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Why Football Isn’t Rolex’s Focus and How Sports Marketing Made it Iconic

Why Football Isn't Rolex's Focus

Marketing the Extraordinary

When you think of the best watches in the world, what company comes to mind? Chances are high that you thought of Rolex, one of the best-known brands in the world. Although their product can’t do much besides answering one single question: What time is it? Nobody really needs a Rolex, but many people want one. A Rolex is the typical status symbol with incredible appeal for millions of people looking to spend their money, and that’s largely thanks to sports.

Rolex built their brand strategy on sponsoring athletes and events from the most elegant and luxurious sports. Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, and Annika Sörenstam all wear a Rolex while accepting their countless trophies at the winner’s ceremonies. Welcome to Athletic Interest. In this video, we explain how Rolex used sports marketing to become the most iconic watch brand in the world.

Rolex is the most recognized watch brand. Established in London but moved to the watch capital Geneva after the First World War, it has been the most sold luxury watch in recent years. They are the market leader with almost a quarter of the market share in 2020. That’s almost three times the share of their closest competitor. It’s the only watchmaker to get listed among the most valuable brands by Forbes.

Rolex has recorded revenues of more than $8 billion, and their brand alone was valued at $7.9 billion in 2020. That’s impressive for one product that technically no one even needs. Rolex has managed to become an icon. Such status, however, is not created overnight.

The Rise of Rolex

In the beginning, it was the functionality that stood out. As we can learn on their website, Rolex has built its brand on the back of innovation and quality. This is obviously very important, but it’s not enough anymore. The younger generations, which have all grown up with a smartphone, need to be convinced of the values of a traditional timepiece from a whole other angle. The brand needed to move beyond sheer functionality to impress the modern customer.

How did they do this? In the beginning, Rolex used slogans such as “World’s first waterproof wrist-watch” and “A Landmark in the history of time measurement.” To underline the technical superiority of their timepiece, it was important to have the right testimonials. The goal of Hans Wilsdorf’s founding Rolex in the early 1920s was to replace conventional pocket watches with one of the greatest inventions of the era: a dust- and water-resistant watch worn on the wrist. He saw the sports industry as the ideal setting for promoting his recently established brand.

When Mercedes Gleitze, an English swimmer, tried to swim the English Channel, he asked her to wear the Rolex. The watch lasted through the 10+ hour attempt, stayed in good shape, kept accurate time, and didn’t allow a drop of water into the casing. With this historic achievement, Gleitze became the first Rolex Testimonial.

That was 1927, long before Red Bull took over extreme sports. That wasn’t the only stunt. Rolex watches have accomplished some of the most challenging adventures, from scaling the Himalayan peaks, crossing the polar ice caps, breaking the sound barrier, to exploring the depths of the ocean.

The Evolution of Rolex

Nowadays, their slogan, “A crown for every achievement,” has been perfectly chosen to address their key audience. Their biggest customer group comprises individuals who have just got a new job, promotion, or pay raise and want to show off to everyone else.

Their second biggest markets are parents or grandparents buying a timepiece for their children who recently graduated or are having an important birthday. The slogan shows Rolex moving from selling a product to selling a story.

One of the best storytellers is sports. That’s why the biggest watch companies fight for the right to be the Official Timekeeper of major sporting events. It is comparable to Nike or Adidas signing athletes. If you like the event, it is more likely that you also like the official timekeeper.

Omega is currently established at the Olympic Games, Tissot at the Tour de France, and Hublot in European football. But no watch brand is as present as Rolex. Rolex has picked out their events carefully.

Rolex and Sports

So who do they sponsor and why? Even though Red Bull and Rolex both have their roots in extreme sports, they rarely get in each other’s way nowadays. Rolex is no longer looking to prove the quality of their products by putting it on the wrist of people swimming through channels and climbing up mountains.

They would rather choose the sports that best fit their brand image and that are played and watched by their target group. In other words, where there is an audience that can afford a Rolex.

The result is a heavy Rolex presence in tennis, with its events rich in tradition like Wimbledon, as well as golf, yachting, and equestrian sports. The only clear overlap between Red Bull and Rolex can be seen in Formula 1.

But the two brands play different roles. One wanted to create the youngest world champion with its energy drink. Rolex wants to show that they have such a status that they can be seen almost all over the track and even name the tracks after them.

Football is not a focus sport for Rolex. It’s a sport for the masses with a huge audience and therefore the obvious choice for many companies investing in sports marketing. But Rolex is not a product for the masses, so it makes sense that they stay out of it most of the time. It turns out that Rolex doesn’t even have to sponsor some sports to get exposure.

World Boxing Champion Lawrence Okolie said that a Rolex was his motivation to get the title
World Boxing Champion Lawrence Okolie

World Boxing Champion Lawrence Okolie said that a Rolex was his motivation to get the title. His promoter had promised him: If Lawrence were to win the title someday, he would buy him a gold Rolex Sky-Dweller. In an interview, he said: “Every single moment in that ring, that’s all I was thinking.” He spoke like the best testimonial Rolex could ever wish for. And they didn’t even pay for it. Boxing is not the sport Rolex is eager to be associated with anyway. Better sponsor the Oscars.

There is at least one big advantage that Rolex possesses when it comes to building their brand. Rolex is owned by the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation and has no shareholders. So per definition, Rolex is a non-profit organization and is willing to say no to short-term profit to ensure the longevity and strength of the brand.

Non-profit does not mean that they have no interest in generating revenue and building their brand. But each year after everyone gets paid and all marketing deals are made, they donate the rest of their profit to charity, which on closer inspection could be seen as marketing as well.

If there were no wristwatches today that do nothing except show the time, they would probably never be invented in today’s world. But because watch companies developed their brands in the way they did, they’re still big business today.

Rolex has perfected storytelling. In the beginning, with slogans that linked the quality of Rolex watches to extraordinary achievements and world records. When it became difficult to stand out against other watch brands with quality, Rolex changed strategies. It was no longer about producing watches with outstanding quality but establishing Rolex as a reward for outstanding achievements.

The Future?

That’s why it will remain important for Rolex to sign the best athletes and to be present at the most prestigious sports events. With Roger Federer, Rolex has one of the best testimonials they could wish for.

No scandals, extraordinary performance and for each of his Grand slam victories, he has put on a new Rolex before receiving the trophy. “Every time I put on my Rolex, it reminds me of those great moments. It also reminds me that if you do not work hard, somebody else will, and they eventually will pass you.”

In a world where everyone can read the time on their phone, with testimonials like Federer, Rolex still manages to regularly sway customers to spend several thousand on a mass-produced watch and not have to deal with any buyer’s remorse.


Rolex’s unparalleled success as the most iconic watch brand in the world is a testament to its strategic use of sports marketing. By aligning itself with prestigious sporting events, athletes, and achievements, Rolex has crafted a powerful brand narrative centered around quality, innovation, and status.

From sponsoring record-breaking feats to partnering with legendary athletes, Rolex has consistently leveraged the power of sports to elevate its brand. The company’s careful selection of sports that align with its target audience, such as tennis, golf, and yachting, has allowed it to reach the affluent consumers who can afford and aspire to own a Rolex.

Rolex’s ownership structure as a non-profit organization has also given it the flexibility to prioritize long-term brand-building over short-term profits. As the world becomes increasingly digital, Rolex’s ability to sell a story and a symbol of achievement has become even more valuable, ensuring its crown remains firmly atop the luxury watch market for years to come.

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