The Apple Watch Series 4 Hermès is a pretty polarizing product. From a brand positioning, product delivery, and marketing perspective I think the Apple + Hermès relationship is fascinating. It’s a collaboration of two premium brands that don’t often partner with other brands. Brands that share some similar philosophies for customer experience and high product standards. Brands that, in the union, both get something of significant value. And it’s interesting, too, that the union is so often misunderstood or even scoffed as an unnecessary, opulent, extravagant money-grab. I think, in fact, it’s pretty brilliant, and offers an interesting study.
Premium Powers x 2
Apple is, if not well understood, pretty familiar. Hermès is less so. Watch enthusiast site Hodinkee says, “Hermès is, of course, the still-to-this-day family run hyper-luxury lifestyle brand by which all others are measured. It is quite simply one of the great brand stories of the 20th century and beyond, and a rare success story of those who never cut corners being rewarded by the consumer.” It’s been in business since the 1830’s, with a tradition in equestrian leather goods, which it still makes. Today it’s notable for bags, fashion, jewelry and watches that range in price from around $3000 to over $20,000. And importantly, they don’t generally sell standalone watch bands.
One reason Hermès leather goods command such a high price is because, in a world of mass produced imports (such as the Apple Watch), theirs are made by hand, crafted by small groups of thoughtful people with exacting standards and precision that are mindful of things like where the band is likely to be strained, or to ensure stitches will be most resistant to break. Here’s a video of the small team in Switzerland that makes Hermès watch bands:
From the sourcing of materials to the cutting, stitching, and finishing every aspect of a Hermès watch band is intricate, measured, deliberate, quiet, personal and patient. The juxtaposition of this situation with the image of rows and rows of clinically dressed Foxconn workers building the iPhone (or Watch) is stark.
Hermès has been around for nearly 200 years because it knows its customers and it unapologetically caters to and even commands their tastes. Like Apple does, Hermès has a contingency of loyal customers – albeit customers who don’t blink at buying a $465 beach towel or $880 belt or $9100 briefcase.
Apple, on the other hand, has, with the 4th generation Apple Watch, matured the lineup to accommodate every type of its customer. Those that are investigating the idea of owning their first smart watch or Apple Watch can start with a relatively easy entry point of $280. Customers that are contemplating a step up from maybe owning the Apple Watch Series 2 or an aluminum Series 3 can look for an upgrade, maybe to LTE or stainless steel, spending anywhere from around $500 – $700. But there’s a third type of customer who are looking to innovate on what they’ve been familiar with. These customers have maybe owned a Watch since Series 0, or have already owned an upgraded model of better materials like steel or even the discontinued Edition, made ceramic. These customers enjoy the experience of the Apple Watch differently, and they’re willing to pay more for that experience. What’s fascinating is, generally, even if willing to pay more they’re not the kind of buyer to consider, say, a $590 baby toy.
A Genius Partnership
The Hermès partnership helps offer this experience for customers in a partnership that is so easy, so obvious, and such a ridiculous bargain for Apple. The original gold Edition watch (that cost five-figures) and the ceramic Edition watches (which were around $1400) required manufacturing and supply chain adjustments. Extra costs and resources for materials, production, engineering. For watches that, compared to the aluminum or steel models, just weren’t really in demand and sold in relatively few quantities. The Hermès “edition” requires none of this effort from Apple. There’s some unique imprinting on the back of the device and a few special faces that took some programming to simulate the Hermès Cape Code watch faces, but otherwise it’s the same stainless steel watch as the non-Hermes. Nothing to it. All the hard work is done by Hermès.
And it is hard work, which puts some context around the high prices for a Hermes belt or bag. Truly hand crafted and artisan in a time when those words are tossed around with meaningless absurdity. This standard of excellence is obvious in handling the Apple Watch band. It’s impossibly soft and well made. Every stitch is a detail. It feels special. It feels like somebody cared about its creation, and I can imagine somebody turning it over in their hands as they seek to create something exquisite. For all the careful and thoughtful design and engineering that goes into the Apple Watch, it’s a chunk of metal and glass. There’s nothing organic about it. Its beautiful curves and precise dimensions make it a more perfect machine, not necessarily a more relatable one. Apple’s own leather bands complement this minimalism beautifully, but not organically – I don’t know what Apple’s leather is, really, but it’s not a familiar leather. It feels disposable and oddly plastic. The Hermès band is human, and obsessive in its perfection. I have a cheapo Amazon metal links band with a deployment clasp that’s rickety, lightweight and just feels fragile. I wouldn’t consider that band pleasant to wear. The stainless steel deployment buckle on the single tour I purchased gives the entire watch a really nice heft, and it’s machined perfectly, moving smoothly. The buttons that open it have a smooth, precise action and it closes with the same kind of satisfying “click” that I get from the AirPods charger case. A perfect complement to the Apple Watch.
An Unexpected Bargain
It’s remarkable, then, that in the partnership with Apple, Hermès bands that can only be similarly found on Hermès watches that start at around $3000 are available for $600 and less. This is a tremendous bargain for customers interested in or curious about owning something from an otherwise unattainable luxury brand. What’s more, the deployment buckle on a leather band was a requirement for me; I wouldn’t have purchased an Hermès band otherwise. On their website (at least at the time I write this), there are no Hermèstimepieces with deployment clasps, making this band something of an Apple Watch exclusive.
Yet, is it “worth it”? The criteria for that is pretty subjective but consider that the discontinued ceramic Edition watches offered, at the higher price point, something of much more tangible value. The ceramic was stronger and more resistant to scratching. Exclusive colors in white or gray provided something different. The white Edition looks fantastic with a black band, and the visual distinction offered something for people who were really interested in status with the Edition. It came with a fancy unique charger. The Hermès is much more subtle – from across the room nobody really knows you’re wearing it. Could just be any stainless Apple Watch with a leather band. For me, that makes the Hermes purchase more intimate – one isn’t buying it to show off or hope others notice. One buys it for the quality, craftsmanship, and feel. It’s a much more personal experience.
From a business perspective, the Apple + Hermès relationship is mutually beneficial. The partnership with Apple, and the ability to sell its product for hundreds instead of thousands of dollars, introduces their luxury brand to an entirely new audience. It creates an alignment with the most popular and well known modern brand in the world. It offers a product at a price point that’s much more realistic and attainable. And, most importantly I think, it makes them relevant to the only timepiece people are talking about. With every announcement, review and article about the Apple Watch line-up Hermès is mentioned. This is powerful strategy from Hermès.
Likewise for Apple, a partnership with Hermès gives them a bit of fashion credibility that I think Apple desperately craves but can’t necessarily earn on its own. It allows Apple to show up in high fashion magazines, to have a place in Paris and in New York fashion shows, in ultra-luxury boutiques. Because, as John Gruber points out, for all it can do and for how amazing it is, the Apple Watch simply can’t live in the same stratosphere of niceness and timelessness that a Rolex or Hermès timepiece exists in, even as those devices have so much less functionality. A $15,000 Hermès timepiece can be handed down through generations. The similarly priced gold Edition of just four years ago is outdated junk in a drawer. Each brand gets to achieve something with the other that it couldn’t alone.
The Strength of a Strong Marketing Identity
It’s a genius of Apple to continue to diversify its product lineup so there’s always something of an entry point, something with some advantages in the middle, and something more aspirational at the higher end. For those that roll their eyes at the seemingly high priced, $1500 Apple Watch Hermès – that’s okay! There’s an alternative that’s more suitable for their desired price point and any number of styles and colors of bands to suit their tastes. Hermès isn’t trying to win those people over because they are not prospective customers. They are not who Hermès is thinking about with this partnership. Hermès knows, keenly, what its story is and who cares about it.