“Brand awareness is not enough. Everybody knows Siberia. Nobody wants to go,” says Georges Kern, new CEO of Breitling, to laughter and applause at a morning press conference on February 23rd, 2018, in New York City. It is the last stop on Breitling’s #LEGENDARYFUTURE Roadshow where the night before at a star-studded, black tie gala, the Navitimer 8, the first collection under Mr. Kern’s leadership, made its debut.
The Navitimer 8 collection, available May 2018, is comprised of five models — the B01, the Unitime, the Chronograph, the Day & Date, and the Automatic. Designed to honor Breitling’s well-known aviation heritage, the new Navitimer also reflects some of the brand’s new values. Mr. Kern says of the process, “We have to be much stricter in the way we build a collection. And what is essential for a retailer and consumer is the readability of a brand.” The product plan he outlines covers three purposes — air, sea and land — and is comprised of four lines: the Navitimer as the umbrella name for all pilot’s watches; the Superocean for all diver’s watches; and the Premier and the Chronomat for land/all-purpose. “What we’re going to do now is very much about decomplexity, very much about segmentation in extending our offering in that price point between three and a half and eight or nine thousand. What we’re going to stop is everything below.” Calling them “cheap,” Mr. Kern is scrapping Breitling’s quartz products.
Categorizing some of Breitling’s current offerings as “visual pollution,” the new CEO seems determined to change how clients and retailers view Breitling in both a practical sense as when looking at a watch, but also in a more emotional sense when considering the brand as a whole. “Everything [from here forward] will be clearly segmented, structured, simplified, reduced to become readable and understandable,” he says. To this end, the Navitimer 8 lacks a slide rule, a defining characteristic of its predecessors. While vintage Breitling fans and collectors may laud this omission, some of the brand’s current owners do not. It is a controversy Mr. Kern faces head on. “We need to cover both segments to bridge the current Breitling community, which we love, which made the brand successful, and also the vintage community and the new customer we want to gain. This will allow us to finally gain a customer base in China.”
And China seems to be the market he’s aiming for. “We need to acknowledge that more than 50% of the world’s population is Asian and ergonomically our watches are too big and too heavy for them,” he says. Later in the year, Breitling plans to debut a collection of smaller watches designed to appeal to the Chinese market as well as the under-considered female market in the US and Europe, both of which will also require a pivot in Breitling’s advertising campaign.
“Blond girls and Betty on the Bomb—I mean I’m sorry—the world has changed and we need to adjust,” Mr. Kern says, citing the dated décor in the brand’s boutiques. Redesigned with an industrial feel and featuring pool tables and motorcycles instead of pop art pin-up girls, these spaces will no longer be called boutiques, but rather Breitling lofts. The first will open in China after Chinese New Year.
Partnerships have also been announced with Norton Motorcycles as well as Ocean Conservancy in a bid to expand the brand beyond aviation for markets like China where aviation is not a value as well as dip into corporate social responsibility, a consumer value largely prized by millennials.
In a big nod to the booming vintage market, Breitling is planning to offer certified pre-owned watches as well as launch re-editions very closely aligned with the historical chronographs in social media sensation and Breitling collector Fred Mandelbaum’s collection. A portion of Mr. Mandelbaum’s astounding personal collection of vintage Breitling watches was featured in the three-city roadshow with Mr. Mandelbaum even taking the stage at the gala for an interview and conducting workshops for collectors, retailers and press the following day.
The pivoting of a brand as well-known as Breitling is an enormous undertaking that to have any hope of success will require a huge amount of energy, passion, and vision. Georges Kern, however, has a track record for accomplishing great things in the watch world. He seems to instinctively know that in order to grow and reshape a brand he needs to strengthen its roots first. He says, “We want to be an authentic brand for men and women of style, purpose, and action with heritage, quality, performance, elegance, and modernity.” That would certainly make for a legendary future. Whether or not it makes for an achievable reality remains to be seen.