Interview: Marvin Menke of Hemel

I've had the pleasure of chatting with Marvin Menke of Hemel Watches at various watch events. He is an all-around good fellow with inciteful views on marketing, product design, and the microbrand watch business. Today, I've got him in the interview chair. Enjoy!

TB: So tell us a little about yourself. Who is Marvin Menke?

MM: I’m a compulsive creative, plain and simple. I’ve always looked for the creative aspect in everything I’ve ever done. The application of creativity in pursuit of business - what we call design - that was an instinct that was awoken early on in school. I have a degree in advertising design, one in package design, and years in branding. I’ve spent my career inventing, reinventing and extending brands in different consumer spaces so crafting the Hemel concept was a very logical chapter for me. 

I love storytelling which probably stems from my affection for mythology. It’s the one component of branding that I probably have the most fun with. I’ve had some good success with a series of narrative storytelling videos on Hemel’s YouTube channel.

TB: I love shoes but I’ve never thought that I should become a shoe manufacturer. Same goes for watches. What made you make that leap and start your own microbrand? 

MM: Hemel was originally the name of my design consultancy and I was already thinking about developing a watch to give to my better clients around the holidays, birthdays and other special occasions. It was originally intended to demonstrate my skill set and to make for an immersive portfolio piece. It was around this time that a buddy of mine finally got me into the horological side of the internet: blogs, discussion boards, Facebook groups. I was obsessed. My instincts as a designer quickly surfaced and I began to observe trends in this product category like how one of the main points of discussion is the cost of this hobby.

I identified a “white space opportunity” and just couldn’t resist throwing my hat into the ring. The more I shared the concept with my clients, the more they encouraged me to bring it to market. I saw a lot of money trading hands at around the $500 mark and I knew what I wanted just a consumer at that price point: sapphire, surgical grade steel, signed crown, screw down back, a 28.8 bph Japanese auto movement, C3 lume. I priced the first Hemel at just under $400 which made the purchase a no-brainer for a lot of people with all of the aforementioned specs. With the skill sets I had accumulated during my career as a designer, I knew I could come up with all the digital assets necessary to run a crowdfunding and social media campaign as well as do all the product development myself. This dramatically lessened the financial burden for me as an upstart. Because my overhead is relatively low, I pass the savings on to my customer. Hemel was conceived to be an extreme value proposition.

TB: What watches do you have in your personal collection? 

MM: Vintage Certina, Seiko, Marvin, Orient, Tag Heuer, Doxa, Tissot, HMT, Bulova, Hamilton. 

TB: In the past few years, I’ve seen some microbrands establishing themselves in traditional brick and mortar retail locations, while at the same time, I’ve seen smaller jewelry stores dropping their watch lines because they can’t compete with online sales. Do microbrands really need a conventional retail presence?

MM: I think the answer requires a more nuanced overview. Let’s first separate conventional retail “presence” from conventional retail “thinking”. If by conventional retail presence you mean a brick & mortar store, I think it can help (especially as a vehicle for brand awareness) but everyone knows that conventional retail thinking is just dying. The establishment retail convention has been burning for a while and the public is really just starting to see how that looks in full view now. Economic recession, online shopping, the shrinking middle class, and over-extension are all to blame.

We’re doing well in one brick and mortar store but it’s a pretty radical concept which fuses tightly curated product categories with fresh designers along with art, launch parties, deejays, wine tasting. The conventional retail establishment is old thinking, plain and simple. It’s the stores that are taking imaginative approaches that are really making noise and that are driving customer loyalty.

TB: While the microbrand watch business has been around for quite some time, it seems like it absolutely exploded with Kickstarter. Do you think crowdfunding is still an essential part of the equation?

MM: The name of this game is getting your product in front of as many eyeballs as possible. In that regard, Kickstarter can be quite handy especially for an upstart and even more so for one that is on a shoestring budget. The good thing about Kickstarter and other crowdfunding destinations, in general, is that a brand can really tell a story through video, copywriting, graphics, news updates, as many links as you want, etc. Getting the crowd onto your team is fun too, for everybody involved.  And of course, there’s the product savings factor for backers which is always an attractive incentive. For a sincere creator or company who is looking for seed capital, it can be a really great thing.

I think it’s fair to address how crowdfunding rubs some folks the wrong way. I’m pretty sure some of your readers are thinking that right now. There have been some cynical money grabs, scams, weak or unimaginative product and “me too” campaigns so there’s been some noticeable market fatigue among some of the watchaholics out there. While I can say that I totally get it, I can also that it raises the stakes for future watch micros going to Kickstarter. We shouldn’t turn our backs on Kickstarter because there are some good ideas out there from people who are up to the challenge.

TB: I don’t think it is too controversial to say that many watch designs follow well-established formulas: pilot, diver, field watch, etc. As a designer, what do you do to make your watches stand out?

MM: Design is really an ongoing conversation. You revisit and revisit and revisit again all the time and keep taking steps back to look at the whole. Because all my talent is in-house and multi-disciplinary, it’s very practical and allows me to communicate all brand storytelling very holistically. I spend a lot of time looking at the genres you mentioned. A lot. My approach is to take key elements that make those watches look familiar and then put in some surprises that we haven’t seen yet in these groups. Imagine speaking a language that everyone in a city speaks but pronouncing the words with an accent. The words are familiar but they’re presented slightly differently. That’s what it’s like when I design. Looking for the “new” or the “different” but using a visual language that is familiar enough so that I’m not completely alienating everyone. And people actually crave newness. Copycat and “me too” design insults most consumers. Delighting and dignifying the buying experience goes a long way towards driving brand loyalty, minimizing brand confusion and echoing brand messaging. For me, the product is the brand…it’s the everlasting consumer touchpoint that I use to remind my consumer of Hemel’s core design values: uniqueness, thoughtfulness, subtlety and quality.

TB: So far, Hemel has delivered field watches and pilots’ watches. What other styles are you exploring? Can we expect a Hemel diver?

MM: Hemel has been boots on ground and wings in the sky so it’s no big stretch of the imagination to figure out where we’re going next especially if you’ve been following us on Facebook and Instagram. Beyond that, we are constantly looking into the reinvention and extension of our current lineup. I think people are going to be surprised with some of the styles I have lined up in the coming days and well into next year. Newness and diversity have always been part of our mandate while maintaining an engaging brand image and social media presence. You can expect to see more innovative design on our Instagram and Facebook channels. Social media is an area I have a lot of fun in because so much can be done visually. 

TB: What do you see as emerging trends in the affordable watch market?

MM: I’ve been seeing vintage and heritage being asserted at some of the higher end as well as the more affordable market. The microbrand arena is where all the excitement is though because of the sincerity and authenticity among brand owners who are, let’s face it, every bit the watch guy that our customers are. Microbrands have a nimbleness and ability to navigate the market that you just don’t see in the big corporate brands due to the economies of scale and proportion regardless of price point.

With hipsters and the like hungering for substance, I can see microbrands - and probably the affordable market at large - telling more engaging stories that tell more of what a product stands for and maybe a little less of what it does. I will always say that design remains one of the most underleveraged tools in a company’s arsenal when prepping a brand for market and keeping it relevant while out there. I’ve recently begun to see design emerge as a more serious tool to help sew up a brand story. This is good because it creates trust and relevancy in the consumer’s mind. This helps all microbrands.

TB: What’s next for Hemel?

MM: You’ll see. On June 6. As they say, the sky (or “de Hemel”) is the limit ;-) ⬩
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