Breitling CEO Georges Kern sheds fresh light on the future of watch fairs, timepiece trends and the new meaning of luxury

By Michelle Johnson | 29 Jun 2020 | Style, Leaders

How Breitling's dramatic rebrand marked a new era of cool luxury

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* Breitling Navitimer Automatic 35 with a white mother of pearl dial with diamond hour markers and a stainless steel Navitimer bracelet

Georges Kern is a driving force in the world of watchmaking. CEO of Breitling, he has overseen a dramatic modernisation of the brand’s approach to the market, transforming the image of a refined but complicated watchmaker into a modern, ultra-cool company that exudes relaxed luxury and celebrates its enviable heritage. 

You need look no further than Breitling’s #SquadOnAMission campaign – starring ‘squads’ of pioneering ambassadors from the worlds of cinema (Charlize Theron, Brad Pitt and Adam Driver), aviation (Scott Kelly, Rocío González Torres and Luke Bannister), exploration (Bertrand Piccard, Inge Solheim and David de Rothschild) and surfing (Kelly Slater, Sally Fitzgibbons and Stephanie Gilmore) – or the conservation and charitable causes the brand supports to get a feel of this approach. 

Kern joined the brand in 2017 following a 15-year career at Richemont, where he became the group’s youngest CEO at 36 upon taking up the mantle at IWC Schaffhausen, before being appointed head of watchmaking, digital and marketing for the group. At the time, Breitling was one of Switzerland’s last independent family-owned watchmakers, but new acquisition and investment showed Kern it was ready to take operations to the next level. 

Now, the brand seems unshakeable and, frankly, ahead of the curve. It is committed to sustainable causes, working towards becoming carbon neutral and capturing a new generation of connoisseurs ready to buy into a brand’s ethos as much as its products. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Kern hosted Breitling’s first summit webcast to digitally launch three modern-retro novelties for 2020: The Chronomat Collection, the ladies’ Navitimer Automatic 35, and the Superocean Heritage ’57 Capsule Collection, along with the 250-piece limited edition with rainbow-inspired highlights. The popularity of this watch was such that it sold out in just a few hours. Here, Kern reveals all about the changing luxury market, Breitling’s transformation and the future of Swiss watch fairs.

How is Breitling approaching the market following the Covid-19 pandemic? 
The good news is we’re now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Many countries are beginning to open their businesses and resume normal activities, so I’m hopeful that, with all the right measures and continued discipline, we’ll be able to overcome this situation soon. Certainly, things will be different. I fundamentally believe consumer behaviour and attitude will move even further towards meaningful and sustainable consumerism. Breitling engaged on that path before Covid-19 – with our commitments towards Ocean Conservancy and [South African-based charity] Qhubeka, as well as the progress we’re making towards being carbon neutral – and all this will become even more important than it’s ever been. I think we did many things right intuitively, and this will help us to rebound in the coming weeks and months following the crisis. >>

Related: The art of isolation: we speak to the artists and galleries finding ways to bring great works into our homes

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* Breitling CEO Georges Kern
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What changes in consumer behaviour do you expect to see?
I believe that luxury will become more informal and casual. Things which were cool a couple of years ago might not be cool at all today. We will see new values. We won’t be jumping on a plane from Zurich to London when you can do video conferences instead. We are a social species, though – we need contact with people, we’re made to be in groups and to enjoy life – so this will come back. There will be unemployment, poverty and other problems, because Covid-19 is affecting the whole population. It is normal that society is evolving, and brands have to engage. If they [stick to] excessive luxury, some brand behaviours might become embarrassing, actually, because it just doesn’t fit our society anymore. 

What inspired Breitling’s move towards embracing a more informal luxury?
In 2017 I knew Breitling, but I couldn’t differentiate between the product lines. It used to be a very loud and masculine brand and positioned primarily in aviation watches. But being in one segment like this restricts you in terms of design, and so all the collections – the Avenger, the Navitimer, the Colt – were becoming blurred and missing coherent design codes. The first thing we did was to reposition Breitling to air, land and sea in line with its rich history. It immediately gave us more room to breathe. Then, we differentiated the lines aesthetically – so the Avenger now has a more military look, while the Chronomat is sporty-chic. Finally, we dramatically decreased our number of references from over 600 to around 150. Each collection carries 15 to 20 models and is now comprehensive and clearly structured, rather than offering too many choices and confusing our customers, especially the guys.

The new collections all reference Breitling’s design heritage. Could you tell us more? 
We have a history that many brands would kill for, and therefore we don’t have to invent stories. When you look at the watch industry, all the big product successes from the last 50 to 70 years are evolutions of iconic designs, just like the evolution of a Porsche 911 over the decades. When you have these designs, you should own them – such as the concave bezel of our Superocean Heritage ’57 or the Chronomat Rouleaux bracelet – because Breitling was the first brand to introduce these product elements and characteristics; we are still leading the way. When you can modernise the engineering or design but keep the heritage, I think you have a fabulous success story. At the end of the day, watches are emotional products that tell unique stories. 

Do you have any favourite pieces within the new collections?
The Chronomat, for me, is the ultimate product. It is a perfect watch in terms of functionality and features; it’s robust and all-purpose. You can wear it with a tuxedo or with shorts – it’s applicable for any situation. Our designer did an excellent job of defining ‘modern retro’. The copper dial reference is my favourite. The Navitimer Automatic 35 is also aesthetically quite amazing; it’s very difficult to make a unique product in the ladies’ market. The Superocean Heritage ’57 Capsule Collection reinterprets our first diving watch from 1957 and takes its cues from styles associated with the surfing scene of the ’50s and ’60s. With this capsule collection, we’ve focused on the relaxed Southern California fun-in-the-sun culture that defined an era. The surfing itself in those decades is at the heart of our storytelling here, but that era offered so much more: the great music, the amazing cars… >>

Related: How the Ferretti Yacht 500 is marking a trailblazing and stylish new era of design moods for the Italian shipbuilder

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* Breitling SuperOcean Heritage '57 Limited Edition with a light blue Outerknown ECONYL yarn NATO strap

The colourful Superocean Heritage ’57 Limited Edition was a big surprise.
It has been phenomenal. In our history, we’ve never sold a reference so quickly. The 250 pieces were sold out online in just a few hours. 

Do you think this experience will drive you towards expanding your e-commerce?
We’ve launched e-commerce in the US, UK, China and Europe, but this won’t replace our physical stores. We invest a lot into online and are active on social media, because 70% of the decision-making process is made online. However, I would estimate that, in the next 12 to 18 months, only about 10% to 15% of those purchases will be made online. The shutdown during Covid-19 has accelerated e-commerce – it’s why we were so successful with our summit webcast – but the act of purchasing is different. Millennials and young people still want a physical experience. We want to demonstrate that we are in contact with the customer and able to communicate our products whenever they are available, not just concentrating on one specific week [of watch fairs] in April.

What are your thoughts on the future of watch fairs, such as Baselworld? Is there still a benefit to concentrated annual showcases?
A year and a half ago, we had already decided on a new format that is more flexible in terms of time and location: local roadshows for retailers and summits for the media. With this approach, we are close to our customers, retail partners and media representatives, and we can introduce new models nearer to their date of availability. Consumer behaviour has changed fundamentally and our customers today expect new products to be available immediately after launch. We also want to introduce new products regularly, not just once a year. Accordingly, this new concept has proven to be successful for us in every respect. As far as the timing and location of our summits are concerned, we make those decisions depending on our market focus and product theme. We are currently evaluating various options for the coming autumn and next spring.

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* Breitling Chronomat Frecce Tricolori Limited Edition with a blue dial and tone on tone chronograph counters