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Tough act to follow

Audrey Simon
Audrey Simon • 10 min read
Tough act to follow
When G-Shock watches were launched about 30 years ago, Casio did not expect the business to become the huge phenomenon that it is today. Takashi Uema, general manager of the company’s timepieces sales promotion department, talks about the watch’s jour
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When G-Shock watches were launched about 30 years ago, Casio did not expect the business to become the huge phenomenon that it is today. Takashi Uema, general manager of the company’s timepieces sales promotion department, talks about the watch’s journey and the secret behind its success

(July 12): The conference table at Casio’s office in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo was scattered with models of G-Shock watches that were past collaborations with various partners. There was a Transformers watch, the Nigo G-Shock watches in neon colours and a McDonald’s burger tin containing a G-Shock DW-6900.

Takashi Uema, general manager of Casio’s timepieces sales promotion department, was all smiles as he picked up each watch and shared their backstories with the media during our recent visit to Japan. For example, he said G-Shock was approached by fast-food giant McDonald’s to develop a watch to help it celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Big Mac last year.

It was the perfect pairing, as G-Shock was celebrating its 35th anniversary. Uema says, “It was a joint anniversary and we wanted to do something interesting. We really gave a lot of attention to the details. It was sold on Japan’s McDonald’s website and all 1,000 pieces were sold within seconds.”

Collaborations and events are all part of Uema’s job, which he clearly enjoys. He explains that he and his team usually search for worthwhile collaborations and will approach the party they are interested to work with.

The Transformers watch is another 35th anniversary special. For this, Uema wanted to do something fun and interesting. The company started promoting the watch with a teaser video released a year before it was unveiled. He says, “We thought it was quite an interesting collaboration because G-Shock is made in Japan and Transformers is made in Japan too.” For this watch, a G-Shock DW6900 is placed inside Optimus Prime’s chest and, with a quick manipulation, it changes from a robot into a pedestal for the watch to sit on.

“We also talked to the author and creator of Transformers. He has the ability to look at certain objects and know that if he changes a certain part, it would become something different,” says Uema.

He says creating the Nigo G-Shock collection proved to be a challenge because, while Casio is used to producing thousands of watches, only 35 pieces of this model were released. This meant having to reconfigure its machines to produce only a few pieces. Nigo is a Japanese fashion designer, music producer and creator of urban clothing line BAPE (Bathing Ape). The collaboration with BAPE continues today with a range of camouflage watches.

Past collaborations that G-Shock has undertaken with various partners including Transformers (top) and Nigo in neon colours (bottom)

It is this marketing strategy that Uema uses to take G-Shock to a new level not only in Japan but on the world stage as well. “To grow the G-Shock brand, we had to communicate with sports fans, music fans, fashion fans as well as art and watch fans. Through fans in these four categories, we were able to increase the value of G-Shock. I think the secret to G-Shock’s success is marketing it through these four channels,” he says.

Uema, 54, joined Casio Computer in 1988 in the domestic sales division and worked his way up the ranks. In the early 1990s, he expanded G-Shock’s domestic sales dramatically and was also responsible for the launch and popularity of Baby-G watches.

With the help of a translator, Uema talks to Options about his plans for G-Shock as well as his career highlights.

You have been with Casio since 1988. What have been some of the highlights of your career so far?

The first highlight would be the beginning of 1990s, when there was a craze for G-Shock in Japan. I triggered that craze with the launch of the DW-5900 watch collection. Then in 1993, I was a founding member of the Baby-G watches. In 2006, there was the FIFA World Cup in Germany, for which I was involved in the product design and licensing agreements. For G-Shock’s 20th, 30th and 35th anniversaries, I was part of the event planning and production teams.

Over the years, has your job become interesting? More challenging or easier?

Working on G-Shock is a lot of fun. At the same time, it has become more challenging because we have a very complex branding strategy to follow. G-Shock started in Japan and, now, it has grown into a global brand.

[As a brand,] when you go to different countries, you will find that there are different values and different levels of brand awareness. There are local differences that you have to consider and we have to communicate the concept of the toughness of G-Shock.

Times have changed and one of the challenges facing the watch industry is that people now tell the time by looking at their smartphones. How has G-Shock adapted?

Smartphones have evolved and so it is more difficult to survive in the watch industry today. As a result, I believe the watch market will shrink, but I don’t think this shrinkage will continue forever… We have to focus more on the joy of owning a watch — the value of owning a watch.

What is the appeal of G-Shock watches?

G-Shock has this concept of toughness and this concept is quite important. The G-shock brand has used this concept for more than 30 years. Simply put, this is the most important thing about G-Shock. When I say toughness, it is not just the toughness of the product itself but also the tough mind of the person who wears the watch.

There have been many collaborations over the years and many fun projects. What happens when a collaboration takes place? How often do they take place and how necessary are they in helping to push the G-Shock brand?

Collaboration is a communication tool. As I said earlier, there are four types of fans: sports; music; fashion; arts and watch fans... We have to communicate to these people. Through these collaborations, we can reach out to these people; we can capture the minds and hearts of these fans.

What do you look for in a collaborator?

We first look for entities that are in trend, and the brand or person must have the power and energy in that specific industry or in the scene at that moment. Then we engage them in conversation and talk about the concept. We don’t want to do a collaboration for the sake of it; we want to collaborate with people who respect the concept and value of G-Shock.

Collaborations aside, you also do a lot of event partnerships. How important are these events? How do you select them?

We do have a lot of events and we have continued with the practice of holding events. Other than digital marketing and social media strategy, we see the real experience is quite important and that’s why we have continued with these events — so that people can enjoy the actual product and the world of G-Shock. Even when digital marketing is making advancements, we think events will continue to be important. So, we will focus more on these events.

Do you have to be young or young at heart to be in this job?

Yes. I have to be excited about the projects and I have to enjoy my job. Otherwise, the customers and fans won’t be excited.

In all your years working on G-Shock, what have you learnt about its fans?

There are many collectors and some of them are really big fans. They surprise me by how much love they give to G-Shock. This gives me great pressure, as I have to deliver more interesting things to make them happy.

Tokyo will host the 2020 Olympics; are we likely to see any collaborations?

When it comes to the Olympics, there are many issues related to licensing rights. So, we cannot do any-thing directly connected to the Olympics. But we have a G-Shock team of athletes and they will be involved in surfing, skating and more. So, we can work with these athletes on Team G-Shock watches. With them, we can come up with some sort of promotion campaign without infringing the Olympics copyright laws.

Kikuo Ibe is known as the father of G-Shock. What would you like to be known as?

Actually, I spoke to Ibe-san about this many times and I said to him, ‘You are known as the father of G-Shock; can I be the son?’ And he said no. I want to be known as the biggest fan of the fans of G-Shock.

Power of perseverance

Had it not been for Kikuo Ibe’s keen observation of things around him and a never-give-up attitude, the G-Shock watches by Casio — which was set up in 1946, specialising in calculators — would never have been made. Ibe is the man credited for creating this line of tough watches in 1983. G-Shock, or Gravitational Shock, was designed to withstand mechanical shock and vibration.

In the meeting room of Casio’s R&D office in Ozaku in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, where members of the Singaporean and Russian press had gathered, Ibe related the story of how G-Shock was born.

Through an animation video, Ibe — called the father of G-Shock — took the audience back to 1983, to a moment when he was walking by a group of construction workers digging the ground. Ibe thought to himself that, with all that vibration, it would be impossible for them to wear a watch. At the same time, Ibe had dropped his own watch and it stopped working. This made him even more determined to produce a tough watch.

Thus began Ibe’s quest to make a watch that could survive all sorts of conditions. The journey was just as tough. At the time, he says, the trend was to make watches with slim cases — something he was not prepared to do. He says, “A watch should be treated with care. So, I decided to develop a tough watch that would not break even if it were dropped from a great height.”

At Casio’s watch factory earlier, we had seen watches being dropped from as high as two floors and they continued to tick. In the early days, Ibe had his own method of testing. He says, “I decided to test the watch in a secret place — the toilet in my office. I threw watches wrapped in rubber from the third floor toilet.” This was met with laughter by everyone in the room.

As the number of rubber coatings increased, the watch remained intact but, as Ibe says, who wants to wear a watch the size of a basketball? He recalls, “I realised my idea was totally unrealistic. I tried so hard to find a solution and, if I failed, I was prepared to resign from the company. I would think about this at the office day and night. But I decided to never, never, never give up.”

Then, one day, Ibe saw a little girl bouncing a rubber ball; he realised that shock resistance could be achieved by manipulating the watch case’s material and structure. With this breakthrough, the development of the shockproof watch progressed rapidly and the first G-Shock, the resin-clad DW-5000C, was released in 1983.

This brilliant idea marked the beginning of more watches to come and, yet, Ibe still does not carry a smart phone and says he is happy with his flip-top phone. He destresses by gardening.

Asked whether he was working on new projects, Ibe lets on that he wants to make a watch that can withstand the extreme conditions of space. With his never-give-up attitude, it would be no surprise if Ibe sees his dream fulfilled.

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