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Seiko's marketing strategy

m. werneburg, 2020.11.26

For years, I've been a bit puzzled about the marketing strategy behind Seiko's wrist watches. I recently had to replace my inexpensive weekend watch, and despite Seiko's terrible marketing, wound up with an "Alba". I'd never heard of the brand, but I could tell at a glance it was a Seiko product which gave me the confidence to buy such an inexpensive off-brand watch.

There are several things I don't get about what Seiko is doing with its marketing, but it comes down to:

Poor duration of many products

Not long before it became a sensation in the English speaking Internet, I bought a SARB033. It is a sharp-looking automatic watch that cost around ¥30,000. At that price in 2014 it was a great deal for a high quality all-mechanical piece that would look good for years. Several of the watch enthusiasts on Youtube discovered the same thing, and started raving about it. After-market accessories like straps and even bracelets designed specifically for the model appeared. It was taking off. So Seiko killed it. Then nine months later it started trickling back into the market again, but not without confusingly similar models appearing—even sometimes with the same movement inside—at higher and lower price points. One can only speculate at the internal conversations happening at Seiko that caused all of this, but it points to some obvious problems.

First, when reviewers all complain about a certain aspect of your product—in this case the bracelet—you should do something about it. But even after they brought back the model it still had the same bracelet with its paucity of adjustability, the weird gap in the clasp, the short end links, and the overall lack of fit for the case. People are still buying replacement bracelets for this watch, spending $100 or substantially more for a watch that original cost around $300.

One of the ways that the short-lived nature of the products manifests is that you can find products in-store for which there are no reviews on the Internet. Or any mention at all. I don't know how this is possible, but I've seen it time and again over the course of the past decade and it has sometimes made me wonder if I wasn't looking at fakes. Is it possible that fakes are finding their way into retail stores? Who is managing this brand?

A lousy website

I live in Japan but can't buy any products on the Seiko website. Several of the product lines are not present on that website, like Credor—the brand that introduced Seiko's famous spring drive. Of those product lines that are on the site, some are represented by a tiny fraction of the products. It's nearly impossible to not lose patience with the site's navigation and there is zero consistency in the handling of different brands on the site. The product photography is unappealing and the way the products are presented reduces them to look-alike sameness that only worsens the multitude of similar products that I discuss below.

Pathetic product photography

I finally decided on the purchase of the Alba watch when I found some pics from an owner. These showed its true colors, in which it was clear that the blue was a little lighter than navy and the hands were a little more yellowy-green due to the lume. I decided I liked the combo but it wasn't represented by the photography provided by Seiko to the online retailers. I shouldn't have to rely on someone's phone photos to decide a product purchase!

Too many undifferentiated brands

At present, Seiko seem to have the following watch brands, with these names appearing on different models:

Additionally, there are or were some other lines, such as:

a lot of overlap

I can't make out the difference between Alba, Lorus, J. Springs, and Pulsar. I suspect that Alba are more prevalent in certain geographies while Lorus (and maybe Pulsar?) primary exist in others. (I also suspect that the J. Springs line has gone away, the website is down and there doesn't seem to be a steady supply of new product.) They're all fashion brands without any particular distinguishing features or capabilities or movements or materials. These appear to be entirely robot-assembled products coming out of places like Malaysia and China. I've no idea why they keep them all.

There's also a great deal of overlap between Seiko 5 and the automatic models of Alba, Lorus, J. Springs, and Pulsar as well as "Seiko" branded watches.

The Coutura and Astron lines seem to differ primarily in the GPS of the latter. They otherwise seem to be radio-controlled quartz watches. I've no idea why they need both.

To continue with the strange pairing of brands/lines, the Dolce &Exceline his/hers watches are indistinguishable to my eye from Presage products and they seem to sell for the same amount.

And for some reason Seiko currently has two brands of watches with diamonds. Lukia watches from today's website are indistinguishable from the "Diamond Collection".

And finally, I'm not sure I understand the positioning of the up-scale product lines: Credor, and Grand Seiko. Of course there are two! Curiously neither appear as a brand on Seiko's website. Credor's styles are considerably more elegant and non-linear than the usual "Seiko look" retained by Grand Seiko. In fact, Credor is the only product line with what I'd consider a distinctive brand at all. There are distinct websites for both brands, the products look amazing, I have no idea if or when Seiko will shutter either (as it has once with Grand Seiko).

so I got to thinking

Where are the Seiko smart-watches? Where are the fitness devices? Where are the avant-guard designs among the lower price points?

After two weeks of combing through models in stores and online, some thoughts have occurred to me.

Pulsar

The world seems to have forgotten that Pulsar introduced the world's first digital watch. I don't know why Seiko hasn't kept that line focused on that sort of product. Casio is doing a lot of interesting things in the digital and analog-digital space, and they're not all cheap or "digital-looking" watches–we're in the process of buying a Casio MSG S200 (amazing product name!) that is neither. I wonder if Pulsar couldn't be doing the same. I suspect there's a lot of space to be filled between Casio's mostly-inexpensive stuff and smart watches from the likes of Apple.

Lorus

My parents bought me a Lorus watch as a high school graduation gift, so I have a soft spot for this brand. But I don't understand what Seiko is doing by producing many Lorus models with nearly the same design and quality as Seiko models, and putting a cheaper strap and the word "Lorus" on the front. Is this defensive against intrusion by other brands (e.g. Citizen)? If that's true, why not go after the competition with this brand? They could have look-alike "Eco-drive" watches and look-alike Jazzmasters and look-alike Oyster Perpetuals. Buyers would know they're getting almost-Seiko quality in the deal: my Lorus watch lasted fifteen years, for Lorus money that's a lot of close-enough homage wear.

Or they could do something different and start making Lorus a bit looser and bolder when it comes to styles. Have some better models creep up in the price range, perhaps, and make Lorus as distinctive from Seiko as Credor is from Grand Seiko. The latter is the conservative, dependable brand, while the former is the style brand.

All of this applies to Alba, too. I believe Seiko only needs one of Lorus or Alba and given the "meh" words in the brands it might just be best to pack them both in and bring back Laurel which at least sounds nice.


Mmmm, Laurel

Seiko 5

They are making some great models at present, but I wonder how successful they are as a product line. I see a lot—and I mean a lot—more people wearing mid-range Casios. Seiko 5 prices have slipped higher in recent years, but these watches still offer good value and there seems to be a never-ending selection. In an era of always-connected, all-electronic, high-spend and status-mad consumerism, these affordable and attractive automatic watches are almost too good for this age.

Seiko seems to be morphing these into "sports" watches with the "Seiko 5 sports" line. Perhaps sales of the traditional "Seiko 5" line have been flagging. I can only guess that that might be why Seiko's dropped the product line from their website.

Seiko mid-range

My "not beater" watch is a humble Seiko SARB033, practically a cliche in the watch world for being high value and looking great. But Seiko makes many amazing models across their mid-tier. Yes, they're strongly branded together by common set of designs (try not to unsee the Seiko look once you see it in a dive watch or chronometer) but within a single brand I don't think that's a bad thing.

Credor

Some of the minimalist watches are stunning. I don't get the more complicated models personally, but I do two important things about that line: they're "aspirational" and they are design-first. Seiko shouldn't change a thing, except perhaps for making it clear somehow that Credor's a Seiko brand. Maybe a discrete note on the case back, and something (anything?) on the Seiko website.

Grand Seiko

I get the sense that this is the high-end engineering product. The spring drive (which I understand is borrowed from Credor) is a marvel. But if so, I wonder at the "low-end" quartz models that seem to cost 1/5th of the high end of the range. What is the point? Isn't that what the Presage is for?

That said, I see this line as being the aspirational set of watches. I've literally spoken with another owner of a second-tier Seiko similar to my SARB033 who said, "Someday I'll have a Grand Seiko." I laughed and said, "Yeah, me too." But that's the idea—everyone who wears a "baby Grand Seiko" like mine is aware that Grand Seiko's out there. So I think the product association should remain, in the styles and names.

Presage


magnificent

Because I'm cheap (and not wealthy), the Presage line of watches is really my "aspirational" watch. I think these watches are as perfect as a watch has to be.

But why does the "basic line" within the Presage sub-brand exist? These watches have the same movements and are at the same prices as the higher-end main sequence of Seiko watches. Why dilute the Presage name? Also, who had the name "Presage" first, Seiko or Nissan?

summing up

Seiko I love you but you drive me crazy. This might just be a Japanese thing that I don't get, because I've seen it elsewhere in this country. The last time I checked they had sixty models on their Japanese site—and that didn't include in-model variants! The confusion of models and products lines at Seiko isn't as bad as Toyota's but it's there. Naturally, I'm no expert in marketing or watches, nor do I understand Seiko's strategy here. But that's really the point—as a consumer of their products I'm confused and I certainly didn't go into this thinking about product management, I just wanted a watch.

thoughts from others

Not long after I wrote this in November of 2020, I discovered the Youtube channel "Ben's Watch Club", which put the marketing failures of Seiko and similar traditional Japanese brands in context of the success of brands like Daniel Wellington which offer lower-quality products at higher prices but succeed due to savvy marketing.

 
 

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