Georges Kern was the most respected and recognisable watch executive within the entire Richemont empire when he was headhunted to lead Breitling in the summer of 2017. The company’s new private equity owners wanted a man with the experience and vision to transform Breitling from the world’s best-known watchmaker among the white, male, Western pilot community into a group capable of appealing to women and men of every taste in every corner of the globe. WatchPro’s Rob Corder spent an hour with Mr Kern in an effort to work out how he intends to do it.
The UK is Breitling’s second largest market in the world, according to chief executive Georges Kern. The most recent accounts published at Companies House show sales for Breitling UK Limited of £42.2 million in 2016, a figure likely to have been surpassed in 2017.
Mr Kern was in London in March as part of a global roadshow to introduce a three-year transformation plan for the business to its retail partners, and challenged Gavin Murphy, UK manager, to hold onto that second position. “I am not sure it will stay that way, but you should fight for it,” he said.
The main purpose of Mr Kern’s visit was not to put the frighteners on his UK team, but to update partners on what he has learned about the brand since joining as CEO last year, and what the future direction for the business will be.
It is worth remembering the background to the new Breitling, a company that can trace its history back to 1884, but has been owned by London-based private equity firm CVC Capital Partners since April last year.
Mr Kern was poached from Richemont Group to become the company’s CEO in July. Securing his signature was a major coup for Breitling, and a signal that the new owners have ambitious plans for transformation and growth.
Transformation has already begun. Breitling has a new logo that combines elements from what were previously more than one corporate identity. The handwritten B is going to be a single iconic symbol for the brand above a sans serif BREITLING in capital letters. The logo is fresh and contemporary, but with a link to the heritage of the brand. The logo actually pre-dates Mr Kern’s arrival at Breitling, having been seen in the new configuration on the Superocean Heritage models that launched in 2017.
The logo and new branding has already been deployed in a small boutique in the Swiss Alps skiing town of Zermatt. Images from the showroom show that little of the aviation-themed pop art styling found in its London flagship has survived. In its place is a Manhattan loft-style interior featuring youthful blonde woods and cool steel architectural details.
When WatchPro.com revealed the new store design in January, it had Breitling retailers simultaneously delighted at the more sophisticated image, and grimacing at the potential cost of re-fitting some only recently-transformed stores featuring the old aviation-themed pop art. “We are in such a transformation period that we have to give [retail partners] 24 months review on what is going to happen to the brand,” Mr Kern said.
The switch from bold, ballsy and, some might say anachronistically misogynistic art associated with jet fighters from another era might have happened without the current #Timesup mood, but it looks well-judged in the current climate.
During his London presentation, Mr Kern showed a before and after video of how marketing used to look for Breitling, and how it will look and feel going forward. Before, we saw chisel-jawed Top Gun pilots being doted on by supermodel-looks female ground crew. The question of who was servicing whom, hung in the air but the video quickly segued into the current promotion where, to a soundtrack of Riders on the Storm by The Doors, equally competent men and women flew helicopters, skied, surfed huge waves and generally looked in control.
BEFORE (above) and AFTER (below) promotions from Breitling.
“We want to be an authentic brand for men and women. We want to be really global, not just in Western markets. We want heritage, quality performance, elegance, and modernity. We need to become more contemporary. This is why we have stopped the current advertising campaign, because I believe it does not reflect the realities of our society today. This has nothing to do with any #Metoo or whatever is happening in the States, it is really our feeling that we need to be more contemporary,” Mr Kern explains.
“We want style, we want taste, we want this industrial loft idea. We want to be an informal brand, a cool brand, a younger brand. We need a different look and feel to our advertising and store experience than we have today,” he adds.
The scale of ambition, and the opportunity to expand into new markets with a brand as strong as Breitling is clearly what attracted CVC Capital Partners to buy the business. Mr Kern thinks the company is currently operating in only a tiny segment of the market with predominately oversized, feature-laden, men’s pilot watches.
Mr Kern says he wants Breitling to be much more than an aviation brand. In fact, he wants it to be much less of an aviation brand with just professional instruments. In his first months in the job, he searched through the archives at Grenchen, Switzerland, for inspiration and found a plethora of references including elegant classical styles for men and women that he intends to update for the modern market.
“The way we want to be perceived by consumers is as one of the most relevant watch brands in the industry, focusing on an urban and relaxed clientele offering iconic designs combined with instruments for professionals. We are going to keep the instruments for professionals that you know, such as the Emergency, but what we want to be recognised for is as one of the most historically relevant brands in a price point between $3000 and $8000,” Mr Kern describes.
For a brand as well-known as Breitling in the UK, it is notable how many gaps it has in its current business. “Asia is 50% of the market, women’s watches are 50% of the market, and we are not in either segment. So when you look at it, we are competing in only 20% of the market,” Mr Kern admits. “When you consider that Breitling is really only doing over-sized pilot watches, we are only competing in 5% of the market,” he adds. The aim for Breitling, Mr Kern continues, is finding a way to fish in a much bigger pond.
Paradoxically, Breitling’s reach into many new market segments will be done with far fewer watch collections. Mr Kern is convinced that the current line-up of around 600 references is too complicated for retailers to understand, let alone describe to their customers.
“We are going to reduce the number of references from 600 to 120, and segment them in a much sharper way. I like to have things in order and we are going to put a couple of things in order. Each line will have a clear identity, design codes and a dramatically reduced number of references to make it easier for retailers. These guys have 15-20 brands, and the sales staff need to understand very quickly what we are talking about. When it comes to customers, too much choice is no choice,” Mr Kern believes.
The product lines will be segmented in various ways. First, they will fit into one of four styles: air, sea, land and all-purpose. Pilot watches are air, dive watches in sea and sport watches on land.
Secondly, they will be segmented by the type of movement. The top of the line will use in-house chronographs; next will be watches with third party chronographs; then there are watches like the Superocean Heritage from 2017 that house Tudor’s B20 automatic movements; and finally there are non-chronographs using ETA or Sellita movements. All watches will be housed within just four families: Navitimer, Superocean, Premier and Chronomat, and there will be watches for both men and women in each family. “Every segment will have a clear image language,” Mr Kern promises.
If that sounds confusing for 120 watch references, imagine how it might have read if it were describing 600 different models.
Former families including Avenger, Colt, Transocean and Montbrilliant are being quietly retired for now. Breitling for Bentley will no longer be a category in its own right, but there will be special executions for Bentley within the four families that remain.
The only watch family unveiled ahead of Baselworld was the Navitimer 8, and a close look at the collection reveals how Mr Kern’s vision is being put into practice. It is a contemporary and wearable watch that takes inspiration from historic heritage models that were ahead of their time in the development of chronographs. “With the Navitimer 8 we are honouring not only our rich heritage but also our pioneering role in building chronographic instruments. But while the Navitimer 8 pays tribute to our past, it also does something considerably more important. It opens the door to a very exciting future,” says Mr Kern.
Five Navitimer 8 models have been unveiled, demonstrating how a single family of watches can be home to several expressions. The Navitimer 8 B01 is powered by the in-house Breitling Manufacture Caliber 01; the Navitimer 8 Unitime is a world traveller housing the COSC-certified Breitling Manufacture Caliber B35 chronometer movement; The Navitimer 8 Chronograph uses Breitling’s Caliber 13 chronometer movement; a Navitimer 8 Day & Date has a Caliber 45; and the entry level Navitimer 8 Automatic is a simple three hander driven by Breitling’s Caliber 17.
Breitling’s retailers have been given advance sight of much larger families of watches, which WatchPro will cover in future editions and online at WatchPro.com. The press who attended the roadshow were given only glimpses at mood boards for models that will launch later this year, including a Superocean Heritage that will be all about about “surfing, cool people, nice looking guys and girls”. The Premier, which launches in in the second half of 2018, will be an elegant, urban watch. The Chronomat was described as “something that is all-purpose”.
No details were provided about what movements will be used in which models, but it is likely that Breitling will continue with Tudor’s B20 in future Superocean Heritage, while third party movements, with or without chronograph, will provide affordable entry-level price points for other families.
Watches will be generally smaller and more wearable under Georges Kern’s stewardship, a promise that will be welcomed by Breitling’s retailers in the UK and cheered to the rafters in Asia. “Not everybody is wearing 46mm. We now have a simple test: anything I cannot wear will not be launched. The most commercial size in chronograph is 43/44mm, in automatic it is 39/40mm,” he explains.
WatchPro was given an hour long summary of a presentation that took a full day for Breitling’s retailers, and much more will be known on the other side of Baselworld when more of the 2018 portfolio will be unveiled.
The reaction from retailers, according to Mr Kern, was ecstatic. “They love it, they love it, they love it more,” he exclaims. “They have seen the potential of the brand, they have seen the marketing campaign, they have seen the novelties that we will launch in the second half of the year. The retailers in the UK totally understand that we are aiming to gain a new customer base. They fully understand the potential to acquire a new customer base and they love the more classical products,” he says.