Christoph Grainger-Herr, CEO of IWC Schaffhausen, on finding new ways to engage with customers and watch enthusiasts

(Nov 11): We jumped on our bikes with our customers and did the 55km ride to Changi and back,” says Christoph Grainger-Herr about the first thing he did when he arrived in Singapore for the Grand Prix weekend in September this year.

For the CEO of IWC Schaffhausen, it was just another day connecting with customers. In this case, it was with watch enthusiasts who love not only the “engineering” of IWC watches but also that of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula 1 cars. IWC has been an official partner of the motorsport team since 2013, which gives IWC-buying motorsport fans the chance to rub shoulders with the who’s who of the racing world. This time it was with drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.

“This is part of the relationship today, focusing on our customers and the experience they can have with a brand that goes so much further than just buying a watch from us,” says Grainger-Herr.

With this vision of creating varied touchpoints with customers, Grainger-Herr and his team at IWC have been evolving and elevating the IWC experience and its global retail concept. The concept has just this year been unveiled at the new flagship boutique at Marina Bay Sands (MBS).

The new IWC boutique tells the stories of the six watch families through feature walls and custom display showcases, while maintaining the soft-greys and glossy Macassar wood that are the staple of other global IWC boutiques

While IWC is not new to the Shoppes at MBS, the boutique has been given more than just a little upgrade, as it vacated its original location at basement one for a larger and more prominent one at basement two.

“At IWC, we have had a big revolution in retail,” says Grainger-Herr of the new Singapore boutique. “We’re always trying to combine two things: the engineering of watches — and we’re talking about product and functionality movements — and the storytelling.” This love for storytelling is seen in many of the IWC boutiques across the globe.

In closer connection

About eight years ago, Grainger-Herr, a former architect and interior design student, decided to rethink IWC’s retail offering and make the shift towards “social spaces”. Since then, IWC’s architects have been creating subtly unique, architecture- and site-specific design concepts all around the world.

The IWC Beverly Hills boutique, with its art deco­-inspired interior, is a nod to old Hollywood glamour. The London boutique also takes inspiration from the art deco exterior of its home at 138 New Bond Street. The Munich boutique was inspired by a Bavarian townhouse and includes a beer garden lounge. Each design tells a story about the space the boutique occupies and its city.

“The previous [retail] concept almost overshadowed the presence of the watches,” says Grainger-Herr. “[With] this [new] concept, we’ve actually changed the set-up, so that despite the storytelling for the product families, the focus is also very clearly on the products themselves.”

As visitors enter the new IWC flagship boutique at MBS, they will immediately be struck by the larger­-than-life Perpetual Calendar mechanism. The centrepiece pays tribute to the engineering legacy of the watchmaker, which was founded in 1868. The boutique tells the stories of the six watch families — Pilot’s Watches, Portofino, Portugieser, Aquatimer, Da Vinci and Ingenieur — through feature walls and custom display showcases, while maintaining the soft-greys and glossy Macassar wood that are the staple of other global IWC boutiques.

“Here, in a shopping mall environment, we have a full corporate concept,” says Grainger-Herr. It differs from the architecture- or heritage-driven concepts of the street boutiques such as those in London and Munich. However, the social aspect of the MBS boutique was not forgotten. Hidden behind the Perpetual Calendar centrepiece is a lounge area, complete with leather armchairs, a whiskey library, bottles of gin and beautifully crafted serving glasses. 

“We added a lot of hospitality settings [to our new boutiques], such as this lounge and bar,” says Grainger-Herr, “where our clients can interact with our team. We think that’s really the whole point to having retail stores — the fact that we can have a very direct connection to our clients. This becomes a social space for the relationships and friendships that we have.”

The gift of time

Globally, retailers have had to deal with new trends such as online-to-offline commerce while facing increasing online consumer demand, but Grainger-Herr believes in driving the luxury brand forward through deeper relationships and creating special moments in time.

“People who buy mechanical watches buy a ­non-essential, highly emotional product that has a lot of meaning and symbolism,” he says. “What a piece of jewellery or watch means to them, what it says about them, or how they remember the moment when they might have bought or been gifted it, is as equally important as the product itself. We are completely fine with our clients buying online, offline, multi-brand retail or here with us in the boutique. But what we can do [in the boutique] is to really have that very, very personal relationship element.”

While the topic of digitalisation and smartwatches is always a nuanced one for mechanical watchmakers such as IWC, Grainger-Herr appreciates the opportunities from digital consumption demand and the democratisation of dialoguing with consumers through social media.

“Apart from the downside of our being maybe a little too addicted to online consumption and social media, one very good thing is that everybody today can reach me or the team 24/7,” says Grainger-Herr. “If you go into my Instagram profile, you have my mobile number and email address. You can just pick up the phone and speak to us all the time. The proximity has decreased tremendously between the customer and us as a brand.”

The dapper CEO, who is not afraid of showing up in a three-piece suit in sweltering Singapore, has more than 28,000 followers on Instagram (@­chrisgraingerherr). While it would not be difficult to fill his newsfeed with glitzy images of hobnobbing with celebrities such as Cate Blanchett, Dev Patel and Bradley Cooper, Grainger-Herr prefers to show off his watches, his teams and IWC’s unique customer experiences.

“What consumers are really looking for is a clear differentiation. You want a product that clearly stands for something, and the clear differentiated identity that we have in the watch industry — with our American founder, the engineering approach and these utilitarian-designed, reduced-expression, sober instrument pieces — tells a great story,” says Grainger-Herr.

“And then, a richness of experience. We try to have the relationships, events, ambassadors and activities, so that people can experience the whole world with us,” he adds.

A new facility

Grainger-Herr’s willingness to open up and share the IWC experience with more people is most apparent in the opening of the IWC Manufakturzentrum at the Schaffhausen home base last year. The opening coincided with the watch brand’s 150th anniversary.

“[It was] the first time since 1868 that we built a new facility from the ground up. It was designed to not only give us the efficiency and flexibility to innovate in the way we manufacture our watches but also to build a visitor experience. [It is] where our guests can understand how a bar of metal is turned into a watch movement and a watch case,” says Grainger-Herr.

“This was really important to me because, in many places in the industry and in all our previous manufactures, visitors are always an afterthought. For the first time, we said: No, we want to work on two streams. We want to make sure we have manufacturing that works, from an ergonomic manufacturing perspective, and also tell a story of how watches come into being.”

The new state-of-the-art facility has already produced two in-house movements — the 69000 calibre family chronograph movement and the 32000 calibre family automatic movement — both of which can be found in this year’s Pilot’s Watches Spitfire line.

Rounding out Grainger-Herr’s reign at IWC is his drive for sustainability, recently recognised in WWF’s Watch and Jewellery Report 2018. In the report, IWC was acknowledged for implementing sustainability measures across its value chain and openly publishing the amounts of main raw materials such as steel, gold and diamonds used, ­reinforcing Grainger-Herr’s inherent push for openness, honesty and transparency.

“[In the WWF study], IWC came out way in front in the Swiss watch industry, because we have been releasing a sustainability report that is very open about our sourcing. It also identifies where we’re still improving,” says Grainger-Herr. “It’s so important to have a chain of custody, where people can really understand where the materials are coming from, how sourcing is done and in what conditions we produce, where we produce, how we produce. This openness is really important in a product that is created to make you feel good. You shouldn’t feel anything negative.”

From left: IWC Southeast Asia managing director Stanislas Rambaud, Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport F1 Team principal and CEO Toto Wolff and Grainger-Herr

So, what’s next then for the CEO? “First of all, I want to make sure we have the fundamentals right,” Grainger-Herr says emphatically. “If we can produce very high-quality watches, with a good level of innovation and great storytelling, and give our clients great value for money, then it’s a case of building the awareness for IWC in the key markets. The focus for me is the US and Asia — build it further there and make sure we develop the same presence that we have in top markets such as Korea and Switzerland. And that is why in the next five years, there is great potential for IWC to really become one of the leading watch brands.”

Stacey Rodrigues is a freelance editorial consultant who believes that every great story starts with a glass of wine