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

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