A brand with soul
The recent Breitling Summit in London was a chance for CEO Georges Kern to outline his ambitious plan for the Swiss watchmaker
Breitling CEO George Kern outlines his plans for the Swiss watchmaker
“AT BREITLING, we are like a huge start-up,” said CEO Georges Kern during an interaction at Spring Studios in London’s Kentish Town at the first-ever Breitling Summit last October.
But before you ask yourself whether it is wise to call a 134-year-old watchmaker a start-up, remember that Kern is a marketing and branding maverick whose every action and statement is deliberate and measured. He led IWC for nearly 15 years as its CEO (during which IWC’s sales reportedly blew up from $40m to $800m), before being
promoted to the head of watchmaking for the entire Richemont Group in 2016 from where he subsequently landed at Breitling last year.
“We want to be more relaxed, informal, cooler, younger and fresher than the other brands out there,” he says of his vision for the brand.
To that end, there is a new brand logo where the wings flanking the cursive ‘B’ have been dropped – a logical step when you consider that Breitling sells more diving watches than it does pilot’s watches. Then there’s the recent #squadonamission marketing initiative that has roped in A-listers like Brad Pitt, Charlize Theron and Adam Driver in a Peter Lindbergh directed campaign.
On the product development side, Kern explained how he is paring down the number of collections available to make it less confusing to customers and is clubbing them under four segments: Air, Land, Sea and Professional.
Last year Breitling produced 150,000 watches, all of which were COSC-certified. Only 2 per cent of all Swiss watches
manufactured receive the stringent COSC certification that attests to the accuracy of the timepiece. The only other brand which has 100 per cent of its production COSC certified is Rolex.
Kern is also tapping new markets for Breitling, especially in Asia. This included the opening of a flagship in Beijing in July. Explaining the rationale to set up a strong retail presence on the ground in China, he explained, “For every watch sold in China, four are sold to Chinese abroad.”
Breitling’s boutiques themselves will be overhauled to fit in with the new brand image that’s more retro-chic. The new boutique concepts unveiled in Zurich and Paris, and shown to us during the presentation in London, are fitted with a pool table, Norton motorcycle, leather sofas, brick walls and timber floors – a scene borrowed from a ‘loft-style’ apartment in a major metropolis.
Kern has skin in the game. He co-invested along with Europe’s largest private equity firm, CVC Capital Partners, when the latter bought an 80 per cent stake in Breitling in 2017 a few months before Kern came onboard as Breitling’s CEO.
“When you are independent,” explains Kern about Breitling which along with Audemars Piguet, Rolex and Patek Philippe have not been bought over by a watchmaking conglomerate, “the decision-making process is quick and straight-forward. Investment is a phone call away – that is the beauty of private equity.”
Start-ups by nature are high-risk, volatile, and experimental in their temperament – which is exactly how Kern would prefer to run Breitling. In the brand upheaval that has resulted since he took charge accelerating product development, collapsing a few lines and charting an overall new direction for the brand, is he afraid of upsetting the purists?
“I am not dogmatic, but I do have convictions. I’ve been encountering them [purists] for the last 25 years and if someone is making an intelligent argument, I will listen to them. What I will not do is shift my convictions like the weather vane above a house.”
Here’s a closer look at the four core categories – air, land, sea and professional – across which all new Breitling novelties will be clubbed.
Breitling CEO Georges Kern