Do Luxury Watches Make You Smarter?

Vacheron boutique New York selling luxury watches

“Why do people pay the enormous price premiums for luxury brands?” consultant Daniel Langer asks at scmp.com. “Most people perceive luxury as mainly bought to signal power. But what if this answer is too simple? What if there are other hidden reasons?” Like an appreciation for luxury watches’ design, construction and heritage? Mr. Langer has other ideas . . .

To uncover Patek Philippe buyers’ “secret motivation,” the self-professed Professor of Luxury Strategy and Extreme Value Creation at Pepperdine University in Malibu (I kid you not) designed an experiment.

We asked study participants to evaluate a person in a luxury setting compared to one in a “normal” setting. As an example, a woman was wearing a dress. Half of the respondents were told that the dress is from Chanel, the other half told it was from H&M.

We Photoshopped another woman into both a Bentley and into a Volkswagen. A man was wearing a Patek Philippe in one setting and a Swatch in another. Study participants were told to evaluate the person against a set of descriptors.

The answers were mind-blowing. The luxury context was always dramatically more positive than the normal context.

Woman in Bentley, that co-brands luxury watches

Among other results, two dimensions stood out: attractiveness and expertise. The same woman was seen as significantly more beautiful, even as a head-turner, when she was in the Bentley, while she was just moderately attractive in the Volkswagen.

When respondents were told that the woman was dressed in Chanel, they assumed that she was much smarter, including the ability to play the piano or the assumption of higher education. She was also more attractive.

Likewise the woman in the Bentley was perceived as having a much higher level of expertise. The results were similar for the man wearing the Patek.

Patek Philippe ad selling luxury watch

Mind not blown.

Professor Langer’s study backs up the analysis he set out to debunk: people buy luxury goods to “signal power.” Power meaning status. Status from being perceived as physically attractive, smart and capable of knocking out Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on a Steinway. And wealthy. What about wealthy?

Definitely wealthy. A Patek Philippe signals an abundance of financial resources. Is it any wonder people view its wearer as more attractive and intelligent? Given the capital required to purchase a $50k watch – and still have money left for groceries – they probably are.

I know that’s not a very PC statement. But we’re talking science here. Genetics. Human evolution. And sure, there are Patek-wearing trustafarians with limited candle power. But money makes the world go around. Truth be told, most people are dying to go for a spin.

Patek Philippe ad

Hang on. How many people even recognize a Patek Philippe? What if the man in the Volkswagen wore a gold Rolex President – a watch that says money like a Victoria’s Secret model says sex?

Also, what did the man look like? Was he a sixty-something in a Brioni suit or a twenty-something in a lululemon hoodie? Black, Hispanic, Asian, white? (Patek ads couldn’t be more white if they tried.)

Equally, who were the study’s test subjects? What was their age, sex, ethnicity, income level and geographical location? How someone perceives luxury products depends on all these factors and more. Which are easily excluded if you’re a luxury brand consultant making your money selling piercing glimpses into the obvious.

Patek ad for luxury watches

The extreme value of a luxury brand is not in the products and its features, but in the ability to make people feel more attractive and smarter. 

That statement downplays the importance of quality (“products and features”) and assumes a direct connection between how people perceive someone wearing a luxury item and how the wearer perceives themselves. I think the first bit’s wrong and the second bit’s right.

The vast majority of luxury watch buyers feel psychologically bolstered by the timepiece on their wrist. They value its ability to project an attractive image of intelligence and success (i.e., wealth).

I’d like to know why some luxury watches are better at that than others. How much is tied to product, how much to marketing? Perhaps Professor Langer could provide some freebie insights.

Illinois pocket watch

Meanwhile, let it be known that I couldn’t give a damn what someone thinks about my watch. I wear it because I like it. To wit: I’ve taken to wearing pocket watches. Which are, you know, hidden in my pocket. And no I don’t wait ’til someone’s looking to remove it for a time check.

Or am I just telling myself I don’t care about projecting status? That deep down my fragile ego’s calling the horological shots? No. I went to a garden party. I learned you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.

I like to believe it’s true of you, too. That you appreciate luxury watches for what they are, not what they “do.” Except make you grateful to live in a world where you can patronize (in the good sense) the work of designers, engineers and craftsmen dedicated to horological excellence in all its forms.

Am I wrong?

5 thoughts on “Do Luxury Watches Make You Smarter?”

  1. If people had to choose between being pretty and smart, or just rich, which would most choose? As the Ivy League bribe scandal and stars-without-makeup fodder prove, projections of the former are often illusory and purchasable.

    I’d note that the conflation of all these status markers is endemic to Americans, as the illusion of class mobility leads to people thinking that status is usually earned by merit. The real question is often not “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” but rather “if you’re so rich, why aren’t you smart?”

    I like how Archie Luxury has stated that he deliberately ramps up his crass and crude persona to mock the notion that high end watch wearers are erudite, educated, classy elite types, as embodied by the implicitly pretentious image presented by influencers.

    Of course there is also the interpretation of the word smart. Does it mean intelligent or polished and well put-together? And what is the overlap of these perceptions?

  2. I often lecture on marketing principles, and I use this example to illustrate a point about luxury brand signaling: I show a luxury purse on screen and ask “how much would you pay?” Then I show a version of the same bag in which I photoshopped out the little logo and say “same exact bag – same material, design, factory artisans, everything – just no logo. How much would you pay?” Without fail, every time the price difference is orders of magnitude apart. Like $3000 and $300. Every time. The implication is clear: you are paying for the brand and its signaling effects, not the product. The product is merely a vessel for communicating your association to the brand attributes it is intended to signal.

    In watches this phenomenon is everywhere. The price difference between Rolex and Tudor can’t be explained by Incremental quality. The demand differential between Rolex and Grand Seiko is not a reflection of product quality or design.

    Many people rationalize luxury goods as nuanced appreciation for something – my car has amazing engineering, I love this heritage of this shirt company, I appreciate the craftsmanship of this refrigerator. This is coded language. Without the brand signal the same products would be less desirable.

    Great article btw. Loved the article a few days back on why watch websites are so boring, too.

    1. Don’t entirely agree. A brand is a form of shorthand. Luxury brands are a shorthand for quality, for people who know little to nothing of what quality means.

      Most Rolex owners don’t know thing one about horological excellence. But they “know” that Rolex is quality. Mercedes too. And Chanel. If only because they believe that cost correlates to quality.

      No question that this equation is not the determining factor for some people. That they see exclusivity as it’s own reward. Rolex is THE watch brand even though Grand Seikos are measurably better, because “the right people” wear one and they’re expensive.

      I’ve always operated under the principle that all marketing starts with the product. All successful luxury brands start with an excellent product. It’s when they cash in on the reputation created by that product by taking the brand down and mass market that they undermine the brand’s cachet and kill it – while making enormous amounts of money. Armani is no longer Armani. Nor is Ralph Lauren. Neither gentleman is poorer for it. Quite the opposite.

      At the end of the proverbial day, I think it comes down to the human fight for resources. Luxury goods help people secure better resources for themselves and their genetic line, by improving/signaling their status. Again, I like to think I stand apart from this hard-wired imperative, that I like luxury because I appreciate excellence. And again, I may be deluding myself. It wouldn’t be the first time.

      1. I’ll tell you, I am a longtime professional in brand identity creation. It’s conclusive to the point of being an aphorism that luxury goods don’t sell quality – they sell exclusivity. Perceived quality resides on a standard curve where incremental gains are diminished past a point and you’re no longer paying marginally more for higher observed quality in any objectively discernible way (hence the invention of ever-creative reasons to justify the marginally higher price tier). There’s even a category of goods called Veblen goods that don’t follow a standard demand/supply curve; demand actually increases as price goes up. Veblen goods are generally luxury products, and the demand doesn’t increase in lockstep or correlation to quality…that’s not the itch being scratched. That’s not to say I disagree that luxury brands *don’t* connote quality – it’s to say that exclusivity, not quality, is the driving motivation for most luxury goods for most people; quality is a feature, not the core benefit being sold.

        It’s like, say, an exclusive bar near my house, the kind you’re lucky to get into, that employs a great bartender who makes great cocktails that cost $20 each. The bar can charge that price for the drink because, frankly, you’re not really paying for the drink – you’re paying for access, exclusivity. The drink is merely how money changes hands. That same drink by that same bartender would sell for $12 at another bar, and it’d seem overpriced at that given the raw materials to make it. The product appears to be the drink because that’s the recorded transaction, but the product actually being sold is access and ephemeral prestige, an Instagram post if you will. I realize I sound cynical, but I’m telling you, I create these narratives for a living precisely because people don’t buy products, they buy associations or adjacency to aspirational ideas.

        Quality is necessary but not sufficient. It’s tangential to the actual product being sold.

    2. The craftsmanship angle is one I’ve heard a bit about, and it seems to be most disingenuous from the punter. It seems to be a rationale using a labor theory of value. I used to ask them if they found out that (insert luxury mechanical watch here) was stamped out by an automated process and the low-end quartz model was assembled by little Swiss men with loupes and polished by hand and all, would their appreciation change? I never got an answer for some reason. There was also talk of an heirloom to pass down to their children, proving that they’d drank the Flavor-Aid of the marketing. Anyone that hasn’t read The Last Psychiatrist’s piece on the very Patek ad campaign shown above and how it represents a symbol of an otherwise non-existent legacy to bestow upon one’s heirs should take a look.

      Is there a way to insert videos of the Rouchefoucauld Grand Complication pawn scene from Trading Places or the watch carried up his ass by your father scene from Pulp Fiction? This site has dispelled the other striver excuse, the investment.

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