Three of Rolex's Most Successful Marketing Efforts

Three of Rolex's Most Successful Marketing Efforts

The world of luxury watches is as much about brand perception as it is about craftsmanship and precision engineering. While you may look elsewhere for show-stopping complications, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a brand with stronger marketing than Rolex. Over the past century, Rolex has employed and evolved marketing efforts to align with the times, and today, I’d like to examine three of the most successful.

Rolex Ambassadors

Rolex's Earliest Ambassadors

Rolex’s history of ambassadorship goes back to 1927 when Mercedes Gleitze swam the English channel wearing a Rolex Oyster. Early Rolex ambassadors like Gleitze and mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary (the first to summit Everest alongside Tenzing Norgay) were integral to the brand’s 20th century growth. Thanks to Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf’s foresight, these groundbreaking physical feats will forever be linked to Rolex. We’ve seen this strategy manifest itself in the modern era with events like James Cameron’s descent to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Beyond these standalone events, Rolex is known to place their watches on the wrists of public figures: world leaders, athletes, celebrities, etc. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, Rolex gifted watches to Winston Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson. The following decade, Rolex sponsored athletes across a number of different sports, all aligned with the interests of Rolex’s preferred (wealthy) demographic (golf, Formula 1 racing, downhill skiing, etc.). In recent decades, Rolex brought on ambassadors such as Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, and even singer Michael Bublé. Unlike early ambassadors who used Rolexes as tools, modern ambassadors act more as “cheerleaders”, as Fratello’s Lex Stolk puts it.

Paul Newman Wearing Rolex Daytona

By the mid-20th century, Rolex hardly needed to provide watches to celebrities: the world was fully bought-in to their status as the premier watch brand. To the best of my knowledge, Paul Newman – actor, race car driver, and perhaps the most important Rolex collector of all time – bought and publically wore Rolex watches of his own accord (at least the early ones).

Even though they’re discussed ad nauseam, I think we can look back at Rolex’s early ambassadorships fondly. During a time where (mechanical) watches were necessities, such partnerships were ripe to advance and promote mechanical innovation. To consumers, the watch that made it to the top of Everest was (obviously) the one to buy. Today – a time where no one needs a mechanical watch – Rolex appeals more to the emotions of consumers, creating a sense of aspiration and prestige via celebrity endorsement. Federer never wore a Rolex while he was playing, but he definitely wore one while hoisting up his trophies.

Rolex-Sponsored Sporting Events

Rolex ad at tennis event

Rolex doesn’t just sponsor athletes, but entire sporting events. If you’ve ever watched a tennis Open, you’ve surely been bombarded with green-and-gold logos surrounding the action. Similarly, Rolex sponsors racing events like the 24 Hours of Le Mans and numerous Formula 1 Grands Prix. They also sponsor the biggest golf tournaments, equestrian events, and regattas. What do all of these sporting events have in common? They’re all popular amongst wealthy individuals: Rolex’s preferred demographic. That said, Rolex’s sponsorship of these events spans beyond their core demographic.

Rolex ads at F1 Event

Many people watching or attending these events already know of Rolex (and maybe own multiple of their watches), but these sponsorships are critical for the brand’s global recognition. Anyone who’s been to a sports bar during late June to early July knows that Wimbledon is sponsored by Rolex. The same goes for Masters, Le Mans, etc. There’s a reason everyone knows ‘Rolex’ even if they’ve never owned a watch.

Rolex Product Placement in Movies and TV

This marketing effort is unlike the others, mostly because it didn’t take much effort. As previously mentioned, by the mid-20th century, Rolex hardly needed to place their products on celebrities. The same goes for movies and TV. While Rolex has likely done product placement on the silver screen, most instances, including what's arguably the most iconic Rolex cameo ever, happened organically.

Rolex in James Bond Movie

In the James Bond film Dr. No (1962)Sean Connery is seen wearing two Rolex watches, the most famous being the Submariner ref. 6538 on an ill-fitting 18mm NATO strap (on 20mm spring bars). Ian Fleming – the writer and creator of the James Bond books – wore a Rolex and had an affinity for the brand. As such, he wrote these watches into the books, the first appearing in 1954’s Live and Let Die. While filming for Dr. No, the choice to put Bond in a Rolex was a no-brainer, and the rest is history. Rolex had no hand in this product placement; it was merely a result of the brand’s ubiquity. 

Today, this ubiquity continues to grow in a self-fulfilling way. Rolex watches are seen in countless movies and TV shows, the bulk of which have no connection to the brand whatsoever.

Final Thoughts

Of course, this is nowhere near an exhaustive list of Rolex’s marketing efforts. I didn’t even touch on their print advertisements or charity work (although I have previously). Instead, I wanted to look at strategies informed by pop culture, discussing how they’ve shaped the brand’s global perception. Rolex has put on a masterclass in marketing since the 1920s and the fruits of their labor are self-fulfilling. Their status is established, their history has been made, and as such, their modern marketing efforts are icing on the cake. Rolex doesn’t have to do anything they don’t want to, which makes analyzing their decisions so interesting.

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