Polar is at a crossroads. For more than 30 years, it's been the go-to company for sports training tech, but things have changed. The emergence of wearables β specifically smartwatches and fitness trackers β has meant a rethink on what sports watches should actually deliver.
Stan Brajer is a man who's witnessed those changes up close. With a CV that includes Polar's biggest rivals Garmin and watch-maker Timex, he's already been involved with companies that have had to take a much smarter approach to making wearables. Now senior vice president of U.S. sales and marketing at Polar, Brajer is clear on what the company needs to do ensure it doesn't get left behind.
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"Things have got very competitive in the last 3-5 years," Brajer told us. "There are a lot of nontraditional companies entering this space and that's good news and bad news. It brings a lot of value to the category and validates what we are doing. But it also muddies the market and confuses the consumer.
"We are such an iconic brand and have cutting edge technology, so we just need to change a couple of things to our strategy. We need to reposition ourselves as a sports and fitness brand and not try to be everything to everybody. We also need a point of distinction to differentiate ourselves from the competition."
Polar M600 is the company's first Android Wear smartwatch
Now we know optical sensors are as accurate as a chest strap in most cases
That point of distinction Brajer talks about could well lie with Polar's first true smartwatch. The Polar M600 draws on the company's core features like GPS and smart coaching, along with its own proprietary optical heart rate sensor technology and 24/7 activity tracking. Crucially, this is the first Polar watch to embrace Google's Android Wear operating system to enables smartwatch powers. It's a move that Brajer sees as a positive one and there's a clear reason why Polar has decided to go Wear for its latest wearable.
"We need to differentiate ourselves from our competitors and the Polar M600 is the first device on a long roadmap to help us do that," Brajer explained. "We believe this will attract the millennial customer that's more tech savvy and needs those key features that Android Wear brings. With Apple and Samsung entering the space, my hope is that we are going to make it cool for customers to wear devices on the wrist again. But that's not to forget that this is a true sport performance device."
With a growing emphasis on making its wearables smarter there's inevitably the concern that Polar could neglect the features that have helped make it one of the leaders in the sports watch business. Brajer is confident that devices like the Polar M600 will not see the company forget its roots.
"The core features will always be our base," Brajer said. "Moving forward, I look at something like heart rate training. If you look at how it has evolved over the last 30 years, it took a number of years for the consumer to adjust to heart rate training. I still think even in 2016, most consumers don't really understand heart rate training and the contributing factors."
"I think it's now about what we do with all the extra metrics that we have access to. What does this mean to the average jogger and how do we help the consumer understand. So whether you're training for the Olympics or running your first 5K or want to lose weight. I think that's the challenge not only for Polar but for the entire industry. We have enough tech to make your head explode, but how do we use that technology?
With the demand for new, more smartwatch-like features, another core value for a company like Polar is accuracy. It's the reason why you see Polar watches around the wrists of many elite athletes. With some of its competitors coming under scrutiny for data inaccuracies, Brajer has some interesting thoughts on the importance of accuracy for the hardcore and casual user.
Optical heart rate is game-changing
"It has been well documented that competitors are having legal issues with the inaccuracy of the heart rate," he told us. "First and foremost we want to make sure our metrics and data are as accurate as possible. If you look at the elite athletes and coaches who widely depend on it, you need to get as close to 100% as possible. For the mass consumer, with the variance there, you have a little bit of flexibility. At the end of the day, your goal is to get it to as accurate as possible. With heart rate training, there's so many factors that you need to take into consideration like your stress levels, your sleep pattern, your genetics.
"There's a lot of other things that dictate how you monitor metrics and interpret them into your training that I think a lot of consumers still don't understand. We as an industry have to do a better job of educating the users on how to interpret the metrics and how to apply them to their training."
It's all in the heart
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"Polar has good experience in the wearable field and pioneered heart rate but was slow to adopt GPS. Optical heart rate is something I tried to get my previous companies to adopt as early as 2007, because we knew it would be game changing. For my engineering team and development, one of the biggest challenges was trying to make it as accurate as a chest strap. Now we know it's as accurate as a chest strap in most cases."
And Polar has slowly started to embrace optical heart rate tech. The new Polar M600 comes with a sensor, as does the Polar A360, which disappointed in our review. It seems the company still has a long way to go.
Brajer may well be clued up with what's happening with the old guard, but he is also well aware that it's the newcomers that Polar increasingly need to be wary of. It's something that Brajer believes is vital for the future of the company if they want to stay out on top for years to come.
"Fitbit is a perfect example," Brajer explained. "When I was at Garmin we weren't paying attention to that category and they filled that void. That was a big wake up call. They are a major factor now. Ten years ago, they didn't exist. We really need to pay attention to the new technologies and the startups and what they are bringing to the table. But we need to stick to our strategy and stay to true who we are."