From dangling on the verge of oblivion, 10 years ago, TAG Heuer has become the most popular high-end sports watch in the world, and the fifth-best-selling Swiss watch brand, after Rolex, Cartier, Swatch and Omega.

Back in the early 1980s, the flood of Japanese digital watches turned into a tsunami that deluged the Swiss watch industry. One of the little Swiss fish that nearly drowned was Heuer, which had been founded in 1860. Near bankruptcy, Heuer was rescued in 1985 by a billionaire Saudi family, through their holding company Techniques d’Avant Garde (Tag). The new owners renamed the company TAG Heuer and called in Booz Allen & Hamilton, the international marketing consultants based in McLean, Va., who told them to stop trying to compete in a broad variety of watch styles and markets and, instead, stick to their traditional strengths in high-performance sports watches, and concentrate on the high end of the market.

Today, TAG Heuer, based in Marin, Switzerland, sells about 700,000 watches a year, in more than 100 countries.

The secret of TAG Heuer’s success is a distinctive product design that’s well matched to a narrowly defined product identity. But the company also got lucky by taking aim at an upscale sports market niche at precisely the right moment — in the late 1980s — when “young achievers,” as TAG Heuer president Christian Viros likes to describe his market of 20- to 45-year-olds, were starting to make serious money. At the same time, they lead active lives, and think of themselves as being sporty and casual.

To appeal to this “niche that became a segment that turned into a market,” said executive vice-president Luc Perramond, and become the kind of wrist watch that goes well with a BMW, the new managers of TAG Heuer gave their designers a brief that would lead to a consistent family appearance across the entire product line.

In sports watches — more than dress, where esthetics reign supreme — function dictates design. The new TAG Heuers would be waterproof to 200 metres and have a screw-down crown, for maximum water resistance. It would have a large, movable bezel (the metal ring that frames the dial), so that it can be used as a timing scale, and luminous markings, so that it can be read in the dark.

Now, after 10 years of success, it’s time for a spiffying-up of the old design. The recently introduced 2000 series, designed by Swiss-born Eddy Schoepfer, has a 12-sided bezel instead of a round one, new dial colours, a raised logo, an Arabic numeral to mark 12 o’clock, and polished lugs that make the new model look brighter and larger. Parts of the metal bracelet were also polished, and made heavier, since weight connotes value in a macho-looking sports watch. The idea, said Perramond, was to “give it a more modern look, more punchy, while keeping its personality recognizable.”

Status-conscious watchn spotters will still recognize it across a room as a TAG Heuer.