A proud Georges Kern reigns over a mighty crowd at Breitling’s 2019 Summit here in Los Angeles, writes Ariel Adams, founder and publisher of aBlogtoWatch. The mood is uncommonly (given the times) positive as bright colours and beautiful people mingle at the well-populated, still fresh event series that began at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills.
Breitling Summits are a new concept designed to replace participation at shows such as Baselworld for strengthening relationships with retailers and members of the media. In a world where watch brands need to be represented all over the world in seemingly equal strength, the Summit series is a wise idea.
I don’t think it replaces the industry networking value only available at collective events such as Baselworld, but when it comes to penetrating retail and editorial attention – a mono-brand event can’t be beat.
Since leaving the Richemont Group where he held a very high position, Georges Kern has been both transformed and refined. CVC Capital hired him to run Breitling after his notable time leading IWC. The watch industry feared that Breitling – a strong and sound brand that represented traditional Swiss timepiece luxury values – could be led astray given that CVC Capital had at the time no luxury watch brand experience. So far any fears about a “harmed” Breitling have been unfounded and Mr. Kern has done a pretty incredible job by most measures.
The key to success? It seems that a combination of both Mr. Kern’s invaluable leadership style and experience, and his new parent company’s willingness to give him the freedom to act. Choice and risk tolerance have allowed Mr. Kern to make Breitling a brand that many people in the watch industry see as one of the brighter lamps in the room.
In addition to a forum to announce new products, brand relationships, and key facts and figures, the Breitling Summit is turning out to be an invaluable opportunity to understand from a strategic standpoint what Breitling is up to. Between my various discussions with Mr. Georges Kern and the top Breitling management team, I’ve summed up below what I believe are the five most important takeaway messages from the Breitling Summit about the brand’s current strategies and plans.
Now Is the Time for Financial Investment
Breitling has been spending confidently. Investment over the last 18 months or so have been in a variety of directions including new hires, fresh products, novel brand marketing materials, and loads of new partnerships. Breitling is doing what most of its colleague brands are scared to death of doing – spending on the unknown. What defines the luxury watch industry today is a large degree of uncertainly about multiple areas of the business. What types of consumers will be buying your watches tomorrow? Where will they buy them? How will a brand reach them? What products do they want?
The traditionally conservative Swiss watch brands typically dislike having to answer such questions when there is little guidance. Most tend to rely on successes at other brands, and then try to emulate those strategies for their brand. These days that type of strategy is more often than not a road to nowhere. What does work is a combination of truly understanding a brand and then reformulating its core message for a new era. That is what Georges Kern has been doing and investing in, and it appears to be paying off.
Georges Kern himself wanted to shed any potential misunderstanding that a Breitling with a parent company is spending less than a wholly-owned private company would. According to Mr. Kern, Breitling today is experiencing a new era of growth and investment specifically because of the motivated parent company, and not despite it. It comments strongly on the mentality of the native Swiss giants to “sit and wait it out” anytime there are global financial issues, whereas pressure from outside the country has been crucial in forcing typically complacent brands to really reshape themselves.
The good news for Breitling is that historically speaking, those companies who invest in growth and marketing during transitional economic times (such as what we live in now) fare better over the long run being able to benefit from the value of marketing investment today, when consumers are ready to spend more tomorrow. I am left with authentic optimism that Breitling will be in an even stronger position a few years from now.
Relevancy & Sharing Values with Like-Companies Is Key
Known for his love of friends and partnerships, Breitling has benefitted from Mr. Kern’s ongoing efforts to align the brand with like-minded companies and personalities. A good example is the brand’s relationship with Outerknown which produces the recycled nylon NATO-style straps Breitling will soon be offering for sale. Outerknown is a premium “coastal style” clothing wear company that specializes in using sustainable materials. Breitling wants to be included in the conversation around luxury brands being instrumental in helping to popularize recycled and repurposes materials for fashion use.
Breitling will proudly sell straps produced in Econyl (a recycled nylon product) co-branded with Outerknown – something you don’t see that often in the industry, but that promotes Kern’s objective to create mutually satisfying collaboration products which includes traditional timepieces as part of a larger conversation about fashion, the future, luxury, and consumer preferences.
Kern benefits from not having an ego about the timepieces as a category. He understands that while a passion for analog timekeeping is very real, it alone doesn’t sell timepieces any more. Selling timepieces is about associating a positive feeling or idea currently in the cultural zeitgeist, with a luxury timepiece. Kern has experimented with this idea at IWC, and at Breitling with his newfound freedom as a CEO, he has even further improved how he connects his watches with relevant ideas and values of importance to consumers.
Squads Are A Clever Way of Promoting Inclusion
When Breitling announced Georges Kern as the CEO, they also introduced his “squad” concept which at first proved a bit confusing to traditional members of the watch media. The concept is pretty simple and very effective. In short, each squad represents a lifestyle or key concept of the Breitling brand such as “aviation” or “marine exploration.”
The squad is made up of personalities which are naturally included in that world. Those personalities tend to be official Breitling ambassadors or friends of the brand. What is interesting is how Mr. Kern has been fleshing out the squads and how open-minded he is when it comes to including new activities within those areas. Good examples are by including drone piloting and competition as part of the world of aviation, as well as incorporating the sport of surfing in the marine exploration part of Breitling’s heritage. Many of the activities Breitling will be involved with are not those traditionally focused-on by the luxury watch industry. That’s good news for Breitling as for at least a few years it will have an impressive head start.
Perhaps more important about the squad concept is how by populating them with a number of varied individuals, Breitling can appeal to wildly diverse populations at the same time. People like to connect with others who remind them of themselves. The squad concept allows Breitling to populate these groups with personalities of difference genders, ages, backgrounds, and looks. That way there is no one person representing Breitling on aviation, diving, driving, etc… Mr. Kern wants there to be something at Breitling for everyone, and the desire to be inclusive of diversity is both relevant and smart.
Breitling As A Brand & Lifestyle Will Be Celebrated
Mr. Kern is a cautious individual when it comes to product development. From my perspective he sees himself more as a brand caretaker than as a brand inventor. The differences are important. The latter seeks to make his or her own creative impact on a brand’s look and feel, possibly dramatically changing the aesthetics of the products. That doesn’t seem to be Mr. Kern’s approach. Rather, he studies the brand he is responsible for, in what looks like an attempt to distill down the core essence of what it represents to consumers.
Almost like a scientist, Mr. Kern is experimenting with what Breitling watch needs to be and what it needs to look like. He does this by studying the brand’s formidable archives and history, as well as using his own senses to understand who wears Breitling watches and why. Mr. Kern is intensely hands-on with this effort, and that is important because it means he can apply his own sensibilities as opposed to having to rely on questionable reports and confusing data. As Mr. Kern gets to know the Breitling brand better, the more he can pull out those qualities of the brand which will help it succeed in today’s market.
This also opens us the larger questions of what is the greater value of Breitling beyond its products. Most great watch companies who suffer in today’s market do not do so for a lack of quality product. They do because they don’t understand how to make consumers desire their products. Products that are no longer purchased for their ability to be great timepieces. The goal today is to first create a desirable brand, and only after that to wave great products in front of a captive audience. Georges Kern and his team seem to not only appreciate this wisdom, but are able to effectively implement strategies which embrace it.
Listening To The Consumer Has Never Been More Valuable
One of the most interesting transformations made by Mr. Kern when he joined Breitling was his explicit participation on social media. Mr. Kern routinely uses his personal Instagram and LinkedIn accounts to launch new products and debut Breitling news. More important is what Mr. Kern is evidently learning on social media – and those are lessons from the consumer.
Putting things into a bit of context, it is important to appreciate that, at least historically speaking, most Swiss watch brand CEO’s don’t know their buyers very well. The majority of information CEOs once received about their customers was indirect and via feedback from retailers, distributors, and business analyst reports. Adding insight directly from consumers should give Breitling an advantage.
Mr. Kern along with some of his contemporaries have noticed just how much information and data is available just by browsing social media in order to understand what consumers are saying, what they are feeling, how they reach for information, and what appears to be relevant to them. With that said, I want to remind readers that such information must be taken responsibly and with a grain of salt. It isn’t that everything you read online or on social media is to be taken as gospel or facts, but maturely taking into consideration (with the seasoned professional’s eye Mr. Kern has) allows brand managers to make enormous realizations about their brand, their consumers, and the market.
Want to understand why Breitling chooses to invest in some of the activities or people that they do? Is there a larger core strategy at play when it comes to choosing the right partnerships? Not really it seems. Mr. Kern sums it up best himself when implying that “when you feel it is a right fit, it is.” This sentiment was echoed in a completely different context by new Breitling watch brand ambassador Brad Pitt to me during an interview, as the mega-star indicated that at this point in his life, he trusts his senses and works with people and companies that give him a good vibe. That alone is why he is working with Breitling.
Mr. Kern’s own market research (listening to the sentiments of consumers and the market as a whole through direct experience), in my opinion, is the bedrock of his confidence when it comes to making decisions in challenging times. There is no road map for where Breitling must go to reach tomorrow and beyond. Success will be a function of individually-calculated good decisions, and not one larger strategic road map. By listening to ever changing market conditions, and also knowing the needs of a luxury Swiss brand, Mr. Kern along with his team is doing what needs to be done for Breitling in 2019 and beyond. Managers at other brands might want to take notice.