It is 15 years since Movado Group bought the Swiss watch brand Ebel from LVMH. A key member of the team that managed that acquisition was Flavio Pellegrini, who is now president of Ebel as well as managing director for Movado Group International. Last month WatchPro’s Rob Corder caught up with the executive at at the company’s spiritual headquarters, Le Corbusier-designed La Villa Turque in Switzerland’s La Chaux-de-Fonds, to discuss the past, present and future for the brand.
Flavio Pellegrini admits that Ebel has enjoyed better days in the UK than the market is witnessing right now. In the mid-noughties, the Swiss watch designer was a household name as it signed a five year sponsorship deal with Arsenal Football Club and in 2007 hired supermodels Claudia Schiffer and Gisele Bündchen as brand ambassadors for high profile advertising.
Mr Pellegrini, now managing director for Movado Group International and president of Ebel and Concord, was central to the MGI team that acquired Ebel from LVMH in 2003, and spent his early years in the company integrating the luxury Swiss watch brand into the American Movado Group’s sprawling empire. The early signs were good as the investment in marketing combined with the quality of the brand’s designs and the finishing of its Swiss production team carved out a reputation for beautifully made, contemporary and stylish timepieces. But the brand plateaued several years ago and now feels in need of fresh investment if it is to recapture its glory days in the UK.
“It’s a fair comment, no objection about that,” Mr Pellegrini replies when WatchPro suggests the brand has faded from the public’s consciousness over the past decade. “We have to be smart in investing in markets where we believe the return will be good. So far the UK has not been one of those markets because it is so competitive and has so many very well-established brands,” he adds.
When the investment taps are reopened, Mr Pellegrini believes Ebel can quickly re-establish itself. “The UK has historically been a big market for Ebel and the good thing I have to say is that I see Ebel as a sleeping beauty. The brand has not been damaged, we don’t have an issue, we haven’t damaged the brand, so we have to find the right moment to go back to the UK market,” he describes.
Ebel would be far from starting from scratch if it chooses to re-light a fire under the brand in this country. It has national coverage with Ernest Jones, Beaverbrooks, Chisholm Hunter and dozens of independent jewellers across the UK. But it is vulnerable to being de-listed door-by-door in an era when retailers want to focus their energies on a smaller number of brands.
“I think already we have some good partners like Ernest Jones and we are working on improving things with them. I would say the key thing we have to do as a brand is to be interesting for them, meaning the distribution has to be small and the sell-through has to be big. Then we become important for them and that’s the recipe we will try to do in the UK,” Mr Pellegrini explains.
When it comes to executing on its strategy, Ebel already has the substantial infrastructure and experienced team of MGS Distribution at its disposal. “We have a very strong business in the UK; we have a very talented team there and I would really be very positive to have the team working on it. They are already very much involved in the brand but as MGI we have a lot of brands and we have to set priorities,” Mr Pellegrini says.
When the group makes the decision to turn on the investment taps, the strategy will not be to massively increase the number of doors, or to push more product at existing retailers. The company wants a lean, motivated network that restocks only because sell-through is strong.
“We have to create demand. You can push product in but filling the pipeline is not what we want to do and it’s not what we have done for the last two years. The good thing is that the market is now clean so we can be smart, we can come with a very strong digital-oriented strategy for the UK, both from a distribution stand point and media storytelling stand point. We just haven’t defined it yet,” Mr Pellegrini explains.
The Ebel boss will not be pushed to give a timetable for changes in the UK, not least because other Movado Group brands are a greater focus right now. “We don’t want to set the wrong expectations, so I’m not giving you a time frame, but we are really working on it and I hope that the next time we see each other, maybe in one year I will have concrete plans to share with you. That doesn’t mean it is next year or the year after, but I will have concrete plans. Today, I don’t have a concrete plan,” he admits.
“The good thing about being part of a group like MGI,” Mr Pellegrini continues, “is that we don’t have crazy pressure like independents that have only one brand and have to find each month someone to sell watches to. We are committed to doing the right thing at the right time.”
Ebel currently sells direct to consumer via the Ebel.com website in the United States, where its partner network is patchy, but not in the UK. That may change, but Mr Pellegrini thinks the current coverage in this country, and the strong online offering from its partners, is likely to be the right model moving forward. “You need to have online and offline. You can tell a story beautifully on screen, but there are elements that cannot be created online, you need an offline presence,” he suggests.
WatchPro met with Mr Pellegrini at the La Villa Turque in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a watchmaking town in the Jura Mountains of Switzerland. The villa is part of the history of Ebel, and a link to its current marketing strategy. The property was designed by world-renowned artist and pioneer of modern architecture Le Corbusier and its design philosophy is the same as Ebel’s. “Beauty marries function,” Mr Pellegrini explains in relation to the villa and the company’s watchmaking ethos.
The brand’s watches are being advertised this year against a backdrop of Le Corbusier impressionist paintings, which Mr Pellegrini believes have a universal appeal. It is harder today to appeal to different consumers in every part of the world, which is one reason why Ebel’s high profile celebrity campaigns with the likes of Claudia Schiffer and Gisele are unlikely to be repeated.
“Times change and I think young consumers don’t really want to purchase a watch because a famous person has the watch, they want a one-to-one relationship so social media and influencers are more important. People today want to have a customised language and I think that’s the key so I would prefer to spend more time on influencers than any of the big names. It might work in India or China where maybe the consumer is still at a different stage, but in markets like the UK, I think this is over,” he says.
Sport Classic returns with 2018 editions
Ebel’s Sport Classic was first introduced in 1977 with the distinctive soft lines, smooth texture, and flowing curves that are a signatures of the brand, and established the sport-chic style of the time. In 2018, the collection comes in a 29 mm steel ladies’ quartz version and a 40mm men’s automatic.
Both models use an alternating brushed and polished finish across the case and bracelet while an anthracite dial contrasts with rhodium-plated Roman numerals and facetted, diamond-polished rhodium-plated hands.
On the ladies’ models, eight diamond index markers add a touch of feminine chic, while the gents’ model has a more technical feel with its flat, diamond-polished rhodium-plated sweep seconds hand.
New advertising creative, which will debut in the autumn, although not necessarily in the UK, features dynamic abstract paintings by the French Swiss artist and architect Le Corbusier in a special ambience that highlights the true spirit and timeless beauty of the Sport Classic, according to Ebel.