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Hong Kong Gangsters To The Philharmonic: Rolex Wants An Image Makeover In China

Rolex hopes its associations with classical music and charitable events can recast the Swiss watch brand in China from a symbol of gaudy power to a mark of refined class.

Rolex has an image problem in China
Rolex has an image problem in China
Yang Ting-ting

If my memory serves me well, it was two years ago that Rolex sponsored a master class with the Israeli violinist Pinchas Zukerman. Inviting a public muse or someone well connected with the brand to come to China to produce some popular art has been the central advertising strategy of Rolex in recent years.

On a global scale, Rolex has been choosing their representatives from among classical musicians and star tennis players, a marketing strategy tucked into well-meaning sponsorship of the arts and charities.

Chinese people however have another image of Rolex. The brand came early to the Chinese market, and has long ago established a leading position. But it is a watch you are more likely to see on the wrists of leading men in Hong Kong gangster films. Although the quality is good, the image is not exactly high-class. Though very well known via television mini-series, a Rolex is not considered to be a particularly noble product.

Among so many prestigious brands, the truth that hides behind the golden Rolex, with its Oyster technology, is that it not only keeps its value but it remains a highly accurate timepiece. Taiwanese experts of "horlogerie" once told a Chinese reporter that certain styles of Rolex can be used directly as cash in Taiwan. Rolex rarely speaks to the media to present their own story, or to describe their characteristic manufacturing.

Many Chinese in the watch business only realized for the first time in the autumn of 2009 how much charm there was in these products, with their signature green color. Back then, the company held a Beijing exhibition called Eternal Crown, the first time in a century that Rolex had created an international exhibition. It was the most high-profile promotion that Rolex had ever done in China, and yet there was no CEO to interview, no star presented to greet the media. All they had was a number of workers explaining the history of the watch itself in the pitch-dark exhibition hall.

It was only at this event that a lot of people discovered that this watch that they had heard of since their childhood is very different from other watches because the marque itself is so discreet that it's almost invisible. The manufacturing of the watch, every detail of the hand-crafted procedure, is totally under the control of Rolex. In addition, in Switzerland, the only famous brands that are totally independent of any large luxury conglomerate are Rolex and Patek Philippe. The name of Rolex represents Swiss quality. This is the image they promote.

The stars who represent Rolex never speak of the watch itself. It's difficult to know if this is an internal rule at the company, or whether this freedom not to speak of the watch is what guarantees the loyalty of their representatives. Two years ago in a private occasion when we met the pianist Li Yundi, he was still wearing a black Rolex Daytona. Another Chinese pianist, Wang Yujia, put her Rolex on the lid of her piano during her rehearsal for a recital.

Apart from relying on classical musicians to transmit the brand's history and elegant image, Rolex is also very keen on sponsoring artists and scientific researchers who are not yet famous. The big prize for talented people over the past 30 years has been the Rolex Award for Enterprise. Qualified applicants are people outside of mainstream scientific research fields, and therefore find it difficult to get traditional sponsorship.

Rolex does not take part in the selection process, and gives the winners money to allow them to continue their research without financial worry, with objectives of serving the public good. Past recipients include scientists and environmentally conscious architects. People chosen as winners receive $100,000 – and, of course, a Rolex watch.

Read the original article in Chinese.

Photo - Matthijs Koster

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