The promise of modern branding has always been complicated. On the one hand, brands have existed for centuries as a kind of maker’s guarantee. Medieval English merchants would attach their names to bales of cloth, using their reputation to vouch for the consistency and honesty of the product. On the other hand, since the arrival of mass production, branding has been used to distinguish a manufacturer’s goods, elevate them, and insist on their exceptionality. These are mixed messages: Coke is always Coke, but having a Coke is always special. (Hence the unofficial tagline of its rival: “is Pepsi ok?”)
Nowhere is this tension clearer than in the Domino’s Pizza branded Rolex Air King. Domino’s began in 1961 when Tom and James Monaghan bought a small pizza shop in Ypsilanti, Michigan. One store led to others, and in 1967 the brothers took on their first franchisee. So the story goes, Tom wore a Bulova in those years with a little Domino’s logo on it, and one particularly crass franchisee asked him what he needed to do to get the watch. Monaghan set him a $20,000 sales target, which the guy met, and he duly handed it over.
Recognizing the motivating potential of co-branded luxury timepieces, Monaghan later turned the bet into a formal reward program. The prize wasn’t a Bulova, but the product of a certain English watch company formed in 1905 and re-incorporated in Switzerland in 1920: Rolex. The result of this marriage was a special Rolex Air King—pristine silver dial, no date, crisp baton markers complementing polished silver baton hands—printed with the red-and-blue Domino’s logo. What was the runner-up prize in this celebration of profit? An Hermès power tie, of course.
The Domino’s Air King is an exquisite artifact of 1980s corporate excess. Reagan was in, it was morning in America, and nominal GDP would double over the decade. Weakened antitrust regulation led to a wave of corporate mergers, there were major tax cuts for the richest, and inequality soared. What could better capture that moment than the alliance of big pizza and the only watchmaker that’s universally recognized as expensive? It’s no coincidence that Nicolas Sarkozy, one of the children of Reagan’s economics, signaled his own loyalty to the cause by declaring that anyone who doesn’t own a Rolex by 50 is a failure (despite the fact that he wore a Patek).
The Pizza Rolex is somehow both cheap and expensive at the same time. Its sweeping second hand and polished curves say one thing very clearly: I have sold a lot of pepperoni. The collaboration horrified one kind of watch enthusiast and delighted another. It suggested that deep dish and high horology were not so far apart. That luxury, like the mass market, was ultimately a game of branding. This may have been a step too far even for those enriched by it. Domino’s continued to award Swiss watches to its most successful managers but in 2005 moved its logo from the dial to the bracelet. The age of the Pizza Rolex’s proud, ugly beauty was over.