Will Universal Genève's latest 'comeback' be the right one?

June 2003

Universal Genève has already made several attempts to re-launch itself. Will the one undertaken in 2002 by the team headed by Stuart Wood be the one that works? After seeing the collections presented at Basel this year, and learning about the brand's long-term strategy, one certainly hopes it is.

Universal Genève has a long and glorious history that dates back to its creation in 1894. Without going into too much detail, the enterprise has played a very important role in the area of chronographs. In 1927, Universal launched its first wristwatch chronograph (a calibre 17''') that enjoyed considerable success. The global reputation of the brand was built on an uninterrupted succession of innovative chronographs. The two-pushbutton chronos, introduced in the 1930s, revolutionized chronographic functions. The models with the most impact made up the Compax series. From 1936 to 1944, the brand presented its Uni-Compax, Aéro-Compax, Dato-Compax and Tri-Compax, one after the other.

The major transformation brought about by the Compax series was mainly its two pushbuttons, which allowed several consecutive readings without having to reset to zero each time, and to the chronographic hour counter (previously limited to 30 or 45 minutes) plus the addition of an individually adjustable small seconds measurement (Aero-Compax), the addition of a date display (Dato-Compax), and the incorporation of specialized functions (Medico-Compax). The series culminated with the famous Tri-Compax, launched in 1944, which included days, weeks, jumping months, minute counter, chronographic hours, and a tachymeter scale.

Universal next innovated into the area of the automatic watch introducing the micro rotor with an off-centred weight, whose technical performance is undeniable. This innovation upset traditional watchmaking research and found its best expression starting in 1956 with the Polerouter series featuring water resistance, anti-magnetic device and super anti-shock mechanism.

The wonderful saga of the Compax series, which established the international reputation of the brand, crashed head on with the quartz locomotive, an engine that redefined the game of watchmaking and redistributed the cards around the world.

Transforming the heritage
This small history lesson brings us up to date with what Universal (now belonging to the Stelux group) is proposing today. The new collections are aptly named Tri-Compax, Aero-Tri-Compax, Polerouter and Polar-Compax… “We are not making rep-licas,” insists Stuart Wood, currently at the helm of Universal Genève. “We are entirely redesigning the models, giving them a totally new look while drawing on this uncommon heritage.”

The new Aero Tri-Compax and Polar-Compax are very attractive. Certified chronometers, they are powerful in their design, technically sophisticated in their functions, and stylistically successful in their overall look.

Their inner rotating bezel gives them a smooth appearance, enhanced by a perfectly integrated sapphire crystal, which softens the chrono aspect. The great readability of the dials with their multiple displays provides a technological look with a contemporary classic flair. These eye-catching watches are sporty yet chic.

Strategy of re-conquest
This collection is aptly called 'Heritage'. It signifies the departure point of a strategy to re-conquer the marketplace, step by step, slowly but surely. This strategy targets, on one hand, informed and traditional consumers who are looking for authentic watchmaking, i.e. mechanical, and for whom the name 'Univer-sal Genève' still means something.

On the other hand, the brand is targeting a new and younger clientele attracted by the watch's appearance. These new consumers may have already met the new Universal through its innovative collections such as the lovely 'Tableau' timepieces, the automatic 'Cirrus' line or the 'Couture' feminine models. They are clearly 'design' watches without being too obviously so. “These collections have been a real success,” affirms Gavin Crilly-McKean, director of the brand's distribution. “Our current clientele is, on average, 30 years old and 60% are women.”

Gradual verticalization
The long-term goal of the brand is quite ambitious. First, it wants to re-conquer its clientele by gradually introducing its products. It is now present in France, Spain, Great Britain and Belgium, and will be introduced into the key market of Italy in October 2003. Outside of Europe, Universal Genève is distributed in the Middle East and will approach the large U.S. market at the end of 2004.

Secondly, Universal wants to obtain complete watchmaking mastery and then verticalize its production. The first step in this march towards independence involves movements, a domain the brand seriously intends pursuing. While it currently works with sub-contractors, Universal Genève is repatriating many of the most important aspects of production, so that it will eventually become a total watchmaker.

“We are and will remain very prudent,” explains Crilly-McKean, “and we will never pretend to be what we are not… or not yet. However, Universal Genève is growing again, and the step-by-step process that we have initiated is moving faster than expected. Over time, the brand must find its past lustre and offer its informed customers something special and unique.”

The owner of the brand is aware of the necessity to give it the time to reach its objectives. Stelux, which does not intervene at the operational level, has already injected large sums into the brand over the years. Having already traversed various episodes, it intends today to demonstrate its desire to conserve the brand and give it the space and time to become successful. Let's bet that this time is the right time.