By Seth Stevenson|Posted Monday, Oct. 24, 2011, at 10:52 AM ET
Why did a prestigious brand like Rolex tap the disgraced golfer as its new spokesman?
Over the summer, the watch brand Tag Heuer dropped its longtime celebrity endorser, Tiger Woods. The press release from Tag didn’t bother to mention Tiger’s well-publicized extramarital shenanigans or his subsequent mediocre tournament performances. It didn’t have to.
What’s Tiger been up to since Tag parted ways with him? He finalized his divorce from his wife. He failed to make the cut at the PGA Championship. And he appeared in the news most prominently when, in the midst of lining up a putt, he had a hot dog lobbed at him by a weirdo with a Ryan Gosling fetish.
All of which made it rather surprising when Rolex announced, on Oct. 5, that it had signed Woods to a shiny new sponsorship deal. Here was the world’s most famous watch company—and one of the world’s most recognizable brands—casting its lot with a dude many consider a moral reprobate or, worse, a has-been. Has the famously precise Swiss timepiece maker finally sproinged its own gears? What on earth is Rolex thinking?
We may never know for sure. Privately held since its formation in 1905, Rolex is a notoriously tight-lipped company. It doesn’t release revenue figures, or explain leadership transitions. (It had a total of three CEOs from 1905 until 2008, when then-CEO Patrick Heiniger resigned under mysterious circumstances.) Even the corporate structure is a bit murky. Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf died childless in 1960, leaving control of his company to a charitable foundation he’d established. The Hans Wilsdorf Foundation runs Rolex to this day. When I emailed a polite-but-elliptical media-relations woman to ask whether Rolex is essentially a nonprofit, and who the foundation’s major beneficiaries are, she responded with this sentence: “The principal focus of the foundation is to support a variety of philanthropic endeavors.”
Stymied by all this hush-hush Swiss discretion, I turned to Joe Thompson—editor in chief of Watch Time, a leading publication for timepiece aficionados. Before we tackled the Tiger Woods decision, I first wanted to know from Thompson how it was that Rolex became Rolex. What narrative explains how it became the favored watch brand of James Bond, Chuck Yeager, Paul Newman, and newly promoted middle managers across the globe?
My pet theory is that it’s all about that name. “Rolex.” So punchy, so balanced, so crisp at the finish. But Thompson offered a deeper explanation:
First, the product itself sets Rolex apart. The company has an impressive history of innovation. Rolex hopped on the wristwatch bandwagon in the early days of the 20th century, back when pocket watches were still considered far more proper for a gentleman. (Interestingly, World War I was an important moment in establishing the primacy of wristwatches. Turns out when you’re being shot at, it’s easier to glance quickly at your forearm than it is to haul a pendant out of your pocket.) Rolex designed the first great waterproof wristwatch case and built the first truly workable self-winding, automatic wristwatch. Basically, it has a ton of street cred with watch nerds. That gives the brand an aura of quality and authenticity that trickles down even to less-informed buyers.
Rolex has also managed to become synonymous with status. Particularly in an era when we can all consult the accurate clocks on our cell phones, wearing a wristwatch has become an act of personal expression rather than of functional necessity. Sporting a $6,500 Rolex remains the easiest way to advertise that you’ve made it big and you’ve got some lettuce to spend.
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