Since taking the helm almost 5 months ago, Georges Kern has already made an impact on Breitling. From completely revamping the entire company and brand, starting with the logo which is now a stylised B first used in the late 1940s, to swiftly changing the management team and bringing in new expertise, Kern is leading the storied brand into a new future. The intent is to show that Breitling is not only about aviation or the oceans, but a brand offering watches to a new younger and varied customer base.
A specialist of technical watches, Breitling has played a crucial role in the development of the wrist chronograph and is a leader in this complication. The firm has shared all the finest moments in the conquest of the skies thanks to its sturdy, reliable and high-performance instruments. One of the world’s only major watch brands to equip all its models with chronometer-certified movements, the ultimate token of precision, Breitling is also one of the rare companies to produce its own mechanical chronograph movements, entirely developed and manufactured in its own workshops. These historical factors that have built the brand are what Kern has delved back in the archives towards, digging deep into its historical roots, to produce period correct re-editions. These will of course satisfy classical Breitling collectors, while the new Navitimer 8 collection intended towards attracting new clients.
Here we take the opportunity to speak to the innovative CEO during the second stop of Breitling’s #legendaryfuture roadshow in Europe, where he unveils the thinking behind the brands new identity, the concept of discovering and analyzing Breitling’s glorious past, together with the potential for future re-editions.
What is your vision for Breitling?
Let’s try to make it simple. What we want to do is enlarge our offering beyond aviation and totally align the DNA of the brand between our core price segment. Breitling is today offering hardcore, strong, big, modern pilot watches, and thanks to this the brand has been extremely successful. However, I think by considering the history of the brand we can go beyond aviation. Breitling was very innovative with divers watches and more elegant watches in the past, and I think we have phenomenal potential to enlarge our offering of these to reach a new customer base, not only in Europe and the United States, but also in Asia where we have to develop ourselves, together with also enlarging our storytelling to communicate what the brand stands for. The brand has to reach out to millennials and we have to change the way we communicate. We will also reallocate resources digitally, because the customer base has changed, and we have the potential to go beyond aviation, as one doesn’t exclude the other. We do still want to stick to what we have, which has been very successful for us in the past, but I think adapting the communication and reaching out will gain us a truly global customer base, which makes sense considering our DNA.
Why did you decide to go on with the Navitimer 8 line specifically?
Because today if you look at the collection at Breitling we have modern, hardcore, pilot watches, but the brand has existed for many years and we have now been inspired by history. The new line is a throwback to 1938, and the instrumentation needs of the then growing military and civil aviation sectors. This was a new specialist department which developed, manufactured, and tested instruments and watches for use in demanding conditions. The design elements of the new Navitimer 8 are rooted in these design elements, and by adding this more classic and conservative product to the current offering we will gain a new customer base.
What can we expect to see at Basel this year?
This year will be an intense year, we are going to have more novelties on the Navitimer 1, the classic of the classics in our collection. There will be one great talking piece, and in the second half of the year we are going to launch a more elegant line which is also based on a historical Breitling piece.
In terms of partnerships, can we look forward to seeing more collaborations?
We want to cover three areas, air, sea, and land. So, with air we have our jet team which is the largest civilian aerobatic display team in Europe. Based in Dijon, it flies seven Czech Aero L-39 Albatros jets. Concerning Land, we have our collaboration with Bentley and also Norton motorcycles, and when it comes to Sea we need to reinforce our relationship with this area, so we will be announcing our corporate social responsibility involvement in that sense in the coming weeks.
Where is the woman in the world of Breitling?
60% of the watch market is female watches, which is a huge share. Breitling has been extremely successful with women’s watches in the past, particularly with sports watches, and we are going to relaunch such lines next year, and of course reinforce that segment where the brand was very strong in the past.
What are the objectives that you would still aim to achieve at Breitling this year?
We have now had the new team in charge for around five months and it has been very intense. It is like a football team, there are a group of talented people, and we have to find a way to smoothly work together. It has been a phenomenally positive experience so far, which is why we have been able to quickly develop what we are now presenting. We have a very strong product launch program, including an upcoming advertising campaign which will be very interesting as it is different. We are also rolling out our new boutique concept which has a loft and industrial feel to it, together with the new Dubai flagship store opening.
Speaking of boutiques, you also have third party sellers, what is your strategy to maintain a coherent message between you, the distributors, and where the watches are sold?
To take the example of the Middle East, we are going to open a subsidiary in the region based in Dubai, and we are going to have a local team who will concentrate on marketing and sales. This is a focus for us are we are doing well in the Middle East, where there is a strong connection to aviation, with many locals choosing to wear our products. In some countries we are buying back our own distribution networks, together with working with agents to integrate most of our markets, bringing us closer to the clients and closer to our partners. I think the strong link with our retailers is very important, and this is why we are doing road shows.
As we meet you at a road show, is this the new direction for exhibiting new timepieces, and do you think the concept of fairs is dying out?
Yes, I think so. I have experienced the road show concept now in China, Singapore, and Japan, and although it is more intense and tiring for us, I have met many more customers and clients than before. It has been a super-efficient format for us to communicate what we are doing, so I do feel that fairs need to evolve to be more of a communication platform like fashion shows. I don’t think you need a fair to sell a watch in a digital age anymore, and they need to change to cope with the reality of the market.
What is your strategy to stay ahead of the competition?
When you really think about it, there are actually not that many strong brands in the same category. You have upscale brands doing mid to high complications, and you have generalistic brands at a lower price point. But, at our price point you have three or four competitors, and we have the potential to be strong in this segment and offer an alternative to the established brands, because of our DNA, the new communication we will put in place, and the new products. By enlarging the offering in our core price point I am quite confident that we are doing the right thing.
How do you approach change?
In general terms, the first thing I have been doing is going through the history, talking to collectors and retailers to recognise the strengths and the weaknesses of the brand and to appreciate the roots and fully understand the DNA. What is very interesting at Breitling is that you have a huge community of collectors of vintage watches that is totally disconnected from the community of the current Breitling owners, which I have never experienced previously with other brands.
This disconnection needed to be addressed, and we really want to bridge those communities in order to also gain back clients who are looking for more than what we offer today.
What made you change the logo?
I don’t know one successful brand on the planet with different logos, and we were in a position where we had different logos on different lines. We needed to make a choice and settle with one logo, so we looked into our archives and went towards the original logo of the 50s and 60s, because we are more than just aviation watches, and needed a generic logo, which I believe is more elegant and you can see its historical links when you see our exhibition.
Tell us about your plans to certify second-hand watches?
It is astonishing as there is a secondary market in every industry, whereas in the watch industry there is a lot of grey market, with non-certified products and you don’t know where these watches have come from and who was the owner. So, I think as a supplier we must help the market to become more structured, giving reassurance to the customer. There are many people out there who want to buy a pre-owned watch because it is at a lower price, if it is certified by the supplier or company, and this is what we are going to put in place, working together with partners. We can service these re-owned watches, certify them, and give them one or two years of guarantee, creating reassurance for the customer, rather than going to a grey market side where you don’t know whether the product is even genuine.
What is one challenge that you haven’t achieved yet?
We have the objective to make Breitling one of the most successful watch brands, and I think it has the potential. The fact that the brand is already in the top five in huge markets, proves that globally it can also achieve, and this is the aim. We certainly want to conquer new markets like Hong Kong and China in particular, but I think it is a proven concept due to its top five position in many markets, so why not be in the top five on a global level.
What do you promise yourself in 2018 and what do you promise your Breitling team?
For Breitling it is to make an even greater brand from what is already a great brand, and for my team and myself it is to be successful and have a lot of fun.
Can you share with us your life lesson?
Be passionate about what you are doing, otherwise you should drop it.
How would you describe Breitling?
Cool, tasteful, and with a strong DNA.
How would you like the world to remember you?
I don’t think I’m going to be a legend, but I would like to be remembered as being successful in what I have done, whilst being disruptive in the way I have done it, and also for being a nice chap!
Whose wrist would you like to see Breitling on?
As many as possible!