Two years ago Julien Tornare joined Zenith with a clear mission for the brand. As he comes into his third year as CEO, it’s time to reflect on the work that’s been done so far and his vision going forward. Unlike many in the industry, Tornare is not one to look back at the past but instead look to the future of the brand and develop its growth with new strategies in fresh markets with a new generation of customers.
Of course, Zenith‘s CEO Julien Tornare doesn’t deny the watch brand has an incredible heritage. In fact, in 2019 the brand will not only celebrate 50 years of the iconic El Primero movement with a year-long celebration but will also introduce many new novelties including the DEFY Inventor that was recently presented at Baselworld.
To explain more on where the brand is at and where it’s heading we sat down with Tornare for an in-depth and honest reflection on his vision.
a&e Interview Zenith CEO Julien Tornare
What’s the main message Zenith is giving this year?
It’s a very important year for us as it’s the 50 year anniversary of the El Primero so we have an all year long celebration and a worldwide tour where we will share our passion for this amazing, legendary movement. Beyond that, we still need to build a future and we want to continue bringing added value to the brand, which for me means being creative and innovative.
We have 154 years of history and there has been a trend in the watch industry to repeat the past which I think is disrespectful to our predecessors. So I want to continue to craft tomorrow. We are presenting the DEFY Inventor which is inherited from the DEFY Lab prototypes we launched a year and a half ago and I really wanted to make sure that this was a watch we could commercialise so I’m very happy to launch this piece this year.
What would you still like to achieve with Zenith?
Many things! Two years is not a long time and my mission at Zenith will take much longer than that. There are a lot of things to do. The most important thing for me and the thing that I have worked very hard on is to change the mindset of the people working for Zenith. That was what took me a little while in my first year – to make sure that people are integrating first of all, the new vision and direction of the brand and also the spirit.
I always talk about ‘start-up spirit’ because that’s what I want to implement. There’s no reason why even if you’re 154 years old you can’t change your mindset to build a future. This took me a while but I have to say we are there now.
The thing that I haven’t done yet is raise brand awareness to the level that it should be. Today it is super strong amongst watch collectors and in certain markets like Japan. But I need to go wider and get people who are not watch specialists to appreciate the brand. Firstly to know the brand and then to appreciate it. I need to work on the sexiness of the brand and that takes time. So there will be events and there might be celebrities helping us to accelerate the awareness.
To what extent do you think endorsing celebrities assists you in your strategy?
If you don’t have the right substance as a brand it’s useless. But we do have substance and content in the form of the long history and our authenticity, as 100 per cent of our watches have an in-house movement. So as long as you have this, the basis is very healthy because people do care about substance, even millennials. For us, celebrities will accelerate brand awareness. They will get people who have never really heard of Zenith to say “Oh, what is this brand?” That’s accelerating brand awareness.
Some brands believe working with an omni-channel or co-branding strategy really supports the brand but these days some collaborations we see are not relevant anymore – to what extent do you believe in this?
It’s quite similar to my previous answer in that if you use another brand – cars etc. – it can be too much. If your brand has enough content and substance in itself you don’t really need to do it. The key advantage for me is again to widen your target reach. We have been partnering with Range Rover for a few years and the main advantage is that each of us has his own expertise and we are now reaching Range Rover clients that have never even heard of Zenith. So this is the main advantage.
You are of a price point in the market where the competition is extremely fierce, what is your strategy to stay ahead of competitors?
There are two things. First of all, I believe that there is a certain price segment which I would call the ‘sweet spot’. To explain, we all have a psychological price in our minds for everything. Holidays, cars, etc. and it’s the same for a watch. Zenith needs to be in this particular sweet spot which I believe is between six thousand [Euros] to fifteen thousand [Euros].
Beyond this, I want to offer value for money and this is really key for Zenith. Many brands have been surfing on what I would call the ‘Chinese first generation’ wave where people have become rich very quickly and spending money without really counting it and sometimes without fully understanding what they were buying. Because of the huge size of China many brands said: “Okay this is the way to go for the next thirty years” and because of this they lost ground with the other clientele. But what they didn’t anticipate was the shift of a generation.
Now the new Chinese generation studied abroad – so they speak English like you and me. Their purchasing behaviour is much closer to the rest of the world than their parents’. Zenith is very well positioned for this.
What is your biggest challenge?
To increase the brand awareness of Zenith in a short amount of time, and getting people to say: “This is a cool brand”. I’m talking about the people who might not buy Zenith because of the technical aspect but because it’s a cool brand and because we are driving good values and have a good vibe around us. We’re not there yet but we are working very hard on this. We will have new brand platforms, new events and lots of other things as well as the products to create this environment around the brand.
What is your position on the discussion of retail vs e-commerce?
If we claim we are innovative and contemporary how could I say: “I don’t do e-commerce”? Of course, we have to do it but if I’m realistic, it’s still a very small part of the business for all watch brands. We are in a technical field selling highly technical products, we don’t sell t-shirts or shoes that you can order and return, you need to understand the watch.
Most people are still not buying online, it’s still a very small percentage for any brand. What works now is a special action to create a buzz. Let’s say you make a limited edition of a very specific watch and you go through a different channel like Mr Porter to sell it. This works, but the volume is not there yet, it will take time.
Retail is super important in brand building but I also believe that brands that are going 100 per cent retail might underestimate the difficulties of it at a certain point. Again we sell technical products and people don’t understand watches as they might understand a pair of shoes or a jacket for example, and at some point, they will need advice.
When it comes to this point many clients still appreciate a multi-brand store for neutral advice. If you went to a Zenith boutique, of course they will tell you Zenith is the best brand in the world. But if you went to a multi-brand store the staff will tell you something very different. I think good retailers still have a bright future and I believe that multi-brand will continue to grow. It’s a question of balance.
To what extent does localising your concept to relevant markets work better than presenting in a static exhibition like Baselworld?
I think it is very important to go to the people and the markets. I am a heavy traveller and I strongly believe that you are not going to develop a brand by staying in your office and telling people what to do. I want to go to the people – this is the only way we will improve, if I meet the press, the retailers, the clients, in their markets. So I spend most of my time doing that because it is key.
Believe me, it’s already paying off because people are telling me that they feel I’m so engaged and involved in the brand because I’m meeting everyone. This is the only way – you get the best feedback, people think that you’re caring, and that’s key so I will continue to be very present.
What can you tell us about Zenith in the Middle East?
There is huge potential for development in the Middle East. Dubai is doing better and better but I was recently in Lebanon and we had a fantastic event. I was amazed by the level of culture in terms of the watches there. So I know that if you go there and do field work there is a huge business growth ahead of us for the brand. I’m very excited.
To what extent do you think storytelling is still relevant?
It’s the key. We are talking about human beings and people are buying emotions, if you have that then it’s storytelling. A month ago I went for lunch with six people who were part of Zenith when the El Primero was created in 1969. The youngest was born in 1945 and the oldest in 1933. I had so much fun because these people told me so many cool stories and how they would love to be part of Zenith again and I said: “Of course, you have to.” A story is everything for me.
If you were to give your younger self one piece of advice what would it be?
The first piece of advice I would give is actually the first thing I was told when I started in the industry when I was 25. My first boss told me: “Don’t forget who you are and keep your feet on the ground.” Even if with Zenith I have my head in the stars my feet are firmly on the ground so I’m not forgetting who I am and my values. That’s a very important piece of advice. I would also say make sure that you are listening. The minute you stop listening, you start to lose ground.
When you feel like the challenges are too much, what do you tell yourself?
I do a few things. First of all, I used to do a lot of sports. I learnt that the tougher life becomes the more you have to fight and keep on going and never give up. When I got to Zenith two years ago it was not easy. I was alone, my family was in Hong Kong, and the weather was not so good, it was a big shock for me and I had tonnes of issues and problems to solve.
So I’m not going to lie, sometimes I didn’t know where to start. When I talked to Mr Jean-Claude Biver over the phone I realised how much of an energizer he was. He could talk to me for thirty seconds and put me back at the top. I thought ‘this is how this man achieved so many great things.’ I’m not the kind of person to complain, I like to move forward from the problems and never give up. In this role you always need to show the energy and positivity.
You mentioned Mr Biver – is he one of the role models you look up to today?
Definitely and not only for his professional achievements but also as a human being. He is someone that has had so many amazing successes and he is still very simple – you can send him a message and he will reply immediately – like I do most of the time!
What do you say ‘no’ to?
I say ‘no’ to quick opportunism. I don’t like it. I think we need to build things for the long term.
What book are you currently reading?
I’m reading a novel that’s written by my best friend. He’s writing a novel, nobody knows, not even his wife and he’s sharing it with me one chapter at a time. It’s something I’ve never done before and it’s an interesting experience because he asks me advice on something that is taking form now. I think one of the characters makes me think of myself but there is no title yet so we will see!
How do you start your day?
I like to make my bed myself. Not because I had to do it when I was in the army but also because I think it’s part of a ritual every morning to say you are going to do something. The first thing to do is make your bed because when you do that you start to be a doer from the very first minute. So even if nothing happens during the day, at least you know you did one thing.
What is your professional motto?
Never give up. When you reach the top continue to climb.
How would you like the industry to remember you?
In our industry, we have to pay attention and make sure that egos are staying at a normal level. The brands will always be remembered but the men they come and go, you have new energy. But I would like people to remember me as someone that respected people and enjoyed life. I believe in working in a good environment so I would like my employees to remember me as a person who created a great environment and made them have happy years with Zenith.
If you weren’t here today what would you be doing?
There are two things. I’m a huge sports fan and I did a lot of sports myself reaching some of my ambitions. But I would have liked to go much further and make it a life. That could have been great. The other thing is a job that involves saving lives. That must be unbelievable in terms of self-accomplishment. We do business and we make money but saving lives must give you a reason to be here.
How would you describe Zenith in one word?