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Why Breitling’s new CEO is steering the brand away from “hardcore aviation”

How Breitling plans to expand into becoming a generalistic brand.

For a quick clue as to how independent Swiss watch brand Breitling is changing under its new CEO Georges Kern, just look at the logo on its upcoming Navitimer 8 watches. Gone are the wings in the aviation-centric brand’s logo, replaced instead by the letter B in cursive script – a simple, vintage-style logo that references one used by Breitling in the 1950s. Speaking at the Navitimer 8 gala launch event held in Shanghai in late January, Kern notes: “Just because (a brand is linked to) aviation doesn’t mean you need (to show a pilot’s) helmet. You can talk about aviation, but in a contemporary way.”

The shift away from the brand’s focus on flying is one of the most significant moves that Kern has made since officially taking up his appointment at Breitling last August. He is more than just its new CEO; Kern also has a stake in the formerly family-owned company, which was sold to European private equity firm CVC Partners last year. Speaking to us at the Andaz Singapore hotel a week after the Shanghai event, Kern makes it clear that his long-term goal is for Breitling to be a commercial powerhouse focusing not just on “big, bulky, polished (metal)” aviation-themed watches, but also on being “a generalistic brand” with a wide spectrum of offerings in the US$3,500 (S$4,600) to US$10,000 price segment. These will broadly include timepieces in three categories – “elegant, sports- elegant and instruments for professionals” – that cater to women as well.

  • Breitling CEO Georges Kern

There is little reason to doubt that he will make it happen. Prior to his move to Breitling, he was best known for being one of Richemont Group’s top executives. In 2002, he became the youngest CEO within the luxury conglomerate, when he was appointed to head IWC at the age of 36. Over the next 15 years, he took IWC from being a technically focused, niche watch company to a global luxury brand that remains one of the Richemont Group’s top performers. It’s an achievement he will be looking to repeat – on a greater scale – at Breitling, which, with an estimated annual revenue of 420 million Swiss francs (S$582 million) according to Bloomberg, is much larger and better-known than IWC was in 2002.

One can already see several of Kern’s signature strategies in place at Breitling: rich storytelling carried out with the help of large-scale events, digital initiatives and plenty of celebrity friends; combined with clearly delineated product categories targeted at larger audiences beyond pilot’s-watch enthusiasts. And it’s not just storytelling for mere hype – as Kern repeatedly emphasises, all the recent changes at Breitling are rooted in its rich and surprisingly little-told history, which dates back to 1884.

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He says: “When you look at its history, you have everything, it’s phenomenal – and nobody knows about it.” While the brand has long emphasised its aviation roots, much of its heritage remains unknown to modern buyers. For instance, the brand played a key role in the development of the modern chronograph wristwatch, being behind breakthroughs such as the creation of a separate push-button for the chronograph’s start/stop/reset functions in 1915, and subsequently in 1923, the Citta Bella separation of the start/stop function from the reset function. And, while Omega’s Speedmaster has achieved modern-icon status as the first watch on the Moon in 1969, a Breitling Navitimer was actually the first Swiss wrist chronograph to go to space – accompanying American astronaut Scott Carpenter on his 1962 orbital flight.

“History gives reassurance to the customer”, notes Kern, nodding when asked if he was surprised that the brand had not previously plumbed its deep history, in terms of both marketing and products. He says: “I was very surprised. That is one of the reasons why I was so attracted to the brand. I thought, oh my god, if we were to…enlarge our segment and our offerings in this price segment, and be a generalistic brand in a smart way, this has huge potential.”

This desire to expand Breitling’s offerings beyond instruments for pilots and wannabe pilots explains why Breitling’s new Navitimer 8 collection falls squarely into sports-elegant rather than tool-watch territory, and bears distinguishing marks of the brand, past and present. The Navitimer 8’s historical sources of inspiration include the onboard clocks created by Breitling’s aviation instrument division, known as the Huit (French for “eight”) Aviation Department, which was founded in 1938. The new collection has received a mixed reception, with some questioning its departure from the Navitimer’s signature aesthetic.

 


THE NEW NAVITIMER 8

Five key models make up the Navitimer 8 collection, which includes design accents from the classic Navitimer watch, such as a bidirectional notched bezel and bevelled lugs. But the Navitimer 8 features a cleaner aesthetic, as well as details drawn from the brand’s mid-20th century history: For example, its font and railway minute track are similar to those of onboard aviation instruments created by Breitling’s Huit Aviation Department, as well as to the look of Reference 768, a 1940s pilot’s watch.

  • 01 NAVITIMER 8 B01
    The highlight of the new range is powered by the in-house Calibre B01, which has a column-wheel chronograph with vertical coupling. The 43mm automatic chronometer comes in steel with a black or blue dial, or in red gold with a bronze dial.

Kern has little time for such criticism and what he deems the narrow view of the brand on which it is based. “One thing doesn’t exclude the other. What we’re doing here is offering something different. When people… say this is not Breitling – first of all, that’s wrong; it’s totally Breitling because everything is based on its history. But the biggest mistake (in what they’re saying) is this – why should we do more of the same? Why should we do another big, bulky, polished watch? For whom?”


“WHY SHOULD WE DO MORE OF THE SAME? WHY SHOULD WE DO ANOTHER BIG, BULKY, POLISHED WATCH? FOR WHOM?”


For the brand’s ambitious CEO and part-owner, there is a whole world out there that Breitling needs to explore if it is to truly spread its wings. He says: “We are in a super-niche segment, with big, bulky pilot’s watches where we totally dominate the market, but it’s still a niche. So the question is, can we fish in a bigger pond? We are there, where are the fish? Can we, within our price points, make sports-elegant watches, instruments for professionals, (and so on)? I think that is what we should do.”

 


 SHANGHAI SURPRISE

Breitling shows its new side in one of its latest key target markets.

Director (left to right), Actor Stephen Fung, Breitling CEO Georges Kern, Chinese Actor Yang Shuo, Korean Actor Ji Sung on the stage. Photo:Breitling

Provocative French singer Serge Gainsbourg, jazz musician Miles Davis and film star Raquel Welch – these are not personalities that one would typically associate with Breitling. But it was precisely these iconic stars, all fans of Breitling in their time, who were featured in large black-and-white photos that hung from the ceiling at the Navitimer 8 launch event in Shanghai. The gala was attended by more than 300 guests, including celebrities such as Hong Kong director/actor Stephen Fung, Chinese actor Yang Shuo and South Korean actor Ji Sung.

Along with the new collection, 60 vintage Breitling timepieces were also showcased. Selected by well-known chronograph collector and now Breitling consultant Fred Mandelbaum from his own collection, these historical pieces helped to tell the story of the brand.