Breitling has always been an innovative, independent brand – but under Georges Kern, the brand has reached new heights.
The iconoclastic German horological maestro shocked the watch world when he left luxury giant Richemont after a fruitful 17 years with the company to head up Breitling. As The Insider has put it, “to say he has since made his mark on the 136-year-old business is something of an understatement… it would be difficult to find many aspects of the company, its collections, its marketing or its design language which are still the same as he inherited.”
Indeed, Kern’s Breitling seems to be on a real winning streak at the moment. Not only has Breitling rebooted many of its most iconic watch families – Super Chronomat, Top Time and most recently Navitimer – to great success, but it’s forging an exciting new path for the business with a novel take on boutique design, event management and brand ambassadors.
But Kern isn’t done. Not by a long shot. DMARGE sat down for an exclusive chat with the enterprising Breitling CEO during his recent (surprise) visit to Australia to talk about the way he’s transforming the business, what he thinks needs to change in the luxury watch business, and how the last two years have affected the industry.
On that note: it was Kern’s first time in Australia, and he was quick to emphasise how much he appreciated being able to get boots on the ground Down Under, which has always been a strong market for Breitling.
“You cannot run a company with Zoom. You have to be on the ground to understand, really understand what is going on and you need to see [the] competition, you need to talk to the retailers, etcetera… It’s much more helpful than any Zoom meeting and any Excel sheet or what have you.”
Kern’s visit to Australia was no accident. Sydney’s Breitling boutique, which has long been one of the region’s most successful, is currently being renovated to fit Breitling’s new boutique concept – one of the first in the world, in fact. Casual, rugged and boasting a cool drinks space where customers drop in for a cheeky cocktail, it’s very different to the typical, stuffy image of a watch boutique.
That more casual approach to selling watches is something that’s long been embraced in Australia, but it’s an ethos Kern wants to share with the rest of the world.
“Australia is a very similar market to the UK and the US, we call them outdoor markets,” he explains. “People buy different types of products. Like Italy, it’s more outdoor, it’s bulkier, it’s more male, it’s more relaxed, more casual, all that. Which by the way, fits our strategy anyway.”
“We’re doing very well in Australia. Very well, very well. But we can do much more.”
It’s weird to hear the CEO of a luxury watchmaker talk about trying to go more casual, but it’s a formula that’s been working pretty well for Breitling under Kern. As the modern definition of luxury is evolving; becoming far less exclusive and much more nuanced, luxury brands need to change.
This need for change has only accelerated during COVID, where the usual paradigm of luxury watch sales – which depended a lot on tourism, especially for markets like Australia – has been completely upended. Kern’s repositioning of Breitling, however, has let the brand weather the storm better than most.
“We are a local brand. We are not a tourist brand. We don’t depend on any Chinese sales, duty-free, tourism, or what have you,” Kern says. “We have always been a local brand and we want to stay a local brand. We want to be German for Germans, American for Americans, French for French, Australian for Australians.”
“We don’t produce products for a certain community. We are a global brand AND a local brand.”
“What we saw during COVID is that you have local consumption. So much more local than it was in the past. And I think this is there to stay.” Kern points to the real estate market as an example. “If you are afraid to fly to Bali, you buy a house in Europe, in Mallorca, wherever, because it’s closer, you feel more secure, etcetera.”
That’s why Kern’s repositioning of Breitling has been such a masterstroke: in a world where people haven’t been travelling and instead have been spending their travel money on luxury products in their local market, Breitling’s inviting and experiential approach has really set them apart from the competition.
This even extends to the kind of activities the brand sponsors and the ambassadors they’re bringing on board. “I look at the values of Breitling [as] being sustainable, being casual… We talk about casual luxury and inclusiv[ity]. But inclusive in a way how we are not in tennis, we’re not in Formula 1,” Kern explains.
“We’re in surfing, triathlon, we’ve now signed with the rugby… We are much more approachable in what we are doing… I think these values [have] also helped us during COVID.”
Breitling’s latest signing, NBA champ Giannis Antetokounmpo, builds into this strategy too, Kern relates. “We’re looking for… How should I say? I mean, just cool, nice people. I mean, this guy is the sweetest and nicest guy you can imagine. And this guy’s incredible… Such a human, good heart guy. And top of that super talented. And I think this guy will be the star in the NBA for the next 10 years.”
For many watch insiders, the biggest sign of how Breitling under Kern is really challenging the status quo is the way the brand has eschewed the watch industry’s big trade shows in favour of running their own events. Breitling pulled out of Baselworld after 2019 and didn’t make the move to rival show Watches & Wonders this year.
Instead, Breitling held their own ‘do in Zürich: taking over a corner of Kloten Airport and cheekily chartering a few Swiss Airlines jumbo jets to fly journalists to Geneva while presenting their new Navitimer collection in the air a day before W&W ’22, stealing a bit of the fair’s thunder in the process – a characteristically Kern move.
“We’re totally independent because I don’t think you need a fair anymore to see journalists or clients or to reach out to consumers.”
“We have our roadshows, we have our summits, it’s super-efficient. And top of that we launch products when they’re available. So it’s from catwalk to the store.” Breitling’s continued upwards trajectory under Kern shows they must be doing something right.
What’s next for Breitling? Kern teased that they’re going to announce another high-profile American sporting ambassador and that they’re also re-launching another very important collection later on in the year. Watch this space…