Question: how many of us bought our first Rolex influenced by old adverts in National Geographic magazine?
I appreciate that contemporary ads still appear in the magazine today, alongside endless images of George Clooney with “his choice” of Omega, but the current iteration of Rolex adverts falls short when compared to the classics of the 1980s and 1990s.
They no longer inspire.
Back in the day a stainless Rolex was regarded as a tool watch. Admittedly a very high end one, but a tool watch nonetheless. In the late 80s I asked a Commander in the Royal Navy why he had selected a Rolex Submariner? “Because it works”; was his short response. That watch was a 16800 matte dial and was the first Submariner I had ever handled. Something sparked in me as the Commander went on to tactfully explain why his Rolex was a superior machine to my own watch. It was a revelation.
Rolex Submariner dial macro - Credit WatchGecko
Stationed in the Sultanate of Oman with not much to do during free time I started to read National Geographic avidly. Not only were new issues delivered monthly but there was a stack of yellow magazines in the mess so high it would take a full tour of duty to get through them. Before long, the first thing I turned to was not tales of lost tribes in the Amazon, but the wonderful Rolex adverts that appeared regularly inside the front cover.
I became mildly obsessed with the brand and how fundamentally different it was in both terms of construction and capability to the watch I owned. Each advert seemed so exciting and involved adventurous souls braving the most hostile environments on Earth. From the epic 57 day Steger North Pole Expedition where the team wore GMT Masters in -70C, to the Comex dive team operating at 520 meters with Sea Dwellers or the National Geographic staff themselves charting the deserts of Oman with the aid of Explorer IIs.
The fact that one advert was set in Oman was the final trigger for me and before long I was sporting a 14000 Non-Chronometer Air King; a watch right at the top of my budget. These were great days. I learned how an automatic movement worked, what made an Oyster case so strong, discovered the joy of quality lume and the difference between a Twin-Lock and Trip-Lock crown. The cherry on the cake was my favourite fictional secret agent wore a Rolex as he battled criminals hell bent on world domination. The brand had me hook, line and sinker.
Original National Geographic Rolex Advert for the Explorer II - with my Explorer II - Credit WatchGecko
Fast forward to 2023…
This week, from a popular auction website, I bought a single cut out page from a 1989 National Geographic magazine which has been perfectly preserved. It is the original Rolex Explorer II Oman desert advert and shows National Geographic staff mapping the sand sea in Oman – The Wahiba Sands. I have been into Wahiba many times and flown very low over it. It is one of the most stunning places I have ever seen and there is no better environment to challenge your Rolex. At the base of the advert is an image of a Polar white dial Explorer II 16570. When the A4 package arrived on opening I had a rush of memories; 21st birthday in desert sands, my old Land Rover and my first Rolex.
At the start of the adventure in Oman with my first Rolex Air King just visible - Credit WatchGecko
But then frustration crept in.
There is a certain demographic of buyer who have put Rolex in the position they are now. I am one of them. Of course we were not the only buyers but we were a serious part of their continued success and, to put it bluntly, I feel shafted!
The whole point of this lengthy intro to a personal opinion piece was to illustrate why I, and so many of my friends and colleagues, bought a Rolex. And now we feel that as a demographic of customer Rolex is no longer interested in us. Is it out of vogue to show fur clad men trekking across the ice cap? I know I am not alone in this feeling; several of my contemporaries stand with me. Today Rolex seems more interested if influencers are wearing their watch or what rapper has added the world “Roller” to his latest multi-million download hit. I’m not naïve here, Rolex needs to move with the times and they are running a serious commercial venture but I would argue it is dangerous to pass over some of your loyal buyers from the past – I am on my third Rolex and have never been so disheartened by them.
Beautiful lume of the Explorer - Credit WatchGecko
Another question: how many times have you heard in watch chats “I own a Rolex but probably wouldn’t buy another. I’d buy a Tudor or – just something else”. I can tell from within the industry, it happens quite a lot.
Talking of which, how does the wider industry perceive this?
At a RedBar event in 2022 I was lucky to spend some quality time with a senior member of the marketing team of a Tier 1 watch company. I won’t say the name but they have an adventurous image, are internationally highly regarded, with a huge product portfolio ranging from £3,000 to £20,000.
We were having this very conversation about Rolex and he freely admitted they too (the company) had noticed the problem and were openly trying to lure disenfranchised Rolex customers. Hence they had selected their partnerships, film and TV placements and brand ambassadors very carefully, intentionally appealing to a specific demographic of buyer.
My argument seems further borne out by the very dull Rolex adverts which now appear in the hallowed pages of National Geographic. They are either a watch on their own with no story, too many images of Roger Federer, Anna Ivanovic or Michael Bublé. Clearly very talented and successful people, but none of them make me want to buy a Rolex for my forthcoming trip to North Africa.
Rolex Date ready for action on a ZULUDIVER Classic Bond British Military Nylon - Credit WatchGecko
And I should want to buy one! Through all of this I cannot deny that Rolex is still one of the best tool watches money can buy. The product is exceptional. The Submariner, Sea Dweller, Explorer and GMT are epic pieces. Outrageously expensive but undeniably inspirational. I should want to buy a new 36mm Explorer to accompany me on my adventure but Rolex don’t seem to want to encourage me. Please Rolex, you need to woo us, put us in a position where we would never say “I own a Rolex but probably wouldn’t buy another”.
Never forget we loved your product, we loved your brand ethos and there is still a large swathe of customers who like to see their high end kit being used where it was meant to be. Whether in the Wahabi Sands, the Ross Ice Shelf or down in the Challenger Deep we know our Rolex’s can take the punishment and we simply love to hear stories about such adventures. Give us a marketing campaign we can get into. Like Omega does every year to make us want a Speedmaster Moonwatch. You have this incredible exploration history, start using it again or, even better, create new adventures.