How Instagram Changed The Watch Business

Selling watches in the social media age

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Anish Bhatt, who runs the Instagram account @watchanish, is telling me about one of his recent posts. "I was in Qatar and I posted a pocket watch from a brand called Bovet. It was worth $360,000 [£233,000]. The next day someone from the Qatari royal family came to the watch exhibition where I had taken the picture and purchased it." He spells this out, lest the point be lost. "They went there with their phone, and my Instagram picture, and said, 'I want to buy this. Do you have it?' And they said, 'Yes, we do.' And they purchased it there and then."

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Until very recently, if you were a watch company and you wanted to tell people you had a new watch to sell, your best bet was to advertise it. If you owned some actual shops, you could put it in the window. If you had a marketing budget, you could create an ad campaign for billboards and magazines or an advert for TV. But now there's a third way. On Instagram there is a small but dedicated group of watch obsessives securing exclusives from the watch companies, and breaking the details of new models to their millions of followers. More and more watch companies have acknowledged – some grudgingly, others more willingly – that Instagram is a great way to talk directly to their customers.

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Bhatt, who brands himself a "horology and luxury digital influencer", is perhaps the most powerful watch-dedicated example out there. Boasting 1.4m Instagram followers (you'll also find him on Snapchat, Tumblr and Facebook), and tens of thousands of Instagram "likes" per post, where Bhatt has ventured, others have followed. The account @watchmania, for instance, has more than 400,000 followers and is known for high-quality close-up shots with minimal background fuss. A "one-man watch blog from the heart of Switzerland", @thehorophile, boasts 100,000 followers and focuses on the internal mechanics of complicated timepieces.

Alexander Rosenbaek, the Danish owner and founder of @dailywatch, is also enjoying a great deal of success with his 1.6m followers. "A single post [from me] could boost a [watch] brand's Instagram following with anything from 200 to 2,500 followers," he explains. "I also know some of the more affordable brands that I post for receive up to 30 orders per post. I can give the example of [independent Swiss brand] Valbray, who produce unique high-end watches. They received an order immediately after I posted a 15-second video of their watches in action."

Impressive, no doubt. But it's Bhatt's story that is perhaps the most fascinating. A former pharmacology student and menswear businessman, Bhatt quit his day job in 2011 to set up a Tumblr blog, which combined classic watch imagery with street style photography. "It was in 2010 when all these street style websites exploded, like The Sartorialist," he says. "I was meeting a lot of CEO-level people who were watch collectors themselves, and I saw that the way that they were receiving their information [about watches] was through word-of-mouth from other collectors. I thought it would be really cool to do something that mixed elements of real-life street style photography with very high-end watches that are very hard to obtain or get access to."

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Following the success of the Tumblr feed, Bhatt set up his Instagram account in 2012. Full to bursting with super-high-pass, sweetshop-saturated images of complex timepieces, shot against backdrops featuring supercars, bottles of champagne and expensive cigars, the account has several premium watch brands enthralled.

"Brands will contact me and say: 'Look, we want to work with you and we really like the quality [of your images],'" he says. "What I don't want to do is recreate stuff that they've done before, and I don't want to do anything that's too traditional. For me, the idea is to showcase watches to an audience of people who wouldn't necessarily be traditional watch buyers. But they're affluent enough and they would have the means to go out and buy the piece if they wanted to."

Gianluca Maina, the communications director at Swiss luxury jeweller De Grisogono, thinks it is the unstuffy, street-style nature of these shots that's key to the success of Bhatt and his peers.

"Instagram brought an approach that was left completely unexploited by watch brands, images of timepieces worn in real or so-called real situations. When the first bloggers started to come out with images of themselves wearing their watches with a certain pair of shoes or with a certain tie, they gave a sense of context, which was missing in the communication from most of the brands.

"Nobody would dare, among the well-established brands, to communicate [their products] the way that @watchanish does. We always thought it would diminish the value of the product. But bloggers brought this interesting alternative way of communicating. Instagram was [and is] the only type of media where this was happening," Maina says.

Personal endorsement is now the most powerful marketing tool in the luxury industry. Increasingly, brands employ influential young social media-savvy men and women to help shift their products. So many celebrities and influencers advertise products via Instagram, either implicitly by wearing them in shots, or explicitly with countless branded hashtags – which invariably means a post has been paid for – that in August 2015 the UK advertising watchdog introduced new rules governing how products were promoted via social media. The move came less than a week after regulators forced Kim Kardashian to delete a selfie promoting a drug for breaking US ad laws.

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"The posts that are paid for and the ones which are editorial [ie, personal, unpaid] kind of blend in," Bhatt says. "We separate them with hashtags because legally you have to." Bhatt says he turns away around 60–70 per cent of the brands that approach him. "I'd say we have one of the best brand portfolios that I'd want for my own taste. We've worked with Richard Mille, Rolex, Chopard." Though Bhatt won't say how much he charges brands for posts, Alexander Rosenbaek from @dailywatch is happy to divulge: "I charge payment upfront per post. Prices are usually $800 to $1,500 [£520–£970] per post."

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Does he support himself on income from his Instagram account alone? "I have my own apartment and car, which I guess is alright, considering I'm only 22," Rosenbaek says. "I also recently bought a Harley-Davidson."

Anish Bhatt's life is as glamorous as the one he reflects online. With homes in London and Dubai, much of his time is spent on planes. Though he tends to fly Business or First Class, Bhatt has also been known to "do a private jet" now and again. He estimates his personal watch collection at between 50 and 60 pieces; his favourite is a Seventies yellow gold Rolex Submariner. Extravagances include €25,000 tables at Amnesia in Ibiza, a Bentley (which he recently sold) and bags and shoes by Tom Ford. "His stuff isn't cheap," he says.

Where once his Instagram account was a one-man show, Bhatt now employs a staff of 26 photographers, web designers, editors and assistants, in London, New York and Dubai. It's not only his personal account that he and his team look after these days, either; watch brands pay Bhatt to formulate their in-house social media strategies and direct their in-house Instagram accounts. "I won't give you a specific number," he says. "But we turn over seven figures a year."

Bhatt says more and more brands are moving to Instagram and starting to have an "Instagram budget". "They realise how important the platform is becoming in terms of engagement and users."

However brands are increasingly eager to bring control of their social media and online presences in-house. "Zenith now tries to manage everything through its own Facebook or Instagram page," says Rebecca McDermott, UK and North Europe regional brand director for Zenith watches. "If it's a new launch, we try and manage it all directly now. Then there will be a specific initiative for each country worldwide."

"We produced a Rolling Stones limited edition in 2014," she says. "We signed the deal with the Stones in October. The watch was then produced within a very short period of time – 150 pieces, and was sold out within three weeks of it coming to market a month later. There would not have been time to talk about it anywhere other than online. The only consumption of these timepieces is through social media."

Gianluca Maina agrees: "We use software that allows us to be extremely focused on the way we communicate, on Instagram in particular. Consequently, we have one of the highest engagement rates on social media. That means that out of our followers [and by working with specific brand ambassadors] we have created a group of people that are really connected to the brand and speak the same language as us." Does Maina pay watch Instagrammers to post pictures? "We don't pay any bloggers to work with us."

This notion of managing brand identity in a social-media obsessed world is becoming important, particularly for those at the higher end. "For luxury goods the impact of social media – not just Instagram, but also bloggers, websites, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube and many others – has been incredible to see develop the last few years," says Richard Mille, founder of his eponymous watch brand. "The effect of such media is, however, often difficult for us to define. On the one hand, a brand can gain incredible awareness and support. However, it can also promote the production of all kinds of fakes or risk cheapening a brand's image. Digital media requires from us that we constantly monitor what is happening online."

Maina is equally concerned about brand perception. He thinks that while Instagram is great for talking about everyday pieces, it doesn't work as well for the more complex watches. "Instagram cannot be used for all the stories," he says. "Some pieces deserve, and need, much more in-depth information."

The future? Though many watch brands currently do not sell their timepieces online – primarily due to the reasons listed above – the consumer demand is there and it's increasing. "In the old days, you would see a pair of shoes at the point of sale [a shop] and then you would make the decision about whether you would buy them or not," says Zenith's McDermott. "Nowadays, the consumer does all their research online, so there's a new buying pattern emerging. The big thing I see changing in the near future is online purchasing of watches. People are becoming increasingly comfortable about parting with large sums online. They're buying cars, suits, holidays, so why not watches, too?"