A Labyrinth of Shadows

The Interplay Between Media, Market, and Brand

by Carlos Perez

January 21, 2002


“To them,” I said, “the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of
the images.”

– Socrates

It has often been said that “perception is reality.” While implied, it might be more clearly said that my perception is my reality. For none of us experience reality directly, but through a complex filter of what we believe, what we have been told, what we see, and what we have experienced – and how we interpret that experience through the polar conflict of thought and emotion. This problem of truth and perception is one that has concerned philosophers for millennia. After all, “What is truth?”

Beyond these sophomoric musings, we now find that this ancient philosophical problem is the road traveled by the war engines of modern consumer culture. In the age of capitalist competition in mass production, it is brand which has become the ruling idea, the new religion. Brands are the new gods, and brand logos are our new idols, our banners of global conquest. As consumers, brands have become marks of our personal identity, extensions of the self, two sides of the visible coin of how we see ourselves and who we sometimes pretend to be.

Yet as we define ourselves through consumption we gloss over the fact that a brand is an idea, an idea that represents a product and which often conceals the company that profits from it. An idea transmitted to us through the media at not inconsiderable cost. Advertising is perhaps the most important cultural medium of our time, with more presence in our daily lives than the storytelling of yore. Through advertising new myths are created and new legends born, and over the past century we have seen the creation of vehement brand partisanship (“loyalty”). What truths remains hidden behind the shield of marketing and public relations brings to mind the oft quoted illustration of a certain wizard and man behind a curtain.

The titanic power of marketing can not be denied: Through changes in advertising Rolex went from being a “good watch” to “perfection,” and Patek Philippe became an artifact of the generations for which we are only temporary custodians. The disparate use of marketing in different nations by large multinationals provides the clearest example of how a company can tailor its image to different audiences through marketing, and how it affects the behavior of the consumer in different nations due to their different perceptions of the brand. Someone once said that for the average consumer high quality watches begin with Seiko and end with Rolex, so it is with the multinational Seiko Corp. that we will attempt to navigate this labyrinth of shadows.

A child of the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century, K. Hattori & Co., Ltd was one of the largest watch manufacturers in the world by the outbreak of the Second World War. It had produced pocket watches and wristwatches under diverse brands, but the Seiko brand name first derived from Hattori’s Seikosha factories in 1926 became the most prominent of them over the years – the primary representative of K. Hattori in the public eye of Japan. Yet it was a name unknown to most westerners into the 1950s and 60s. Indeed most Americans, for example, would list Seiko as a new company, probably one of the new giants of Japan’s post-WW2 re-industrialization. A young megacorp like Sony or Honda.

Seiko does as little as possible to draw any attention to its history in the West, which lies in interesting contrast to many Swiss manufactures which make a special effort to gild their pasts and extend their perceived age at every possible opportunity, while others attempt to purchase such provenance through defunct brand names or simply to fabricate it wholesale. Many Swiss manufactures would do anything to have a real history like the one which Seiko keeps in shadow. In Japan, Seiko’s mechanical heritage remains a small but very special part of its brand identity and of its present wristwatch and pocket watch production. In the West this heritage is almost completely unknown, an intentional omission from the brand’s image in this hemisphere.

All large brands must purchase their images in the public eye – image is almost never an accident and first impressions cannot be undone. This is why one often encounters a dual image amongst Seiko consumers, for Seiko’s initial introduction to the western market was unintentional. With the post-WW2 occupation by the US military, the western market came to Japan. The re-industrialization fostered by the Korean and Vietnam Wars, combined with the demilitarization of the nation, created a new capitalist superpower with a large consumer population.

It appears that it was during the latter conflict that American servicemen first discovered Seiko en masse, as the introduction of its first automatics did not come until two years after the Korean cease-fire agreement. By the beginning of the Vietnam War in 1964, K. Hattori had already regained much of its former manufacturing grandeur, with a broad product line from basic Seiko 5s to its flagship Grand Seikos and King Seikos. While staying out of western markets commercially, Seiko competed in European observatory competitions. Competitions which were suddenly discontinued, it seems, due to too many Asian victories.

The Seiko 150m Divers watches first introduced in 1965, the automatic chronographs of 1969, the already well-established Seiko 5, and a host of lesser known models were rapidly adopted by American servicemen during those years due to their modest cost and stone reliability. The watches served on land, in sea and air with ground troops, frogmen, and aircrews. Those returning home from the war took their Seikos with them, introducing Japanese watches to the nation. Today we can still see a Seiko 150m Diver’s automatic worn by Martin Sheen in his portrayal of a US Special Forces officer in the film Apocalypse Now. With this popular acceptance by American servicemen, Hattori began to consider the US as a new potential market for Seiko – for growth demanded new markets, and Japan discovered that export was the path of the future.

A revolutionary development that occurred in parallel to the quiet discovery of Seiko by Americans in Japan, was K. Hattori’s work in quartz technology. Beginning with commercial quartz clocks in 1959, they rapidly moved down the road of miniaturization to the portable quartz “Crystal Chronometers” used in the 1964 Olympics, to its early quartz wristwatch prototypes in 1967. The official entry of the Seiko brand into the US would follow upon heels of the internationally publicized introduction of the first commercial Seiko quartz wristwatch in 1969. Seiko Corporation of America (SCA) was founded officially a year later, and while SCA did import mechanical watches initially — they were after all the bulk of the available Seiko product line, mechanicals were almost entirely phased out as inexpensive quartz was phased in during the early-to-mid 70s.

Central to this wave were the solid-state LCD display wristwatches first introduced under the Seiko brand in 1973, and its multifunction form introduced in 1975. As prices fell, K. Hattori used aggressive marketing throughout its export markets to weld the Seiko brand to this new technology. By 1977 quartz prices had fallen to the point where they were accessible to anyone, and Hattori initiated one of the earliest examples of high-profile product placement via the popular (and evidently endless) James Bond film series. Through five films (1977-85), Roger Moore’s iteration of the character wore six different Seiko timepieces, appearances that were paralleled by extensive print ads featuring James Bond and his Seiko. Most of the Seikos James Bond wore were the flagship LCD watches of the period, and their latest development were quickly shifted to film. The landmark Seiko TV Watch introduced commercially in 1982 (shown above) appeared immediately on the wrist of James Bond in the film Octopussy (1983).

The power and profile of the Seiko brand in the new quartz era led the already century-old K. Hattori & Co., Ltd. to change its name to Hattori Seiko Co., Ltd. in 1983. The fading popularity of LCD displays during the early 80s brought the return to analog display, and ironically today the innovator of LCD wristwatches produces almost no LCD watches under the Seiko brand. The world of cheap LCD watches now belongs to Casio and Timex.. The latter half of the 1980s witnessed Hattori Seiko’s rise as a multinational manufacturer of analog quartz wristwatches and movements for the world market. In 1990 the corporation finally dropped the family name, yielding wholly to the Seiko brand as Seiko Corp.

The power of this brand lies not just the wristwatches, pocket watches, and clocks of its 19th century origin and identity, but also in computers, telecommunications, optics, micromachinery, and even sporting goods – many of which are new developments of the corporation’s extra-horological expansion in the 1990s. Seiko has not just remained one of the world’s largest manufactures, but become a full-spectrum technology leader. The well known electronics firm Seiko Epson is just one of many subsidiaries of the Seiko Group, and the spear-head of the corporation’s technological advancements from the quartz crystal wristwatch development project initiated in 1959 to the Kinetic wristwatches which defined Seiko’s international wristwatch image in the 1990s.

Naturally, the equity of the international Seiko brand as a technology leader is protected carefully. Over the last dozen years the only print ads for Seiko that I’ve seen in the US were for its revolutionary digital multifunction Scubamaster dive computer (1990) followed by sundry Kinetics. Though in the throws of a mechanical watch revival, the US and European markets remain untouched by the reassertion and expansion of mechanical watchmaking undertaken by Seiko since the mid-90s. Even the Grand Seikos of old have been reborn, but all of the finer Seiko mechanical offerings remain carefully penned within the Japanese isles, promoted and celebrated within those lands but largely hidden from international view.

The latest affirmation of the Seiko brand as a technocrat of today and the future came through the recent advanced CGI film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The heroine Dr. Aki Ross wears a Seiko Wrist Holo (shown above) which performs various important functions throughout the film, the least of which is timekeeping. The fantasy design of the Seiko Wrist Holo foreshadows the development of the wristwatch into a wrist-mounted computer with a secondary timekeeping function. As a part of the marketing, Seiko produced its second limited edition “Final Fantasy” wristwatch (shown below), which was sold throughout the world. However, since Seiko produces few digital watches under its primary brand, it had to turn to its subsidiary Alba brand’s Spoon collection of oversized and highly stylized multifunction LCD watches for an appropriate design platform.

The success of the public relations shadow game is evident all around us. A recent article in WatchTime magazine proclaimed boldly that “Seiko made quartz and quartz made Seiko,” as if Seiko did not exist until the invention of quartz watches in the late 60s (“Seiko Story” 10). It is a clever half-truth as Seiko did not exist for us until then, though it was venerable already at our introduction. There as elsewhere, the abridged tale of the company’s heritage is hidden in a corner, in fine print. It is an excellent and informative article that only shows you the “SEIKO” that Seiko Corp. wants you to see.

Thus it is that outside of Japan the name Seiko means cutting edge technology to the corporate world, high-tech affordable quartz to the general consumer market, and low-end mechanicals to the aficionado. Yet the truth is much more, for these are merely facets of the greater jewel. Sadly the unadvertised and nearly covert importation of inexpensive mechanicals, like the cheap and durable Seiko 5 and specialist Divers automatics, will be the limit of what is offered to us in the US by SCA. There is no market for Grand Seikos and Credor Seikos here, for Seiko has not and will not create one.

The negative attitudes encountered amongst wristwatch connoisseurs regarding mechanical Japanese watches is a product of a carefully crafted high-technology image. An image of circuit boards, plastic, and the discrete step of a quartz seconds hand. A high mechanical Seiko evokes Western skepticism the same way that an LCD digital Patek Philippe would evoke horror. All wristwatches are emotional items, from the highly technological to the manually crafted. Every watch worn on the wrist becomes a part of the wearer, and a part of his identity, as does the brand which it bears and that brand’s image. In both deception and truth brand is emotion, and being human, emotion is worth a million words.

Works Cited:

United States Patent & Trademark Office. Mechanical timepiece with tourbillon mechanism United States Patent 5,838,641: Tohkoku, et al. November 17, 1998.

“The Seiko Story.” WatchTime Guide to Seiko & The Olympics Feb, 2002: 10.

Image Credits:

Detail from Separation of Light from Darkness by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564)

Seiko TV Watch courtesy of Antique & Modern Wristwatch

Wrist Holo courtesy of Seiko Watch Corp.

Seiko Final Fantasy Limited Edition by John Davis

Copyright © Carlos A. Perez  2002

All Rights Reserved