A Premier League: TAG Heuer x Manchester UnitedBy Wei Koh
It was the flashpoint — the gasoline-soaked rag in a bottle that ignited the Manchester music scene and helped instigate one of the most seminal periods of musical creativity in the late 20th century. In 1976, at the invitation of the Buzzcocks’ Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley, the world’s most notorious band; the Antichrists of pop culture born out of the twisted imagination of Malcolm McLaren; the oft-imitated but never equaled Sex Pistols, took the stage at Lesser Free Trade Hall. And as their sonic deluge washed over the tiny crowd of 42 people, something clicked in the minds of those bearing witness to the act of depraved, teeth-gnashing, fist-pumping, safety-pinned and razor-bladed musical originality beneath the spotlights. From this irreparable break with the past, the first seeds of germination were born in the creators of New Order, Joy Division and the Smiths, that would ultimately culminate in the creation of Oasis.
Where Legends Are Made
From a football perspective, the 1970s was also an era of change for the city of Manchester, signaling the peaking career of Northern Irishman George Best, Manchester United’s legendary winger. Arguably the most glamorous footballer of all time, Best, whose inimitable skill was rivaled only by the extraordinary excesses of his carnal appetites, was the symbol of Manchester United in the ’60s and early ’70s.
But as the calendar clicked over to the 1980s, and as the Manchester ecstasy- and music-fueled club scene became renowned the world over, a new footballer rose at Manchester United — a brooding six-foot-two Frenchman hailing from the criminally-infested coastal city of Marseille. And although he came to predominance a full decade and a half after the Sex Pistols rocked the northern city to its foundation, he proved to be more punk rock than any athlete who had ever lived.
In 1994, poised to lead Manchester United to its third successive league title, while at an away match at Crystal Palace, Cantona was sent off for undue aggression towards defender Richard Shaw, but only as a result of Shaw first manhandling his jersey. As he stalked towards the tunnel leading to the dressing room, a fan named Matthew Simmons ran 11 rows down to the very front of the stands and proceeded to scream racial epithets at Cantona. His response? A phenomenal kung‑fu style kick to the face of Simmons. Cantona then proceeded to use the hapless and over-enthused fan’s face as a punching bag until he was pulled off by security. Following his ban, and an upturned prison sentence, a press conference was held where the assembled journalists awaited his statement of apology with hushed nervous anticipation. They never got it. Cantona showed up, looked everyone in the eye, and then in the greatest act of surrealist communication merged with spoken-word poetry, stated with great deliberation: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, they think it is because sardines will be thrown into the sea.” Mic drop. Cantona was done and out of there.
The point to all this is that Manchester the city and Manchester United the football team are far more than a British destination and a sporting club; they are a cultural phenomenon. Both of which reached unrivaled heights in the ’90s with the golden age of house music and the Sir Alex Ferguson era of bombastic success resulting, when the smoke cleared, in a sporting club valued in excess of 1.2 billion pounds. And as Jean-Claude Biver, the Swiss watch industry’s savviest marketing man and greatest living genius took on the leadership role at TAG Heuer, the maker of the greatest timing instruments of the 20th century, he decided to expand the brand’s association beyond high-performance motorsports to include the world’s most famous football club.
When asked why Manchester United was at the center of his crosshairs for collaboration, Biver replied, “My underlying philosophy for all of my watch brands [at LVMH Group] is as follows. For me, there is a king and that is my customer. And there is a queen and that is my product. My job is to make them fall in love.” Indeed, with every conceivable high-profile association from Muhammad Ali, to Usain Bolt, to Coachella, Biver’s lightning-fast marketing reflexes have given him first-mover advantage and left his competition playing a hapless game of catch-up.
He continued, “Football is one of the most important sports on the planet, in particular for young people, who are the audience for TAG Heuer, not only with our mechanical watches, but also with our Connected watch. And when it comes to football, there is no name more prestigious and recognized than Manchester United. When you say the name ‘Manchester United’, people immediately think of the most legendary players on earth, from Best to Cantona, to Beckham to Rooney to Ibrahimović. And very importantly, Manchester United fans come from all around the world. China has a huge Manchester United following, so by associating with the club, we gain their following in Asia. We receive transferred prestige from them in China.”
The veracity of Biver’s statement rang unerringly and resoundingly true when I attended a Manchester United vs. Chelsea match at Old Trafford earlier this year. Around me was a sea of red jerseys. But the people occupying them were of every conceivable ethnicity — Africans, Middle Easterners, Thais, mainland Chinese fans — all intermingled with the local British loyalists, all singing the Manchester United songs with the crazed devotion of religious zealots, screaming in unison with unbridled joy, hugging each other at the occurrence of each goal. Biver chuckles when I mention this, stating, “That’s what I love about sport: the fact that it unites people through love, the fact that it transcends language, religion and race. That’s the energy, that’s the emotion I want to connect my brands and my watches to.”
A Premier Partnership
The latest Manchester United watches created in exclusive collaboration with TAG Heuer are the black and red themed Carrera Heuer-01 Chrono Red Devil Limited Edition and the Formula 1 Chrono Quartz Special Edition. And though they’ve proven highly successful watches that fully express the team’s colors with an appealing mash-up of aesthetic elements, what they represent as part of the smartest marketing strategy of any luxury brand, in any luxury market, in any part of the world, is of far greater significance than you may first think. Because who doesn’t want to be treated like a king, and to have luxury watches made by one of the industry’s most recognizable names appeal to you, because they’ve been engineered to understand precisely what your taste predilections and cultural obsessions are?
Two years ago, Pope Francis, leader of the Roman Catholic Church, traveled the world to meet people from Catholic and non-Catholic countries. When asked why, he replied, “Because the era of authority is over and the era of persuasion has begun.” Jean-Claude Biver, through TAG Heuer, through Manchester United, has demonstrated that he understands this perfectly. (Although, bear in mind, this is just one aspect of TAG Heuer, which is simultaneously one of the world’s most technically innovative brands.)
Now, if they’d just make a watch with Morrissey.