The Quartz Crisis

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On Christmas Day, 1969, Seiko introduced a watch called the Astron.

So what? Just another watch, right?

Not really. This watch almost brought down the entire Swiss watchmaking industry.

The reason? It contained a quartz movement.

Since the 1700s, the Swiss had pioneered the development of mechanical timepieces, which were clocks and watches driven by a miniature mechanical engine of springs, gears and levers.

Quartz movements, on the other hand, are battery powered and use a quartz crystal to accurately keep time.

The big deal was this – quartz was 100 times more accurate, more reliable and less expensive to manufacture than the mechanical counterparts of the day.

Quartz represented a paradigm shift in the industry.

People took notice, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s quartz watch sales boomed.

Trouble was on the horizon. As quartz grew in popularity, a string of bankruptcies and consolidations rocked the industry in Switzerland. Britain, France and Germany were also heavily affected.

The traditional watchmaking industry was at a pivot point.

You’d think the major Swiss Maisons would have responded quickly, and that the industry would have rallied collectively to adapt.

That wasn’t the case. In fact, they largely ignored it, thinking it was a fad that would soon disappear.

After all, they had dominated the industry for 200 plus years. What is the worst that could happen?

As leaders, most all of us at some point will need to pivot. It may, in fact, be a matter of survival. The risk is – as with our Swiss friends – that we either dismiss the need or wait to long.

The story has a happy ending. Today, the Swiss watch industry is healthier and more prosperous than ever, and mechanical watches have soared in popularity like never before.

It was literally one of the most epic comebacks in the modern industrial world.

How did they do it?

Here are the top seven principles they adopted that ultimately put them back on top.

Embrace – The Swiss initially snubbed quartz. After all, it was cheap. Once they realized they could emphasize the accuracy of quartz in conjunction with Swiss craftsmanship and design, they embraced it. This was a hit with consumers seeking both precision and luxury.

Reposition – They repositioned towards high-end luxury, emphasizing the craftsmanship, heritage, and prestige associated with Swiss watchmaking. As purveyors of luxury and exclusivity, they successfully separated themselves from mass-produced quartz.

Innovate – Engineering excellence was re-emphasized. Highly advanced features were developed, such as chronographs, moon phases, and perpetual calendars. Advanced metallurgy allowed the creation of watches in gold, silver, platinum, superior stainless alloys, titanium and ultimately ceramic. This bolstered the luxury repositioning.

Offense – The Swiss took the offensive, investing heavily in branding and marketing to reinforce their image as the epitome of quality and craftsmanship. Their assets of heritage, precision engineering, and artisanal skills were emphasized. This created customer loyalty and discerning buyers.

Partner – Maisons partnered with industries like automotive and sports to create co-branded watches. Collaborations with renowned designers, artists, and celebrities generated buzz and attracted new customers.

Niches – Segments such as collectors and enthusiasts were identified. Limited editions, special series, and commemorative watches were created to appeal to these passionate consumers.

Quality Standards – Rigorous standards were created and verified by an outside agency. These certifications served as a mark of excellence and furthered trust.

Your specific work may require a different approach if pivoting is needed.

But, the moral of the story, is this. If you need to pivot, don’t wait.

Embrace the changes and swing for the fence.

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