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Changing brands

LiveMint logoLiveMint 16-05-2014 Sidin Vadukut

A few weeks ago, at BaselWorld in Switzerland. I interviewed Antonio Calce, who was the CEO of watch brand Corum. He had always come across as a genuinely nice man to talk to. Of course, he always kept his cards close to his chest, and seldom deviated from a well-rehearsed PR line. But this is standard procedure even for some of the watch industry’s more garrulous chief executives.

At BaselWorld, however, Calce was uncommonly emotional. He spoke about his new products, and his future vision for Corum with an intensity one rarely sees in meetings with industry executives.

Established in 1955, Corum is, by Swiss standards, a very young brand. After founding, it quickly gained a reputation for making high-quality watches and limited editions with a certain quirky sensibility. Since then, however, the brand has had a turbulent history.

Calce joined the company in 2005 as vice-president of operations and took over as CEO two years later. It was a tough gig. In the intervening years Corum had somewhat lost its way. The current Corum website has a timeline of brand innovations and it is telling, perhaps, that there is nothing of any real note between the Admiral’s Cup redesign in 1983 and the relaunch of the Golden Bridge in 2005.

What Calce did was to go back to one of the most clichéd aspects of the international watch business—a brand’s DNA.

In general the term “brand DNA” is bandied about when a marketer or CEO wants to justify a stale old design or a product portfolio with little innovation. Or when they have run out of ideas and decide to relaunch an old classic just to keep the cash registers ringing away somehow. “Oh we just looked deeply into our brand DNA and pulled out a cheap diver watch!”


What is brand DNA really?

In my book a brand’s DNA is often linked closely to its creation myth. Why was it started? What was its selling proposition in the early years? Why did people originally start buying that brand? Answers to these questions often, but not always, reveal a brand’s DNA.

Corum’s DNA was a combination of good design, good technology and a certain iconoclasm, especially when it came to case shapes and movement layouts. The Admiral’s Cup case and Golden Bridge movements, Corum’s two pillars, are both icons that can never be copied by anybody else without their instantly being pulled up for plagiarism.

What Calce did was to first clean out Corum’s portfolio. Next, he began to focus on the two pillars. The Admiral’s Cup became, over time, young and clean and sexy. Meanwhile, the Golden Bridge became a vehicle to showcase the brand’s ability to make sophisticated movements. He then began to slowly strengthen these two pillars. In his interviews Calce was always clear about his vision. Corum was one of those rare brands that had two iconic designs—most are lucky to have one. He had to make the most of them.

I think Corum was slowly beginning to succeed. The interpretations on the Admiral’s Cup idea were encouraging. The recent models in the Legend 42 and AC-One lines are all fun, young and versatile. And the automatic versions of the Golden Bridge were commendable efforts in watchmaking.

Last month, news emerged that Calce had been removed from the post of CEO. Some of the Swiss press have reported that this may have been due to poor sales in 2013. Corum has been acquired recently by an Asian conglomerate and patience with Calce’s regeneration plan appears to have run out.

Perhaps this is why Calce was so emotional at our latest meeting. Perhaps he knew that his time was up. We can only speculate.

It is a pity really. Watch brands, unlike football teams, can’t change their fortunes overnight. Designs and models take time to settle down and generate loyalties. I can only hope that Calce’s successor will retain at least some of the good work done so far at the brand.

Also Read | Sidin’s previous Lounge columns

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