift towards luxury. Unlike their smartphones or tablets, the Apple Watch has no place being sold by third party network carriers and Apple certainly won’t want to restrict sales exclusively to Apple stores.
Where once an Apple device might have shared space with a Samsung Galaxy in a mobile phone retailer, the Apple Watch is demanding to be nestled alongside Rolexes in a Harrods curio cabinet. For the Apple Watch to be a success, Apple needs to go beyond competing against former foes. It also needs to go after the luxury fashion brands.
The direction for the Apple Watch hasn’t exactly been shrouded in secrecy, last year they hired Angela Ahrendts from Burberry alongside former Yves Saint Laurent chief, Paul Deneve and former sales director of Swiss luxury watchmaker TAG Heuer, Patrick Pruniaux. A fashion triumvirate operating out of Apple’s spiritual home in Cupertino, California.
Elsewhere, they’ve recruited industrial designer Marc Newson who has previously worked with Leica and Jaeger-LeCoultre and Apple’s HR department has been hoovering up a network of specialists from all over the fashion and luxury brand industries.
This dizzying recruitment drive wouldn’t be necessary if the plan was merely to roll out Apple Watch to its fiercely loyal existing base of iPad enthusiasts and MacBook obsessives, they’re attempting to tap up a higher class of consumer.
Bloomberg Pursuit’s Stephen Pulvirent remarked: “There’s a big difference between something like an iPad or an iPhone and a $10,000 solid gold watch.”
In an interview with Bloomberg, Scott Galloway, Professor of Marketing at the NYU Stern School of Business said: “Whether or not the Apple Watch is successful in its own right, it signals something pretty important and that is Apple’s transformation to a luxury brand is now complete.”
Apple has also been working hard on securing celebrity endorsement to ramp up the idea that Apple Watch is about much more than feeding its wearer health stats and message notifications, it is about style, lifestyle and status. So far, Beyoncé, Pharrell Williams, Katy Perry and Karl Lagerfeld have all been on board in pushing Apple into the luxury market space.
Apple has also been busy throwing high profile events such as a celebrity-packed gala in Paris recently. The dinner was hosted by Azzedine Alaïa, the couturier who has dressed women from Madonna to Michelle Obama. Meanwhile the Apple Watch launch itself was staged by Gainsbury & Whiting, the design firm who curated Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty show at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
It’s hard to imagine Microsoft going for the same level of celebrity-soaked whizz-bang when they release Windows 10 later this year. As Scott Galloway remarked: “When you carry an Android it doesn’t mean a helluva lot. When you carry an Apple Watch it means you’re likely wealthier and more educated.”
The transition doesn’t come without its obstacles though. What luxury watchmaker stalwarts like Piaget and Patek Philippe have spent decades successfully selling to their customers is the notion that their products are more than just extravagant timepieces, they are heirloom investments. Apple cannot offer any such promise. The problem with technology is that it has an annoying habit of depreciating in value the second it hits the market.
The hallmark of the high-end watch lies in its timeless mechanical intricacy. With the Apple Watch, the value of its premium range lies solely in the wristband. Without the ability to swap out and upgrade the tech, the watch itself is nothing more than an extremely expensive perishable product. The good news for Apple is that the Apple Watch wouldn’t be the first of its kind to face this problem.
Vertu handsets have an equally short shelf life. No matter how lavish the materials that decorate a Vertu phone, the tech encased in all that opulence is still prone to antiquation.
Similarly, Apple’s previous products have been treated to a bit of bling pimping from various third parties. Companies such as Brikk and Savelli specialise in kitting out Apple products with crocodile skins and gold plating. All Apple are really trying to do here is cut off those suppliers to bring that profit in-house.
It’s precisely because of the success of these third parties that Apple can be confident of a target market where those with the means will happily splash out on a bling option even if it means zero return investment within a couple of years. Those with cash to burn and happy to do so.
Another potential stumbling block for the Apple Watch in its rivalry with its luxury competitors is whether it will deliver more irritations than solutions. For starters, you have to wake it up in order for it to perform the basic purpose of any watch i.e. telling you what the time is. On top of that you’ll need to charge it every night and if you use it heavily it might conk out halfway through the day.
Much of its functionality depends on having your iPhone in close proximity which isn’t very practical for any physical exertions and it taps you on the wrist reminding you to move if you’re sat in one position for too long, something that many might find excruciatingly annoying.
It’s safe to assume that the Apple Watch is likely to go one of two ways – crash and burn or set the benchmark for tech-jewellery-luxury brand crossover. Whichever way it goes, it will be interesting to observe.