When Alan Mace left his role as managing director of Citizen UK at the end of February, after 12 years at the helm, it was with the reassuring certainty that he could not have been leaving the business in safer hands.
Those hands belong to Mark Robinson, who has worked dedicatedly for the brand for 16 years, playing an integral part in driving its strong position in the UK.
Robinson has been credited with Citizen UK’s innovative product development and savvy marketing. However, he is quick to share the compliments with his team, explaining that it has been combined efforts that have ensured Citizen UK sets the bar at such lofty heights for brands selling watches under £500.
“Alan was a fantastic boss and quite a character – his were some big shoes to fill,” says Robinson. “I think he would agree that as a team we all developed the brand and the team ethic is something that I still hold very true. I wouldn’t say it was necessarily an easy transition but because I’d been behind the scenes doing an awful lot and been exposed to different areas of the business over my time, it was an easier transition.”
Under Robinson’s leadership, the brand has continued on its upwards trajectory. Citizen UK is already up 8% in terms of sales on last year’s record numbers. “I’m delighted to be in that position and our sell through is up even higher,” says Robinson. “Retail analyst GfK reported us as up approximately 13.5%, year to date. Fingers crossed we are going to have a record year this year.”
He adds: “Last year was a fantastic record year. In December we achieved record sell-through figures. We were number two in the market place at Christmas for sell through behind a very famous Swiss brand, that was a huge achievement for the brand.”
Unsurprisingly, retailers stocking Citizen are happy with the way the brand is been performing and the service they receive. They made their appreciation known when Citizen picked up the accolade of Supplier of the Year at the UK Jewellery Awards in July. With the certainty that his retail customers are satisfied, Robinson has turned his attention to consumers. Since he took over as managing director, he has been focusing on the end customer’s brand perception.
“We’re in great shape, we’ve got great people and we all know what we’re doing and there’s one common aim,” explains Robinson. “We’ve been able to take a sort of side step, focusing on understanding the brand and the watch market. We’ve been doing some consumer research.” Citizen UK has been running focus groups and circulating questionnaires and surveys to understand how the consumer shops within the watch market and what they think about Citizen. “It’s been very insightful,” says Robinson. “You hear so many different things but when it comes straight from the consumer it really hits home. For me, there is a huge opportunity still for us to grow, there are still quite a few consumers who don’t know what Citizen is about and that’s making us rethink how we go to market.”
With a background in marketing and product, Robinson has embraced the opportunities that digital developments offer, helping drive the success of Citizen UK’s presence on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. “There’s even more we can do within the digital landscape and I think at the heart of that is – again really born out of our consumer research – that the British consumer has an appetite for information and really wants to have a better feeling for the brand. That presents huge opportunities for us and also our retail partners. So the more assets that we can supply our retail partners with, the better, and that’s something that we are looking into at the moment and we’ll see more activity within that arena over the next six to 12 weeks,” says Robinson.
As well as a strong presence online, Citizen’s marketing strategy has also involved forging quality partnerships. Robinson was responsible for driving the brand’s partnership with the RAF Red Arrows and, with it, the launch of the Red Arrows Citizen Eco-Drive Watch Collection. Since its launch, this collection became the number one Citizen Watch Collection, with units sold reaching 24,000, with a worth of £7 million RRP.
The success of the Red Arrow relationship saw Robinson explore other military avenues and work closely with the Royal Navy. Four robust models make up the Citizen Eco-Drive Marines Commandos Collection. Since its launch in autumn 2012, Robinson put concerted marketing campaign efforts behind the collection and consequently, just under six months later, the collection had turned over nearly £1 million RRP.
Finding the right relationships for Citizen UK, also led to English cricketer Kevin Pietersen becoming Citizen brand ambassador. “We’ve had Kevin there for nearly eight years,” says Robinson. “Our Unstoppable campaign is really about personalities that have an unstoppable attitude and application within their different disciplines. I think Kevin has more than proved that within his category of cricket batsman, he is at the forefront of people that the opposition revere because he can change the game. I think there’s a nice synergy there because Citizen can change the game in the watch arena as well. I think we have proved that from being an outsider to being in a leading position in the marketplace.”
CHANGE IN FORTUNES
Although Citizen UK is a market leader in its category today, it hasn’t always been that way. Citizen was set up in the UK in May 1980, and when Robinson joined in 1997, the company was quite different from how it is known today. Robinson moved to Citizen from SmithKline Beecham, where he had worked for five years, starting as a graduate trainee in sales, having studied business and computers at Aston University in Birmingham.
Robinson started at Citizen as sales operations manager tasked with looking at how to fine tune and improve business operations. He confesses that he knew little about Citizen at the time or indeed watches but had always been interested in retail and was keen to take on the new challenge of supplying to retailers. “My intention was to stay at Citizen for two or three years, get more experience and then move on. That 16 years ago,” he says.
Describing the company when he arrived, Robinson says: “It was quite a lot smaller than it is today. We were actually struggling at the time, it wasn’t in the best place and it was more of a low price brand, very much driven by the influences of our European operation at the time, into low price mechanicals.”
Robinson explains that although Citizen had an excellent reputation among retailers, there was still lots of work to do with the end consumer who he says, did not necessarily understand what Citizen was about. “Rotary, Accurist and Seiko were all very strong in the market place and Citizen was sort of seen as a slight outsider, so there was a huge opportunity,” he says.
Robinson recalls that it wasn’t until Citizen’s US operation took over in 2000 that fortunes turned around for Citizen UK. Prior to the US takeover, Citizen UK was a subsidiary of Citizen Europe. In 2000, the ownership was transferred from Europe to the US corporation. “It was like a breath of fresh air, it was like the cavalry coming in,” recalls Robinson. Before the takeover, much of the product was being influenced by the company’s European operations, where the tastes weren’t translating to the UK.
Once Citizen UK was reporting to the US, Robinson says there was a better fit. “The US was very strong and it was felt that the alignment with the US was more akin with UK consumers’ requirements.”
Robinson recalls that following the US takeover, the UK changed about 85% of its product range overnight, taking on more of the product that was already available in the US and repositioning Citizen UK as a more premium brand. The brand was also given freedom to ensure its product offer was true to UK tastes. It was at this point that Robinson became brand manager with product development and marketing at the heart of his priorities.
The US also invested money into the UK business to help it fund its marketing, which has been a huge area of investment for Citizen UK since 2000. Citizen UK has also invested in pushing technological boundaries, particularly with its Citizen Eco-Drive technology. The recently launched Eco-Drive model Proximity is testament to the brand’s commitment to innovation. Using Bluetooth, enabled through Citizen Eco-Drive technology, the timepiece pairs the iPhone 5 and 4S through a specially designed app to provide email, calendar and call notification, with a powerful 10 metre sync range. Additionally, the primary and secondary time zones are updated automatically for easier travel.
It is ongoing developments such as this that ensure Citizen’s product offer remains fresh and, for Robinson, these advances also help guarantee the longevity of the brand, combining fashionable stylish watches with brilliant functionality.
Robinson has played an integral role in all aspects of driving Citizen UK into its current strong position. In fact, one of the challenges of his new role has been letting go of some of his previous responsibilities so that he can turn his attention on strategy.
Strategy is now at the forefront of Robinson’s mind and involves a focus on operating on a global level, developing the brand within the international group. Judging by Citizen UK and Robinson’s success to date, no doubt it will be a winning strategy.
This article first appeared in the September issue of WatchPro magazine.
To read the digital version of the issue, click here.