Over the summer, the watch brand Tag Heuer dropped its longtime celebrity endorser, Tiger Woods. The press release from Tag didn’t bother to mention Tiger’s well-publicized extramarital shenanigans or his subsequent mediocre tournament performances. It didn’t have to.
What’s Tiger been up to since Tag parted ways with him? He finalized his divorce from his wife. He failed to make the cut at the PGA Championship. And he appeared in the news most prominently when, in the midst of lining up a putt, he had a hot dog lobbed at him by a weirdo with a Ryan Gosling fetish.
All of which made it rather surprising when Rolex announced, on Oct. 5, that it had signed Woods to a shiny new sponsorship deal. Here was the world’s most famous watch company—and one of the world’s most recognizable brands—casting its lot with a dude many consider a moral reprobate or, worse, a has-been. Has the famously precise Swiss timepiece maker finally sproinged its own gears? What on earth is Rolex thinking?
We may never know for sure. Privately held since its formation in 1905, Rolex is a notoriously tight-lipped company. It doesn’t release revenue figures, or explain leadership transitions. (It had a total of three CEOs from 1905 until 2008, when then-CEO Patrick Heiniger resigned under mysterious circumstances.) Even the corporate structure is a bit murky. Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf died childless in 1960, leaving control of his company to a charitable foundation he’d established. The Hans Wilsdorf Foundation runs Rolex to this day. When I emailed a polite-but-elliptical media-relations woman to ask whether Rolex is essentially a nonprofit, and who the foundation’s major beneficiaries are, she responded with this sentence: “The principal focus of the foundation is to support a variety of philanthropic endeavors.”
Stymied by all this hush-hush Swiss discretion, I turned to Joe Thompson—editor in chief of Watch Time, a leading publication for timepiece aficionados. Before we tackled the Tiger Woods decision, I first wanted to know from Thompson how it was that Rolex became Rolex. What narrative explains how it became the favored watch brand of James Bond, Chuck Yeager, Paul Newman, and newly promoted middle managers across the globe?
My pet theory is that it’s all about that name. “Rolex.” So punchy, so balanced, so crisp at the finish. But Thompson offered a deeper explanation:
First, the product itself sets Rolex apart. The company has an impressive history of innovation. Rolex hopped on the wristwatch bandwagon in the early days of the 20th century, back when pocket watches were still considered far more proper for a gentleman. (Interestingly, World War I was an important moment in establishing the primacy of wristwatches. Turns out when you’re being shot at, it’s easier to glance quickly at your forearm than it is to haul a pendant out of your pocket.) Rolex designed the first great waterproof wristwatch case and built the first truly workable self-winding, automatic wristwatch. Basically, it has a ton of street cred with watch nerds. That gives the brand an aura of quality and authenticity that trickles down even to less-informed buyers.
Rolex has also managed to become synonymous with status. Particularly in an era when we can all consult the accurate clocks on our cell phones, wearing a wristwatch has become an act of personal expression rather than of functional necessity. Sporting a $6,500 Rolex remains the easiest way to advertise that you’ve made it big and you’ve got some lettuce to spend.
True, when sophisticated watch buyers ascend to the $12,000-to-$15,000 range, they often look around and realize that the subtler choice is an Audemars Piguet, Jaeger LeCoultre, or vintage Patek. But the newly minted alpha dog who is a luxury-watch novice will invariably want a Rolex. (During the ’80s oil boom, they were known as Texas Timexes. Oilmen preferred them in bright yellow gold—flashy enough to offset those brand new, enormous belt buckles and cowboy hats.)
How did Rolex achieve this dominance? Partly by staying above the fray, avoiding watch fads and maintaining those excellent quality standards. When the quartz revolution happened in the ’70s—flooding the market with cheap, simple watches that were more reliable than some of the most famous Swiss timepieces—Rolex dipped its toe in those waters but mostly kept its focus on crafting intricate, beautiful wrist machines. And Rolex has nodded toward the new vogue for giant watch faces, expanding its largest models by a few millimeters, but it hasn’t started mimicking the massive wrist Frisbees that some of its competitors have brought out.
The final secret of the brand: sports marketing. Rolex essentially invented the practice, according to Thompson. When a swimmer named Mercedes Gleitz crossed the English Channel in 1927, wearing a waterproof Rolex, Hans Wildorf marketed the bejesus out of the fact that the watch had survived intact. Rolex now sponsors countless golfers, tennis players, yachters, and adventurers. The longtime Rolex slogan is “A crown for every achievement”—meant to conjure feats of athletic prowess, exploration, and, yes, gray flannel corporate advancement.
Which brings us back to Tiger. Rolex has existing deals with golf’s historic “big three”: Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player. Tiger’s list of victories already puts him in that rarefied company. Rolex actually signed Woods very early on in his career to its less-expensive Tudor brand (which is no longer marketed in the U.S.), but then let him get away. Why pounce this time, with Tiger stuck in a publicity ditch and a performance rut?
Some have speculated that Rolex is “buying low,” stealing a great deal on a distressed asset. It’s impossible to know, since Rolex will never disclose what it’s paying Tiger. But Thompson says the money is a red herring anyhow: “Rolex is rolling in dough. Getting Tiger cheap wouldn’t be an issue for them. This is a brand valued at $5 billion.”
Instead, he argues, this move is in large part about Asia. That’s where the growth in luxury watches will come from in the future. Right now, Rolex’s nemesis Omega dominates China—Omega is the other “mass class,” entry-level luxury timepiece—simply because it’s better-established there. Rolex hopes that Tiger, with his Thai mother, will be demographic catnip for the golf-obsessed Asian market.
As for Tiger’s moral missteps? It’s a good bet those will be forgotten by the next time he hoists a championship trophy. With a Rolex on his wrist.