If you think you know Breitling, think again. That’s the message the brand’s new CEO, Georges Kern, imparted during a celebrity-studded event in New York City last week. Pegged to the debut of the brand’s new Navitimer 8 collection, the shindig also set the stage for Kern to tout the ambitious merchandising and marketing strategy he’s planning to grow Breitling into one of the world’s best-known makers of timepieces.
At his former company, IWC Schaffhausen, Kern gained a reputation as a showman who threw lavish parties for A-listers. That hasn’t changed. Breitling’s Thursday night gala at Duggal Greenhouse, a waterfront event space in Brooklyn, welcomed hundreds of retailers, press, and tastemakers, including actors Armie Hammer and Olivia Munn, Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander, and astronaut twin brothers Mark and Scott Kelly.
Breitling CEO Georges Kern with Armie Hammer on the red carpet at the #LegendaryFuture event in New York City on Feb. 22 (photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/PPR/Getty Images for Breitling)
Actresses Kate Upton and Olivia Munn at Breitling #LegendaryFuture event in New York City on Feb. 22 (photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/PPR/Getty Images for Breitling)
At a press presentation the following morning, Kern laid out his vision for the future (the evening’s tagline: #LegendaryFuture). Building on Breitling’s vast archive, he intends to simplify and segment the collections, make the brand more contemporary, and standardize prices between $3,500 and $9,000, ensuring that the watches remain price-point friendly, “but not cheap,” he stressed.
Even though Kern’s remarks were specific to Breitling, they’re helpful in understanding the high-end watch industry as a whole.
For growth, look to China—and women
What’s striking about the Navitimer 8 line is how un-Breitling it looks. Available in smaller 38 mm styles with simplified dials bearing a dramatically streamlined aesthetic, the pieces don’t look anything like the chunky, cluttered, slide-rule pilot’s watches of Breitling’s past.
Breitling Navitimer 8 Automatic with blue dial and stainless steel bracelet
The visual overhaul will “allow us to finally gain a customer base in China,” Kern said during the press presentation. “Why are we ignoring 50 percent of the luxury market? We need to make smaller and more traditional products because this is what [Chinese consumers] buy.”
At the same time, Kern recently announced that the brand would no longer show ads featuring scantily clad women.
“We are a little bit tacky today and not contemporary,” he said. “You cannot show these blonde girls and this ‘Betty on the bomb.’”
He went on to say that in Breitling’s historic catalog, he discovered a wealth of ladies’ timepieces. While I have a hard time seeing a brand with such a masculine bent as a maker of watches for women, there’s no arguing with Kern’s logic—nor his conclusion. Sexist imagery doesn’t belong anywhere, but especially not in advertising by a brand hoping to court more female buyers.
Storytelling requires simplicity
One of the challenges Kern said he encountered when he arrived at Breitling last year was making sense of all its references. “You stand in front of a window and do you read the brand, do you understand the brand?” he said. “There are so many rubber straps at Breitling, it’s confusing. I call this visual pollution. You’re knocked out by the visual complexity of the brand. Too much choice is no choice.”
Under Kern, the brand will streamline its products under four collections: Navitimer, an umbrella line for all of Breitling’s pilot’s watches; Superocean, a line of diver’s watches; Premier for its more elegant timepieces; and the Chronomat series of chronographs. There will no longer be any quartz offerings (not counting Breitling’s Professional range, which includes iconic quartz pieces such as the Emergency).
Breitling Navitimer 8 B01 with manufacture movement, blue dial, and black alligator leather strap
“We’re very much about segmentation and extending our offering in that price point between $3,000 to $8,000, $9,000. We want to be competitive with a 5-year warranty, manufacture movement, at a very competitive price. We don’t want to be cheap. But we don’t want to move upwards because other brands are much more qualified to do [complicated watches such as] perpetual calendars. Our field is chronographs—this is credibility. But we don’t want to go below because this cheapens the brand.”
Analog products, digital everything else
“The competition for us is not the digital watch,” Kern said. “Watches will remain analog. A watch is not a commodity, it’s an emotional product. But everything surrounding the watch will become digital: How I talk to clients, how I service them.”
While he didn’t elaborate beyond saying that 50 percent of the brand’s dollars would be spent on digital, it’s clear that online marketing and almost certainly sales are part of Breitling’s future. In this sense, the brand is following the tide of Swiss watchmakers who have, over the past year, flocked to the internet.
“It’s really about modernity,” Kern said.
(Top image: Breitling Navitimer 8 Automatic model with black dial and black leather strap)