The manipulative grifting of “affordable luxury” brands is even more insidious than you may think, echoing the populist political rhetoric sweeping the world today.
The best thing about this free-market utopia we live in is the luxury of choice. Oh, baby, we’ve got so much damn choice, and all we have to do as consumers is weigh it all up and make an informed decision. The only problem is that people can, you know, straight-up buy your ability to make an informed decision, by funnelling money into pervasive and manipulative ad campaigns, thereby essentially rendering the market a plutocratic nightmare of misinformation, but hey- look at all these branded “Alibaba” chronographs we have to choose from, am I right?
Look, I wasn’t born yesterday- I know that, in the wretched “hive of scum and villainy” that is the “affordable luxury” world, the grift never ends. There’s a reason I just wear a little £20 Casio nowadays.
I tapped out.
It’s an issue that’s arguably been done to death in the enthusiast community Unfortunately, Vincero has caught my attention – or rather, their marketing team have purchased my attention, by getting their ads tagged onto the front of seemingly every monetized video containing the word “watch”, from Hodinkee downwards. Well hey, I’d hate for you to have wasted that marketing dollar, Vincero, so let me give you my undivided attention, for at least a few minutes. After all, you folks out there aren’t going to get the real story from Teddy Baldassare- it’s not his fault, he’s a good kid, but he isn’t Scottish.
There will be no polite diplomacy here.
To quote Sam Neill in Event Horizon: “hell is only a word. The reality is much, much worse. Let me show you.”
Vincero are, in essence, the same as every other cabal of business graduates who arbitrarily pick a profitable industry they know little-to-nothing about, and loudly announce their intention to “shake it up”. These kinds of startups are exercises in reality-shaping and re-framing. They operate on identical cost-cutting business models heavily reliant on Chinese outsourcing and compete to see who can most successfully make it look as game-changing, cutting-edge pursuit worthy of relatively premium RRPs as possible.
In the “fashion watch” sphere, the model is well-established, with MVMT arguably representing its trailblazers you either simply re-brand $10 AliExpress watches, or liaise with agencies who shop around various Chinese manufacturers for you to assemble a product, with the theoretical possibility of moving closer to vertical integration as your brand grows. Those press photos you’ll see of the team at (insert brand here) poring over blueprints and prototypes aren’t posed per se, but I’m prepared to wager that you’re frequently looking at people inspecting factory inventories, not designing products from the ground-up as is often heavily implied.
You could charitably argue that it’s all very Wilsdorf-and-Davis, but I’d argue this isn’t 1905, and nobody’s innovating here. Rather, it’s a wholly methodical exercise divorced from genuine heritage, craftsmanship and technical innovation, it can only come down to pure branding, with gullible consumers merely points to be scored and short-term revenue to be generated. Uniform rhetoric prevails across the board head to the “Our Story” tab of any one of these brands, and get ready for an avalanche of slimy sanctimony. “What is it with all these expensive watches”, they all invariably ask in feigned incredulity, “why do they have to be so expensive? Well don’t worry, 99 percenter, we’re fairly priced and cut out the middlemen, not like those other brands.”
Marketing types can be devious like that. Doublespeak is merely a tool, to be used liberally in the battlefields of saturated markets. Buying a bunch of wholesale chronographs from a Chinese factory? Well, we call that “sourcing the finest parts in China”. Oh, there’s Miyotas in them? Well, that’s a “Japanese movement”, right? And while we’re at it, I guess we’re “sourcing materials from around the world” now, too. This, for me, is where things get darker and darker.
We know that, in theory, fashion watches have the right to exist, and are merely filling the void where more clueless “real watch” brands like Seiko and Orient have failed to meet the Instagram age head-on. We’ve heard the argument that fashion watch brands are a cheap-and-nasty gateway drug for would-be enthusiasts. I can begrudgingly accept that crappy landfill-fodder is simply endemic in our present-day consumerist hellscape. I have a far harder time accepting the sheer prevalence of exhausting, manipulative bulls**t.
The extent to which Vincero fit into the extant “Chinese outsourcing” model is unclear, and I would wager this is by design. They are adamant that their designs are in-house, but their website’s masthead doesn’t have a single product designer or on it; the implication being that they are rather sub-contracting ODMs (Original Design Manufacturers) in China, perhaps even the in-house design teams of the factories they use. The fact that their flagship Chrono S can be purchased for a tenner apiece from the official Alibaba store of Shenzhen Yonghao Watch & Clock Co., Ltd would certainly point to a design that is not proprietary. The specifics arguably don’t matter, however, and speculating endlessly doesn’t help anyone- it’s also, one could argue, unfair on Vincero themselves.
Spot the difference.
I want to make it clear that there’s nothing inherently wrong with a brand working with outsourced professionals to painstakingly work on finalizing products to their specifications, as the “Our Process” section of their website appears to claim. Likewise, it’s entirely plausible that Vincero do, as they claim, spend more time and money than many of their immediate competitors when it comes to shopping around to partner with the best factories they can find, and selecting the best materials offered to them. All three Vincero founders have credible histories of working in China, specifically Guangdong, from founding and directing holding companies to exporting wine, so I have no doubt they have a keen understanding of how to play that field, and I’m sure we’d all very much agree that the idea that all Chinese manufacturers are poor quality, and subject their workers to horrific working conditions, is a grossly unfair generalisation. Hell, I’ll go so far as to concede that Vincero have likely paid their dues on a level above the Jake Kassans and Kramer LaPlantes of the world. Even if they appear to be offering a range of “in house” services that truly stretch the definition of “in house” (using someone else’s “house” still counts, right?), at least they’re not outright dropshipping The real problem is that Vincero seemingly want to convince you that they can be all things to all people, and aren’t afraid to take the low road to get there.
“Around here, we believe in dreaming big.” Vincero’s online manifesto almost reads like a parody, the drunken ramblings of a douchebag entrepreneur-bro who won’t leave you alone at the bar. You could replace “watches” with “minimalist wallets” or “soup cups” with little effort. The sheer aggression of their advertising rhetoric would probably make even the most self-aggrandizing Swiss C.E.O go “steady on, mate, it’s just a f***ing watch”. Every conceivable mantra is spewed at dizzying speed. “Keep pushing forward”. “Rise and grind”. “Stay inspired”. “Find your pace”. “Live your legacy”. It’s relentless. It pushes the envelope of marketing vapidity. It’s actually kind of impressive in its utter abandonment of all self-awareness. But it wouldn’t be that big a deal if Vincero were content to scream “LIVE LAUGH LOVE” at the sky for all eternity and leave the rest of us the f**k alone. No, unfortunately, they’ve got beef. With seemingly everyone.
One of Vincero’s more notorious video ads features co-founder Tim Nybo in an echoey room, decrying the state of the watch industry, dominated as it is by a handful of stale old brands who, as far as he’s concerned, have failed to innovate on their technology and designs. Implicitly shooting at the Rolexes and Omegas of the world with a handful £200 quartz chronographs? Sneak dissing? The nerve. The audacity. Thing is, Nybo isn’t an idiot. He fully understands that neoliberal capitalism tends inevitably towards monopoly, and he understands that being a vertically-integrated Swiss manufacture is necessarily a more expensive affair than offshore subcontracting. He knows, too, that comparing Vinceros to Rolexes is comparing apples to aeroplanes. However, he’s betting on you not knowing any of that.
Even more notorious is an upload to Vincero’s own YouTube channel entitled “You’re Not A Sheep” (no, I’m not kidding), currently sitting at over one million views.
The ad seems to be a pretty naked attempt to emulate the success of the goofy and snappily-edited marketing of William Painter sunglasses. In much the same way as William Painter, the ad attempts to position Vincero as the streetwise middle ground between their cheap and nasty peers and the overpriced establishment. Amusingly, William Painter is an eerily similar story of a brand who aggressively flooded the internet with viral marketing and paid reviews, ultimately masking a product that was apparently rife with quality issues. I can see why the Vincero team were drawn to them. In “You’re Not A Sheep”, a handsome actor dude with gigantic ears loudly decries “minimalist, over-priced and boring” fashion watches from brands “with trendy names without vowels”, who “sell cheap products with an inflated price tag”, all the while reminding you that you, the viewer, are not the kind of sheep who would fall for such a thing, with some real 1950s advertising energy. That’s right, not content with coming for the likes of Rolex and Omega, Vincero want to come for MVMT, too. Even if Vincero’s products were actually *good*, active misanthropy is a sketchy long-term business strategy- unless you’re Rolex, I guess.
You’re probably seeing a pattern emerge. Vincero clearly know they aren’t truly creating “luxury” products- hell, even Jake Kassan from MVMT saw the sense in openly conceding this about his product when our boy Teddy confronted him about it. As I’ve already mentioned, they know exactly why they can make their product as cheap as it is (if we’re to make charitable assumptions about their markups). Likewise, they know that their products aren’t even remotely innovative in their designs and technical attributes, nor manufactured in a fashion that is vastly different to their peers, and certainly not to the standards of “vertical integration” they allude to on their website. Furthermore, they’re no doubt aware that taking aim at brands like MVMT is, really, throwing stones in a glass house that they just moved into.
All of these technicalities are irrelevant, however, if you can use your accrued capital to unleash a smokescreen of vapid hyperbole that obscures them entirely, and this is the era of Trump, Bolsonaro and Boris in a nutshell. The truth weighs nothing, and thus it has no weight: rather, the louder you speak, the more control you exert over the narrative. When the Donald tells his followers that the game is rigged against them by elites, there’s a grain of truth to it all: he just stops short of admitting that he’s one of those elites, too. Roll your eyes at such a comparison if you like, but I truly can’t help but think that the rapid normalization of populist rhetoric has influenced, or perhaps just exposed, the reality-bending tactics of powerful brands, and the well is being poisoned to an extent that I’m losing all patience with; Vincero, with their relentless self-congratulating and audacious attacks on everyone around them, have taken this garbage state of affairs to its absolute nadir.
You may have noticed that I haven’t talked much about the poor quality of Vincero’s watches, as other people have already done so again and again and again. Not that you’d necessarily know, as most such coverage has been utterly Google-bombed out of existence by a deluge of paid reviews like this particularly egregious copy-paste effort from I Know Watches (hey, whatever keeps the lights on I guess). Good luck making an informed decision as a consumer if you’re not clued up on how this racket works: it’s genuinely quite difficult to find honest, or at least critical, reviews of their watches, to the point that “Where can I find honest reviews of Vincero products” is literally in the FAQ section of Vincero’s website. The whitewashing extended to YouTube, too, but at the time of writing its ever-shifting algorithm seems to be favouring more honest reviews from the likes of Ben Arthur and Watch Lad. Some small solace.
The funny thing about “affordable luxury”, aside from the fact it’s arguably an oxymoron, is that the makers of life’s little affordable luxuries don’t need to pour insane amounts of money into Ministry of Love brainwashing exercises to force you to see their products as such. Their virtues are more self-evident than that. They create products that know exactly what they are, and they let them be, whether it’s a Swatch Jellyfish or an Horage Tourbillon 1. I wasn’t kidding about my little classic Casio. It knows exactly what it is. It rolled off the conveyor belts of a brand that makes calculators and stuff. It’s cheap as hell, and I didn’t *need* to buy it, but it fulfills its quaint functions reliably and it looks cracking. There’s no romance, but there’s no pretense. All in all, it may as well be a Vincero, except nobody’s screaming “LIVE YOUR DREAMS” in my face and I’m not £200 out of pocket. Don’t let some bros in San Diego exploit your financial and social insecurities to dupe you into shelling out for overpriced junk. Live your dreams. Live your legacy. Shake up the industry: don’t buy a Vincero.
Edwin McLachlan is a musician and audio engineer based in Edinburgh’s bustling city centre, with a particular fondness for Soviet, Chinese and Japanese watchmakers. You can Instagram him at @edwin_mclachlan, and work with him at www.edwinmclachlan.com.