#FreakMeOut: Ulysse Nardin’s CEO on why his luxury watch brand is the coolest kid on the block
The man who helped launch the Apple Watch discusses his innovative future vision for Ulysse Nardin — and how he plans to take the iconic Swiss luxury watch brand to the “next level”.
The month of August must surely have some sort of special significance for Patrick Pruniaux.
After all — it was around this same time last year (August 28, 2017) that he first boarded the Ulysse Nardin brand as its new CEO, and this year — just one week ago — French luxury conglomerate Kering appointed him as the head of its high-end Swiss watch manufacture Girard-Perregaux.
This means that from now on, Pruniaux will manage the Group’s Swiss luxury watchmaking Maisons, within the Watches & Jewelry Activities — in addition to steering the ship as Ulysse Nardin’s Chief Executive Officer — quite a task to take on, and certainly not a charge for the faint-hearted.
But evidently, Pruniaux has already proven his mettle.
Last year, arriving at Ulysse Nardin — a cult brand with refined, deep-rooted heritage more than 170 years strong, and a rich history of cutting-edge innovation — Pruniaux stepped into the shoes of a veteran predecessor (Patrick Hoffman) who was hand-picked by the house’s beloved founding father (Rolf W. Schnyder) — so he might have been forgiven for registering a hint of trepidation upon taking the helm.
And yet I’m certain that nothing could have been further from the truth.
While Pruniaux’s track record as a go-getter poached by Apple while at Tag Heuer precedes him — in the year since he arrived at Ulysse Nardin, he’s distinguishingly made his mark — giving the already suave Swiss brand, just a little more “pep” in it’s step, and a new (and palpable) cutting edge.
The brand’s newest advertising campaign #Freakmeout — which features a Great White shark swimming around an urban cityscape — is just one case in point; and upon meeting Pruniaux in the flesh at the Mandarin Oriental for our interview — his cool, composed demeanour, informal style (jeans, crisp shirt, no tie, casual shoes and the arresting Ulysse Nardin Freak Vision watch), quick humour and swift, savvy responses — all tell one similar, streamlined story.
This is a man who leads not follows; is unapologetically bold; and does business to the beat of his own drum — but is refreshingly down-to-earth about it.
My guess is it’s that distinct combination which first caught Apple’s eye; and was exactly what Ulysse Nardin wanted in its new leader — and it’s no doubt what has most markedly distinguished Pruniaux’s tenure to-date as the CEO of a brand which is growing from strength-to-strength, and en route to excel to new heights. Or depths — if you’re a fan of the Diver Deep Dive model.
This year, at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) exhibition in January, the brand unveiled several new watches — including the Ulysse Nardin Classic Voyeur erotic watch; the Freak Vision (the first automatic watch in the Freak Collection); the Freak Out; and the ground-breaking Diver Deep Dive (which can withstand pressure up to 1,000 metres under water) — each equally avant-garde in its own fashion, yet every bit on brand with the cool, classy, and refreshingly adventurous vibe that Ulysse Nardin exudes.
That said, as our interview unravels, the clear message communicated is that there’s much more in store.
The last 12 months, Pruniaux explains, have been satisfactory. New collections, fresh campaigns, new admirers (French kitesurfer Alex Caizergues), and boosted spirit — both in brand and at home, at their company headquarters in Le Locle,Switzerland — however, as he reveals, the marque's true best is yet to come.
“This is just the start,” he says. “Next year — it's going to be spectacular. We’re going to take it to a whole new level, more informal — and I'm sure it's gonna be wild.”
Will we see a smartwatch come to be as the brand’s evolution continues? After all, Pruniaux’s expertise and his past at Apple are a compelling match that most luxury labels wouldn’t waste.
“Honestly, I don’t see the benefit,” he says blankly, when I ask.
“I mean, the best smart watch on the market has got an Apple logo on it. So I think we have to find our value somewhere else. At Ulysse Nardin, our strength is in our innovation, which has been ongoing forever — it's just a different type of innovation.”
Indeed — while he may well be the best candidate to bring an Ulysse Nardin smartwatch to fruition — it seems that for the moment, Pruniaux’s efforts are fully focused on breathing new life into the brand’s iconic past and weaving elements of its heritage into fresh creations which break bread with Swiss watchmaking traditions.
Nevertheless, his unlikely response aptly encapsulates his somewhat unorthodox approach to smart business — and proves that with a maverick like Pruniaux, one never knows which way he’ll turn as the tides change. What is clear though, is that Ulysse Nardin has found its captain, and the horizon holds a future which is bright and worth the wait.
Here, as he celebrates his first official anniversary as CEO, he reveals his plans for the brand's next chapter.
It's no secret that you're an ex-‘Appler’ and that you came to Ulysse Nardin after helping launch the Apple Watch with them. What initially attracted you to this role?
Well, first of all, I mean, I was really having a blast at Apple — it was a lot of fun and it’s a fascinating company. For me, also, Apple was great because it was exactly what I needed after I had been working in the watch industry for many years.
Working at Apple was extremely refreshing because everything about the way things were done at Apple was so different from anything else I'd known in the past and that was exactly what I wanted. It was much more analytical and very agile on one hand, and on the other hand, a very large business — obviously from a revenue point of view, and on the level of complexity.
But at the same time, also, when it came to luxury — do you tend to think Apple epitomises it? Probably not. But it sometimes epitomised what a leader of service should stand for. And in terms of the approach of the brand, I think Apple does things differently — and I’ll give you a very concrete example:
The company's obsessed about how much you use your devices. So, it's not only about selling you a device. It's also about whether you're going to use it, and are you going to use it properly? Because when you're confident about your product and its value to people’s lives, you don't want to just sell and say, "Okay, bye". Do you reply on the coincidence that someone is going to buy your products sometime in future? No. It's much better to focus on the usage and then the more consumers use it, the more you have a greater chance that they are going to stick to the Apple environment and purchase again. Then it’s also about ensuring the longevity of the product, which is about quality.
So, that attitude to business was very refreshing. Also the way people worked. Now, when I was contacted for the role at Kering, at first, for me, it was very interesting, because the Kering Group was very attractive. And — even working as an advocate for smart watches, and participating in the launch of the Apple Watch — I've always have seen a lot of future in traditional watchmaking.
The second reason I was interested in the role, is that I actually think that traditional watchmaking is a very contemporary product. Because at a time when we travel all the time, when we have probably try to own less things, the watch can be almost like a talisman in your life. It can encapsulate a lot of your core values, and it does a lot more than give you time. It says something about who you are, what you like.
And the third reason just the fact that it's Ulysse Nardin. When I was in the watch industry, I knew Ulysse Nardin but I didn't know the brand that well and there was sort of a mystique around the brand. Then, when I started to research the brand, I realised it was completely an unspoiled brand. It's brand that hasn't been damaged. It's been under-marketed. It's been really, I think, for people in the know. So I thought that’s a great opportunity, to work on that brand.
And the minute I joined the company, I realised I was absolutely the right choice.
When you came in you obviously had a very clear vision of what you wanted to achieve at Ulysse Nardin. How much of that vision do you feel you've achieved up until now?
Well, it’s only just the beginning. I think you've seen a part of it already at SIHH, in terms of what's coming, but I wouldn't say it's only down to me. First I was fortunate to inherit a situation from a brand that was already strong. That was good.
I mean the manufacturer's spectacular, and some of the products are really nice. I think some are either iconic or on the verge of becoming iconic. So my role, and that of my team is now to give it a little bit more energy and 'pep', but also do that while respecting the brand values and the heritage.
To achieve that I’ve we're now reinforcing the team with a mix of people coming both from the watch industry and not from the watch industry. I'm really keen to mix the two expertise, because while we're lucky to have some great talents in the watch industry, it's also very interesting to look outside of this industry and I know it for a fact that you learn a lot by looking other businesses, either in the luxury world or even in the premium world.
I think that can be inspiring and can be a great learning for us — the watch industry as a whole, and for a brand like Ulysse Nardin, in particular.
So, what we've tried to do is leverage all these talents and rapidly make sure that the stories that were mostly untold at Ulysse Nardin — with the marketing that was probably so humble sometimes that it was far too discrete — are heard.
Already we introduced some novelties at SIHH in a unique way — we had the Damien Hirst artwork displayed there, and the launch of the new Freak, which was great… Plus, there was a little bit of a twist on one of our erotic watches [a secret door which led to a risqué-themed showroom].
But this is just the start. Next year — it's going to be spectacular. We’re going take it to a whole new level, more informal — and I'm sure it's gonna be wild.
Essentially, I believe in a luxury which obviously fits the people that love watchmaking, but a concept that also beyond the people that love watchmaking — also made for those who are now looking for a hybrid of authenticity and superior manufacturing, which is exactly what we are.
At same time, I think luxury can be informal. I’m starting to see a discrepancy between the people who are walking into a store and buying the watches and the people who are in the store or behind the brand. There are ties on one side and none on the other. Now, I'm not saying we should be absolutely informal, but I think that having a better understanding of our consumer and who they are now is an important thing. And I absolutely believe you can be informal and very professional.
Now, I know Ulysse Nardin doesn't generally release figures, but — overall — what signs have you seen so far that what you're doing is resonating with your target market, that they like the changes, and the tweaks that you've made to the brand and its offering to date?
Well, I can’t release exact figures, but from the feedback we are receiving from different sources — both retailers and consumers, and even suppliers —it seems like we have some sort of momentum and we are making some traction in the market from our new initiatives.
Having said that, the watch industry is in good shape in general. So we shouldn't give ourselves a tap on the shoulder just yet and say, "Good job". No, I think we just at the beginning of what we have to do.
In particular, I think the product that we launched at SIHH — particularly the new Freak and the Freak Out have been very warmly welcomed by the consumers by the end consumers. I’m also starting to see some of the more traditional products being prized by the end consumer in a more affordable price-point because of the manufacturing, because the quality is so clear to see. But overall, there’s a level of awareness that could be much higher.
How do you balance the brand’s rich heritage with its avant-garde aspirations? The two seem paradoxically opposed, and yet Ulysse Nardin seems to respect the past whilst looking to the future.
It's actually not so much of a challenge. I'm going to explain why but you're absolutely right, and it's an interesting point of view. But there is one theme or one value, that has traditionally been very strong for the brand since the inception of the company — and that is the fact that the company has always been all about exploring.
So internally, that happens whenever it explores some new mechanism, some new movement — that’s innovation. Externally, it could be design. For instance, the launch of the FREAK watch 17 years ago. That was a true revolution, exploratory and ground-breaking in terms of design. It’s very unique.
So, for us — at our core — it's all about exploration, done in a subtle and discrete way. That's a big part of the company’s values and it also extends to consumers exploring our brand, and discovering the world of watchmaking through our creations.
The brand unveiled three new watches at SIHH event earlier this year — the Classic Voyeur erotic watch; the Freak Vision; and the Diver Deep Dive. Can you tell me a bit more about those new creations and who they’re made for?
Sure. First, let me say a word about the erotic. The fact is that it’s a tiny fraction of our business. It's not what we stand for as a brand 100%. I think the Freak or the Deep Dive do illustrate much more who we are.
However, in saying that, we do have the expertise to make very complicated watches like the erotic watch, and that style has also been also a tradition in the industry and for Ulysse Nardin. So my view was, when I joined the company: "Well, if we're going to make erotic watches, why don't we just say it openly instead of having it hidden somewhere in a drawer and only showing it to very few people? Let's just be open about it." Because, in 2018, why would you hide an erotic watch?
The erotic watch, also demonstrates very clearly, our brand expertise in craftsmanship, and also in terms of design and movement.
In terms of the customer that would buy this product, they are probably a lot more subtle than you would think — they wear the watch discretely and stylishly.
Now, the Freak on the other hand, has been around for 17 years. When I was talking about iconic product before, the Freak probably is one of them. If you talk to any watch collectors in the world about Ulysse Nardin, that person will mention the Freak. And that's been the case since the watch launched.
Diver Deep Dive
What happened is historically, and what we've done every couple of years, is that we've been launching a new iteration, a new version of the Freak — so the movement and the design is constantly evolving. So in my view, the Freak should become a small collection in itself.
We have the demands from consumers for that kind of contemporary design and extreme watchmaking expertise in a movement, and the Freak really encapsulates our brand values also.
Hence the reason why in Geneva we launched two Freaks actually. So we launched the Freak Vision — the one I'm wearing today — and the Freak Out. Four versions of them, and at different price-points. The Freak Out is in titanium and that's in platinum like the Vision with a different movement as well and below 50,000.
But probably in the future you can expect see an even large offering on the Freak styles.
The Deep Dive — well, I think that we're always at our best when we express ourselves in relation to the sea — whether it's on the water, or under that water. So for us it was obvious to launch a product like the Deep Dive, which has a very bold design and is water resistant — to 1000 metres. We really wanted a product there that would be discriminating, polarising and really innovative, with class and made for someone who leads an adventurous life. And that's exactly what we created.
In terms of pricing, reports indicate that you are focusing on three distinct price points in particular — the market below SFr 30,000 (25,000€); the SFr 30,000 - 100,000 range; and upwards of SFr 100,000 — could you elaborate on that, and whether we might see changes in future?
What I can tell you is that Ulysse Nardin has historically been very strong in different price segments — as you can see from the pricing listed on our website. But, as a brand, I think we may have a greater role to play in three distinct price brackets in particular —including the price segment that is below eight or 9,000 Euros.
One of the Freaks that we launched at SIHH was also dedicated to a lower price range, because it was in a different material — the one in titanium.
So while, historically, the brand has not been particularly strong in that [lower-end] pricing, in the future I can see us offering some of our manufactured movements with different watch styles or materials, and in some classic and more sporty designs… and, if you like the Deep Diver, I think you're probably going to like what's coming.
On that note, what other developments are there on the horizon for Ulysse Nardin —in terms of expansion, product innovation, and international distribution?
Well, first — I want to narrow the gap between what we do and what we say. There is a big gap. Historically, there's been a big gap. It's a company that's never been driven by marketing — it’s been driven by making amazing watches, and being quite confidential about it.
So I think we need to narrow that gap and we owe that to the consumer. We're not looking for a huge level of awareness or notoriety but I think we have to explain more why we do things — because why we do what we do, and how, is so unique. So I think narrowing that gap is very important for our future strategy.
The second is the volume of communication and we express those core values and convey the DNA of a contemporary manufacturer with an amazing heritage, driven by exploration for over 170 years.
Campaigns like the one we recently launched for the Freak Vision — with the shark — are an example of that, so for instance, expressing our values like that is going to be a stronger focus for us in future. Making sure we communicate the spirit of Ulysse Nardin more, and correctly.
Now, in terms of product, the Freak is a very interesting product that probably needs to be known more and as an icon. So you will probably see a wider product range of that model coming out. I don't intend to launch a new collection, but there's going to be some revamping on some existing models.
When you talk about international expansion today — we're strong in some geographical markets and there are others that are real opportunities and we're working on that.
What are your main geographical markets currently and which ones you want to look at?
Today we're quite balanced from a revenue point of view in the company.
I’m not obsessed with the watch industry though. I think our level of diversity needs to go beyond the watch industry. I think what makes a brand successful today is not about being strong only in your niche industry and in certain markets. I believe brand success is more about communicating a message and a story that's appealing and aspirational — something that creates a desire in people that didn't think of owning a watch before, or moves customers that are thinking of upgrading their watch.
I think today in all markets, what consumers really want that authenticity, a very high ideal of quality, genuineness, and probably a family spirit and — sometimes — a little bit of a best kept secret. You want to make sure you're buying something that not everyone has. And we do that — and we do it with integrity and quality in our products — which is not the case for all brands.
That aspect is also very attractive to Chinese consumers — and we're already quite successful with the Chinese, but it's obvious today that for any global brand you have to be strong in China, so we’re keeping an eye on that.
How do you see your company's content and marketing mix changing with the emergence of the digital era specifically, and how are innovative, content-led platforms — such as Tidlrs.com — assisting luxury brands such as yours to enhance their visibility and sales on an international scale?
Obviously, content-led platforms help support brands’ international reach. That’s for sure.
For the future — as I said, I believe that diversity — in terms of content, in terms of the way we talking about message, communicating our values, and why we do things, needs to go much beyond the watch industry.
In terms of channels, we should also be going much beyond the traditional media, looking at other avenues for communication. Having said that, I can see that traditional media also evolving. For example, a platform like yours is also very interesting. So, we’re looking at all of that, and doing it all.
As we're talking, we also have our new head of digital which is starting, and they're joining us from another company. So we're extremely active in exploring fresh content channels and new platforms, and there are plenty of opportunities.
You recently announced a partnership with French kitesurfer Alex Caizergues,— what part do celebrity ambassadors and social media influencers play in the campaign/brand strategy of Ulysses Nardin?
Well, we don't really call them ambassadors — we see them more as people who admire and are aligned with our brand values, friends of the brand. But when you look at them, they are quite close to you or I.
Perhaps ultra-specialised or excelling in one particular area, but overall— they're down to earth. They're really nice, humble. They focus on what's fun, what's attractive to them — they want to explore things in life.
For me, an ambassador is probably someone you pay and then use their face. Here it's not that. It's very organic. We collaborate with people that have values and some passion that are very close to our and that can be communicated and shared with the customer.
That checklist also extends to social media influences — we're not paying anyone for social media influence.
Looking to the future — how do you see AI, AR, VR, digital and technology advances influencing the brand and its products going forward?
I have no clue, you know. I have absolutely no clue. But it’s moving fast and it’s very exciting to see everything that's being developed.
Part of my role as CEO is looking at new things happening in the market, new trends, new way to consume, new way to do things or to engage with the consumer to sell or to advertise. I also dedicate some of my time to working with some startups, trying to figure out if they are onto something that could be relevant to features for us today. And I'm doing that on a regular basis
I recently interviewed the CEO of Frédérique Constant, who has been very vocal about Apple and smartwatches and he warned that smartwatches could very likely be the Swiss watch industry’s undoing. As an ex-Apple employee, some might say that you are perhaps one of the best people to comment on that — how much of a threat do you think Apple really is to traditional Swiss watchmakers and luxury watch brands, such as Ulysse Nardin?
I actually see it as an opportunity. Absolutely.
I mean the smart watch is a success and it'll continue to be a success, even more in future. The Apple watch as part of that will be a big success no doubt. But you know what it does? It brings millions of people who are not wearing watches to wear a watch again.
So now the real challenge is down to us as an industry — to explain to those consumers why it’s worth moving away from a product that everyone is wearing which is the same for everyone, except just changing the strap and then maybe you fine tuning the pictures on your screen.
We have to communicate why it’s worth moving away from that to go to a more traditional watch. And I think one answer is innovation on the product. We can still have innovation in product even without doing a smart watch in the watch industry. I'm absolutely convinced of that, and it's a discussion I've had with our R&D team, and we’re acting on it.
Honestly, I haven't missed my smart watch since I left Apple. Really. I'm doing 95% of those things with my phone. So I mean there is limited added value to what it can offer.
Having said that, it's going to be a great success. We just have to face it.
And how does Ulysse Nardin, in particular, plan to face that threat — or, conversely, capitalise on that opportunity?
Well, on that note, I'm going to go back to one other thing that I said earlier and I want to say that again because it's really important.
The success for us will come because our values are clear and understood by everyone. I think the time of marketing bullshit is over.
I think the time is now for genuine product, a genuine story, fair pricing, great quality — and quality content. Real product.
If you have that, and you explain why, and you create that desirability — there is no challenge.
Is there any chance that we could see Ulysse Nardin perhaps merging smart watch and traditional Swiss watchmaking into one like Frédérique Constant has done with the hybrid manufacture?
Honestly, I don’t see the benefit.
I mean, the best smart watch on the market has got an Apple logo on it. So I think we have to find our value somewhere else. At Ulysse Nardin, our strength is in our innovation, which has been ongoing forever — it's just a different type of innovation.
Words / Daniela Aroche
Photos / Rhodri Jones