by Andrea Doyle | November 21, 2016
Wearable devices are big business, with smartwatch sales expected to grow to 96 million units in 2020, according to industry analyst firm CCS Insight. But while consumers are seeking watches that count their steps and send emails to their wrists, these days, the in-demand smartwatches are as likely to resemble more traditional timepieces. 

"Our research indicates the next wave of growth will come from smart analogue watches," says George Jijiashvili, wearables analyst at CCS Insight. "Compared with full-touch smartwatches, these offer the convenience of a traditional watch but with added smart functionalities such as activity and sleep monitoring -- all delivered with a six- to 12-month battery life."

The new smartwatches that are catching the interest of incentive recipients have look and feel like traditional watches, but with much more happening below the surface. To look at them, you'd never expect they could count your steps or push emails to your wrist. They send breaking news updates to your wrist and include GPS to make getting around easier than ever. Incentive winners are looking for both tradition and technology -- and the major brands serving the incentive industry are moving quickly to meet these demands.

Just this year, Fossil has introduced 143 wearables, with new smartwatches this fall from its brands Fossil Q, Skagen, Kate Spade, Diesel, Emporio Armani, and Michael Kors. Michael Kors has a new category of smartwatches for which the touchscreen can be personalized, social media updates received and fitness goals tracked. Kate Spade offers fun, feminine wearables that include a new collection of two fitness trackers and two hybrid smartwatches. The collection includes a silicone fitness tracker band which comes in a variety of styles including one with the Kate "space cat" motif. 

The smartwatches produced by Fossil's portfolio of watch brands are powered by the sensor and software technology of wearables company Misfit, which was acquired by Fossil Group last November.

"That's allowing us to use their team of software engineers to integrate a whole new level of technology into your everyday fashion watch," says Jenny Durham, business development, corporate markets, Richardson, TX¬-based Fossil Group. 

Misfit recently introduced the Phase Hybrid Smartwatch, its first product actually labeled a smartwatch. It features two hands, normal hour markers, and a tiny window at six o'clock to show notifications -- basically an analog watch with some additional functions. Paired with the Misfit app, the watch tracks fitness, sets alarms, and notifies the wearer of texts and calls. 

"It's no surprise that fashion designers are getting in on the bandwagon. These products are aimed at consumers who desire to remain connected at all times," says Jessica Brown, senior director of luxury goods and gift cards for loyalty marketing solutions firm Rymax Marketing Services, based in Pine Brook, NJ. She adds that fashion brands are also trying to cater more to the Millennial generation, giving the example of the Gucci SYNC watch, aimed towards a connected, young music-loving crew. 

"Millennials adore new technology, and companies will need to invest more time and resources in designing new applications that will put 'wear' in 'wearable,'" says Brown.

Style and Substance

According to research conducted by the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) and the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA), the strongest retail brands are the best reward motivators. That's a point not lost on SEIKO, which is providing some cutting-edge, stylish pieces. This includes its PRIME watches (an acronym for Premium, Recognition, Incentive and Military Exclusives), a set of 11 SEIKO and 12 Pulsar brand wristwatches unavailable at retail, which recognize the recipient's years of service or employment, and come with extended discounts that show value in a handsome well-crafted time piece.  

"What better way to thank an employee for their effort than with the gift of time?" asks Kevin Dougherty, director of special markets for Seiko Corporation of America, based in Mahwah, NJ. "Watches come in every size, color, material, and gender to appeal to everyone. It's the perfect achievement award -- you can take it everywhere you go and it becomes a constant reminder of your success to you and everyone around you."

Besides tech-savvy watches, Seiko's Dougherty reports that ladies watches are tapering down from the big and bold designs that were especially popular in recent years. Men's watches have become specific to the wearer's lifestyle, he adds: Business watches, divers' watches, pilots' watches, compass watches, and others have become increasingly specific and targeted toward different recipients' lifestlyes. 

Tone-on-tone design (such as black-on-black, silver-on-silver, and gold-on-gold) is in, according to Dougherty.

Citizen is another major brand keeping step with incentive recipients' wants. Its Citizen Proximity is a fashionable timepiece infused with technology, which provides tactile alerts when the wearer receives a text, email, or phone call. It even alerts if you leave your phone behind. 

"Wearing a watch daily that was earned serves as a constant reminder of a recognized accomplishment and motivator for future performance," says Richard Low, vice president of special markets for the New York City-based Citizen Watch Company of America. 

According to Low, the watch category has been flat for the last couple of years, but that's begun to shift. 

"We are seeing renewed interest in watches by those who value time pieces over gadgets," he says. "Watches have become a fashion accessory for many. With so many styles available, we see stainless steel as the fastest growing segment. Gold has renewed interest. Program participants are choosing to redeem for mid-priced timepieces versus ultra-premium, so they can have multiple watches for multiple uses." 

Customized Experiences 

To make these watches particularly impactful, watch brands are finding ways to create more personalization of their products and experiences. Bulova offers way to personalize a program or event -- as well as the watches themselves -- to meet specific client and consumer needs. 

"Bulova has a wide array of styles at price points from $35 to $1,000; we can imprint dials, engrave casebacks, size bracelets, even customize boxes…so each watch becomes special, and can eventually be an heirloom that's passed from generation to generation," explains Adrienne Forrest, vice president of corporate sales for the New York City-based Bulova Corporation.  

Diamonds, of course, are still a strong draw -- and Bulova's collection boasts individually hand-set diamonds, on bezel, dials and/or bracelets, for both women and men. Whether you opt for just one diamond or many, it's a luxurious, elegant statement that's timeless and investment worthy. 

"Another look consumers are asking for is crystals, a more affordable, but still very stylish, choice to add modern sparkle to any wardrobe," says Forrest.

At the other end of the spectrum are Bulova's more complex, multifunction watches -- chronograph, dive-style, or mechanical, among them -- and each one of those style has its own special focus on technical excellence and precision timing. And many of them now have gender-neutral styling. 

The Bulova CURV -- the world's first curved chronograph movement -- is one of the company's other exciting new products. 

"Even with our more than 140 years of innovation in the watch industry, the CURV is a game changer," says Forrest. "Its curved chronograph movement is a marvel of design technology and intricate engineering, and its slim ergonomic case has never before been possible with a chronograph. Not to mention its 262kHz quartz technology for precise accuracy. And we offer a choice of both dress and sport styles, some with exhibition casebacks and see-through dials with titanium details."