FEATURE: Toughing it out

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Chief executive of Victorinox watches, Alexander Bennouna, discusses the rollout of the brand’s Inox masterplan with WatchPro editor James Buttery and the effect it’s having on the Swiss Army Knife brand’s watch business.

It might surprise some to learn that Victorinox, a brand known the world over for making incredibly useful pen knives, has been selling watches since the 1980s. But the collection has always lacked a memorable face, a heroic flagship to stick in the subconscious of the end consumer.

Flagships usually develop over the years, as popularity is proven through sales, but Victorinox actually set out to create a flagship, tasking creative director, Francois Nunez, with creating a single watch to give the brand the sense of identity it so badly needed.

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When Inox launched at Baselworld 2014 it was an instant success. A volume watch with the kind of attention to detail and quality you might expect to attract a luxury price tag. Inox attacked on three fronts; looks, durability and price.

The eye-catching, faceted bezel and handsome stainless steel case demand your attention while the cleverly designed proportions of the case and lugs make Inox virtually indestructible, as proved by a raft of 130-odd punishing tests and all for £329.

Victorinox Acer

Alexander Bennouna, the chief executive of Victorinox’s watch division, said: “As I said jokingly with Mr Eisner [Carl Eisner, chairman of Victorinox] this is the first time we are justifying why Victorinox is making watches, because we have a value proposition that is different and that is also reflecting the brand’s position.

“I think that’s the reason why a lot of consumers have responded positively, it helps to reinforce the message of quality and functionality. As we are bringing new editions out regularly it also helps us to enforce that same message, because it’s the same story; different strap, a different colour maybe but it’s the same story.

“We would love to use the word iconic, I’m happy you use it, we are a little bit shy to use it, it’s so strong and intimidating. But yes it really portrays what the consumer expects from Victorinox. It’s a real interpretation of the spirit of a Swiss Army Knife in a watch.”

While Nunez might have created an instant flagship in 2014, he wasn’t finished there.

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To support its astonishing 2014 debut, Victorinox backed up Inox’s credentials with a series of strong launches at Baselworld 2015. The company most famous for the Swiss Army Knife produced a robust steel bracelet strong enough to live up to the Inox set of 130-something tests. To that, it added a version in Victorinox’s corporate red that would not fade in the sunlight as well as a bumper – for which the Inox had become famous – in vintage Swiss army leather. The company also courted the cool kids with vintage Swiss Army leather accessories and paracord straps from Swedish company Naimakka.

Inox Naimakka

Bennouna admits that sales of the Inox on steel bracelet have not been as universally strong as he would have liked, which he attributes to the unique design of the bracelet’s deployment clasp.

“In some markets, and the UK is one of them, it has been doing extremely well. In other markets, because of the difficulties you are facing now [as I fiddle with the bracelet’s clasp] we have found some resistance, because it’s not a normal deployment buckle.

“But the beauty of this bracelet is that once you have it on your wrist, once you’ve tried it, you cannot wear the other bracelets anymore because this one will not leave you those two ‘snake bites’ that you get from every other deployment buckle. It’s so comfortable. Some markets have responded very positively while others are a bit slower, I think it’s just a question of time until the user gets comfortable and familiar with the fixing of this new buckle.”

In just two years Inox has jumped straight to the front of the queue in terms of seniority at Victorinox, the flagship collection is strategically being put at the centre of the brand’s watch activity with less successful models being discontinued entirely. This thinning of a herd seems to be targeting models which dilute the message being sent out by Inox.

“We are globally narrowing down the collection to move five core lines,” explains Bennouna. “Historically we had some 15 lines, so it was really expanding way beyond what it should be. Inox is the flagship, then we have Alliance, Maverick, Night Vision and Airboss.”

If 2015’s Inox releases were accessories designed give Inox a wider appeal, then 2016 has been about opening up Inox up to different sectors. Victorinox’s headline novelty in 2016 was the Inox Professional Diver, which has been completely reworked to offer all of the functionality a diver needs, namely a rotating bezel and plenty of luminescent material.

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“This watch also had to resist the 130 tests,” explains Bennouna. “We have included some diving tests as well, plus we included other features such as anti-magnetism and the luminescents on the hands and the dots are contrasted, so the minute hand and 12 o’clock dot is blue in deep water and the others are green. The only test it is not passing is the 10m drop test because if we drop it, the bezel might lock, which is a significant danger for this kind of diving device so we decided not to perform it on this watch, but the watch is surviving the other ‘torturing’ tests.

The Professional Diver is completed by its own unique bumper – covers designed to protect the Inox from scratches and dents whilst at the same time adding functionality – which magnifies the dial.

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While the Professional Diver adds yet more practical functionality to the collection, Inox leather seeks to introduce some style.

“We wanted to come up with a leather that survives the 130 tests. So we worked together with a leather company in Italy that developed this leather that is usually used for firefighters’ boots. It survives fire, water and acid tests.”

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The strap is made from a single piece of the impervious leather and only features stitching where it is needed to lock the pin buckle in place. The design is further differentiated from the rest of the family by its grey, granular finish dial. As well as brown and black straps, the model is also available on the steel bracelet and a grey paracord.

But Bennouna hasn’t quite finished supplementing the Inox collection with accessories, a new range of straps and bumpers will soon be available to buy separately for the first time.

“With the Inox line we have explored the value of quality,” he explains. “Now we want to explore the value of functionality. The Swiss Army Knife has different blades, different functions. We approach it not only with the bumper, which protects your watch, but with a set of accessories that with each Inox watch will enable you to create 24 separate combinations. One watch head, 24 different identities, looks, personalities. It’s quite playful and it’s basically taking the idea that the watch is timeless but that the accessories help you to celebrate the moments. You can adjust your watch to these different occasions.

“We made a test in our boutiques last year to evaluate the interest of the consumers and we’ve been positively impressed by the conversion rate, it was way beyond what we initially expected.”

Each set of accessories comes with a small Swiss Army Knife with  spring bar tool function for changing straps and each item will be between CHF 15-20.

Perhaps the biggest change for the Inox – which refers to something made from Stainless Steel – is a model not made of steel at all, but sandblasted titanium. The less dense, darker metal gives Inox Titanium, due out in Q4 2016, a completely different feel when compared to the steel original.

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The use of titanium and associated weight reduction would seem to be a play for the ladies market, something which Victorinox is yet to fully court, with Bennouna admitting the brand is still ‘80% male’.

That is purely down to Victorinox’s sparse female offer and the rugged, military connotations of the Swiss Army brand. Bennouna wishes to address this, saying: “The ladies’ market is a big portion of the market and we’re approaching it with different lines, we introduced a ladies line of Maverick last year, which was a more sporty interpretation and this year we bring a more classic addition to that, so that we can have a more relevant offer on display for ladies.

“On the Alliance we are making an attempt to seduce ladies. The way we approached it was to change the configuration of the logo on the dial. We moved the ‘Swiss Army’ away from Victorinox towards the Swiss made at the bottom, because ‘Swiss Army’ is not very glamorous for ladies. So that’s a little liberty that we took.”

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