The independent watch brand, NORQAIN, has been making waves with its presence and its watches. To understand what makes NORQAIN tick, we turn to its founder and CEO, Ben Küffer, and its ambassador and animal sanctuary founder, Dean Schneider. During the conversation, we find out about the brand's ethos and what keeps them relevant in a saturated watch market.

NORQAIN's founder and CEO, Ben Küffer

ESQUIRE SINGAPORE: Given the needs and presence of Norman, what’s the strategy when you are up against bigger and much more established brands out there?

BEN KÜFFER: Since the beginning, the strategy of NORQAIN was to be different. We looked at the watch market and there were hardly any independent brands left below 10,000 Swiss francs. And then when we decided to do it, we wanted to be totally different. We can't buy an existing brand. We have to write our own story, be 100 per cent credible and be true to our values in showing customers why Norqain is necessary in the market. That's really the strength. It's our story. One that's independent, family-owned so we don't have pressure from shareholders. We can do whatever we want and the customers felt that.

ESQ: What is this "story" that's different from the other big market players? 

BEN: Looking at the market, there were two things that we saw. One was the evolution of pricing, where prices have increased in the past years so our goal was to go back to our Swiss suppliers to tell them that we want to offer the best quality to attract younger clientele into mechanical watches. But we need to return to a pricing where we were in the past. And of course, with lower quantities. It was a big challenge but we made them understand our mission and what we are in the market. Norqain’s one big differentiation is that we went back to the past. In terms of pricing, in terms of quality; this was really important.

Then, as a new brand, you need innovation. I think innovation, we have that in everything that we do daily. Our motto is "Your life, your way." Every time we make decisions, we ask, ‘Is this different’? With regards to watch designs, in terms of how we build the community. We talked with Dean about NORQAIN's strengths and he said that the brand had a community that was with them from the start. We're doing things that are important to us but these are things that other people would care about. The outdoors; animals; being animal cruelty-free; sustainability... all these are who we are as a brand. You feel close to the brand and that's a big strength.

Dean Schneider, NORQAIN's ambassador

ESQ: How does that translate to your product? How do you associate a watch with a lifestyle?

DEAN SCHNEIDER: It's the values behind it. What Ben said is that the brand is very accessible. The values speak for themselves. We talk about animal cruelty-free products, about sustainably sourced products. We talk about shock resistance and (shows his watch), I literally wear this almost every day of my life. And it still looks and works perfectly. And that was the goal. Two years ago when I joined Norqain, everything I've seen so far, that's just pure innovation, let's be honest. In all the meetings we had, we made sure that we reached a level of innovation which hasn't been seen before.

We spoke about roaming through the malls where you see all those different brands and what's missing are the stories behind the products. What does it stand for? What does it present? Where is the message? You don't see it enough. But walk into any NORQAIN store and you'll see an image or quotes and sentences, which hints at our ethos. I’m all about messaging and stories, about inspiration and education. And so is NORQAIN.

ESQ: I think what's interesting is it inspires loyalty. 

BEN: Yeah, absolutely. True. 

ESQ: And you definitely stand for it. 

BEN: From the beginning, when we put our team together, there weren't many people. There were about three of us, maybe. I met Dean a couple of months later and we instantly clicked because I told him why NORQAIN has an opportunity in the watch market and Dean brought into the brand. It was very clear what type of product we had to produce if it was for Dean. It needed to be ultra-robust, shock-resistant. You can see [Dean] with the lions and I'd imagine that this watch needed to be strong.

So we developed NORTEQ (a special material made especially for the brand). It's super-hard material and well-suited for someone like Dean. NORTEQ helped us as a brand, in terms of how we came up with a product that hasn't been produced yet. There are no books to copy from. We had to start from scratch, to create the Wild ONE watch.

DEAN: Yeah, I think the biggest value in that is the ability to adapt and create something from scratch. Not just copy something, change it slightly and then put it on the market. NORQAIN has proven with this collaboration and we have the Wild ONE range. If you can do it for that, you can do it for anything. Imagine that future, one with different possibilities and platforms.

BEN: It was a bit easier with [Dean] because the story is very clear.

ESQ: What are the challenges for NORQAIN?

BEN: Building a brand from scratch means that you have zero customers. So you'll need to know how to make the public fall in love with what we're doing. We don't have a lot of marketing budget, to begin with. You're starting with a story that you'll have difficulty in spreading.

The game-changing moment was when I realised that the combination of NORQAIN being a hybrid brand is that everybody expected us to be only online. But we started to have our retailer network and that gave us a lot of different methods on how to spread our story. I think we did pretty well with our social media. We had digital marketing but where we excelled was our relationship with retailers. The brand was in 12 countries at the time and we did all we could to activate and reach out to local ambassadors. I realised that there's a formula. I won't reveal what it is but it's something we do whenever we enter a market.

COVID was challenging but it gave us an opportunity to stand out. In the beginning, our tendency was to put NORQAIN as the brand first. I want the brand to talk and I'm here if somebody wants to talk to me. But when COVID happened, I, in my capacity as the founder and CEO of NORQAIN, had to go out and get people to understand our message better. We were like a speedboat in a storm where every time things changed we adapted to it quickly.

NORQAIN Wild ONE All Black timepiece

ESQ: How about challenges in building the community here? The Singapore market might not be that easy as our GDP is based mainly on tourism. 

BEN: Yeah, I heard your national sport is shopping, right? [laughs] We did this across many markets and we feel that communities can share values if they have the same interests. For example in Singapore, we talked to the organisers of the Sundown Marathon; we talked to the people behind Spartan Race. People who like sports, who like to be outdoors, who like to be active, they automatically relate to us; that's how we've built our community; by reaching out to local events sponsors that fit our brand. Once you do that, you can mix the community with the brand. That was the strategy. 

DEAN: NORQAIN is special because the values they stand for are so universal. When you talk about adventure, about freedom... these are universal concepts. If you stay true to your values like NORQAIN does, regardless of the ambassadors, whatever actions they take or the things they support, they will always remind us of the same values over and over again.

BEN: That's a very small example but it's understandable. When I started in Singapore, I was told that there is a national hockey team here. So, we reached out to them. I expected maybe 20 people to be in the team and I was told, that they have 600 members. I said, okay, what are these members doing? They say they have women who play. They have Singaporeans and expats. I said, great. Let's make an event. And we did two events in a row with 50 people each. Great fun.

Here we are talking about a sport that's very niche in Singapore. But everyone gathered because they had the same interests.