Ahead of the quarter finals, it’s already been an amazing football World Cup on the pitch. The group stages were electrified with shock results and epic comebacks, while the round of 16 enjoyed an avalanche of 25 goals in six games. Off the pitch meanwhile, it’s proved to be the most wildly contentious World Cup of all time due, in part, to the unavoidable spectre of Qatar’s human rights record, and the dismal vacillation of FIFA over whether team captains could wear LGBTQ+ armbands to protest against the illegality of homosexuality in the host nation. Yet football and politics aside, one undeniable winner has emerged from the Qatar World Cup, in the shape of the tournament’s official timekeeper, Hublot.
The Swiss watch brand started its relationship with the World Cup back in South Africa (2010), subsequently following up with a similar role at Brazil (2014), Russia (2018) and now Qatar. It was a bold move for Hublot to jump into football. Most luxury watch brands prefer to align with “premium sports” to reflect their high-end status – think golf, tennis, Formula One, sailing and anything involving horses. Yet no brand had made a serious move into football – the biggest spectator sport of them all. Asked why “the world game” had been overlooked by top watch brands in this way, Hublot’s managing director Ricardo Guadalupe gave a blunt reply. “They feared that it’s too cheap, that it’s not luxurious enough,” he said.
But while some watch brands sniffily deigned football to be too mass-market and redolent of the hoi polloi, Hublot had the vision to see things differently. The brand were looking for a sport, Mr Guadalupe explains, “to drive brand awareness, to make Hublot better known”. They recognised that football had the power to reach a colossal worldwide audience.
And so it proved. Some 3.57 billion – more than half of the global population aged four and over – caught a game on TV during the last World Cup. In the process, they were also exposed to Hublot. For throughout every match, the brand lurks in the viewers’ peripheral vision. The digital boards held by the match officials to signal extra time and player substitutions are not only emblazoned with the Hublot brand name, they’re also designed to physically resemble the distinctive case shape of their most famous model, the Big Bang.
Aided by their sponsorship of the game’s superstars including France’s Kylian Mbappé and the late Diego Maradona, football helped to supercharge Hublot’s brand awareness. During the 2018 World Cup, Chrono24 – the world’s biggest trading platform for pre-owned watches – tracked their site traffic for Hublot during several key games. “The numbers don’t lie,” the online retailer said in a statement. “Every time a player is substituted, the world can see the official’s substitution board and Hublot’s page views rise immediately and significantly.”
When I saw Mr Guadalupe in Qatar at the Hublot Villa – a palatial beachfront home with a magnificent pool with the brand’s name tiled on the bottom – he confirmed that Hublot’s online retail is enjoying a similar boom during the World Cup. “We see an increase,” he said with a smile.
The last time I’d seen Mr Guadalupe back in March at the Watches & Wonder fair in Geneva, he admitted some remained sceptical about Hublot’s footballing game-plan. Despite football’s mind-boggling audience, there were those within the industry that believed these spectators are hardly the target market for the brand’s watches that start at $10,000 and can literally go into the millions. “People think that football is a popular sport and it’s true – billions watch it,” he said. “People think they [the viewers] will not be able to buy a Hublot watch because it’s far too expensive. But within these people, there are also our consumers.”
Yet the Qatar World Cup has contrived to align these footballing spectators with Hublot’s customer base more closely than ever before. This, after all, is the most expensive tournament to attend of all time. A study by Keller Sports found that match tickets cost nearly 40% more than at the 2018 World Cup. Then there are the prohibitive costs facing any fan travelling to Doha where a pint of beer costs more than $20 and travel and accommodation costs are also sky-high. As a result, the typical football supporter has been priced out in favour of a more moneyed type of fan.
This, of course, is all down to the dubious wisdom of FIFA, yet Hublot have inadvertently reaped the rewards. The high cost of entry to this World Cup means Doha is full of cashed-up fans and Hublot sales in the host city have consequently rocketed.
“Absolutely,” says Mr Guadalupe when I ask him if the World Cup’s controversial location this year has boosted sales. “This year is even more focused on our potential audience. We have a Hublot boutique in the airport and we have two in Doha and the sales compared to last year are four to five times more than they were last month.”
As a football tournament, Qatar 2022 will always be remembered with the requisite ethical asterisks. But for anyone connected, it continues to prove a memorable World Cup in multiple ways.