CEO of Breitling Georges Kern is rolling out his vision to take the watchmaker forward. Here he talks about the changes he has made since joining and what we can expect for the future of the brand.
Over the past year Swiss watchmaker Breitling has been undergoing a brand refresh. Under the guidance of CEO Georges Kern, Breitling has been on a mission to update its image, accelerate the product range and re-identify itself with the customer. Originally known for its pilot and aviation watches Breitling has been expanding to other sectors, but ensuring to keep the original identity of the brand, in a unique way. Since taking on the role of CEO just over twelve months ago Kern, who is known for his fresh and forward thinking way of working, has been extremely busy. Developing new products including the Navitimer 8 which launched last year, as well as the new Premier line which was unveiled just last month.
He has launched Breitling in China – a previously untouched market, as well as rebranded all existing retail spaces and opened new boutiques throughout the world. Kern was the visionary behind the latest Cinema Squad advertising campaign and developed the #Squadonamission concept – creating teams of influential individuals to fit each pillar of the brand. The Cinema Squad featuring Brad Pitt, Daniel Wu, Adam Driver and Charlize Theron is the latest to debut. Kern has a strong vision in mind for the brand and has being working hard to bring that to life, being involved in every aspect of the development.
On the occasion of our meeting with Georges Kern, he had travelled to Dubai – the final leg of his world tour – to open a new Breitling boutique in the Dubai Mall Fashion Avenue extension. The recently designed flagship store was created in Kern’s vision and takes on a loft apartment concept – incorporating the key pillars of Breitling – land, sea and air – and creating a welcoming atmosphere for the customer. His new outlook sees Breitling becoming a more inclusive brand, rather than striving for the exclusivity that many luxury watchmakers are looking for. Kern sees this as a misconception and doesn’t want to limit the Breitling customer to any particular client – but instead wants to be inviting and welcoming to both existing and potential new customers. With this concept in mind we sat down to discuss the roll out of his vision and his plans for the future of the brand.
Today we’re here for the opening of the Dubai store, we notice a fresh feel and a cool look for the boutique, why did you decide to go in this direction of design?
The boutique reflects the new image of the brand. I think it is a huge mistake when luxury brands talk about exclusivity within their stores, I don’t think we should be exclusive, we should be inclusive and welcoming. I don’t think being exclusive is something that makes sense in current society – a time that has become more and more global and where everyone listens to the same music and has the same dreams. Exclusivity for me in the luxury industry means limited. I believe everything should be inclusive and we want to be a brand that welcomes everybody. In terms of the design of the store we never thought about it being masculine or feminine, we thought about cool or uncool. And that is what we have done with the loft apartment feel. It’s welcoming and cool. Of course it could be considered masculine but it is just as inviting to women.
Breitling wants to be associated with activities that people actually do and therefore be inclusive in everything we’re doing. You don’t actually drive a Formula 1 car for example, so we want to be associated with outdoor, relaxed sports and activities that people can actually relate to.
You’ve been on a global tour revealing what has been achieved for Breitling in the last year and also launching the Premier collection. How has this line been received across the cities and tell us how it came to life?
It’s been very good. I think it’s much easier for this collection than when we launched the Navitimer 8, because you have the context. You have the advertising campaign and the boutiques, everything comes together now. The Navitimer 8 was an ice breaker in a way, so it’s much easier for the Premier collection. It is even more complimentary to the range because it’s a totally new segment. Actually, I say it’s a new segment, we had it in the in the fourties so we’re going back to what we always had. It’s not an elegant watch it is an elegant sports watch. The sell-out figures are phenomenal since we started shipping it a couple of months ago .
What about the reaction in China – you recently launched there as a new market for Breitling?
It was very good. There is one particular picture where we [Georges Kern, Brad Pitt, Daniel Wu and Peter Lindberg] are taking a selfie and it went viral. This picture was used by everybody. And the fact the we have launched with Alibaba was the big bang that we needed. I think we can move in China much quicker than ten or fifteen years ago; because of digital, because the market is transparent and people know what’s going on in the US and Europe. Today you can reach out to people in a much quicker way.
The brand has had a recent facelift after many years of being perceived as rugged and daring. How challenging was it to keep the DNA of the brand yet venture into new offerings that will still be appealing to the existing Breitling customer?
I think they [the existing Breitling customers] feel good in this environment. It’s cool and different, but honestly it’s very much aviation just in a different way. The beauty of this concept and the concept of the advertising campaign is that you can easily plug in the former Breitling. I see this in the collectors clubs. I’m active in the three major Breitling collectors clubs online and they all love it. This is my biggest sounding board of customers and where I get lots of input from and what I’m hearing is that they love it. It’s not shocking, it’s just right.
In your communication you’re telling stories through the Squad concept you are using, to what extent do you think storytelling is still relevant today?
It’s fundamental. Today you buy emotions. I think all the technical aspects and quality aspects are a given and must be at that price point. I don’t think we would ever buy Chanel or Hermès simply because of the quality of the leather – this should be a given, and if it’s not then the brand has a fundamental problem. So it’s the same with watches. Above that you buy an image and a style and you want to identify with that specific brand. This is why we need storytelling; to create emotions. This is why we have our squads on a mission with Kelly Slater, Sally Fitzgibbons or Stefanie Gilmore wearing our waterproof watches. Or our partnership with Bentley, one of the most sophisticated automotive brands. It’s very much a bottom up storytelling approach than a top down brand approach. It’s more of a product driven approach. Everybody knows the brand. What they need to know now are the product lines and this is why we are now working so hard to build the stories.
Why did you decide to develop the Squads rather than choosing one person to represent the brand and to what extent is it more powerful to deliver a message when you have a group?
For me there were two fundamental elements. First of all how do we differentiate? If you look at other brands you always have one person in the advertising campaign, but if you really go out and ask people who is associated with which brand, people will not know. I think the squad is very different. Coming from aviation and squadron flying it makes sense for us to have this squad concept. I believe in the idea of teams more than individuals and I think the campaign is infinite – three cooks can be a squad or three watchmakers can be a squad, you can have one woman and two men, two women and one man, you can have local squads – it really is infinite and that’s the beauty of the concept. It is totally different from what the others are doing and of course has that link to team spirit. Our hashtag #Squadonamission is becoming really well known and has become part of our corporate identity.
How was it working with the Cinema Squad stars?
First of all I was surprised how quickly Brad Pitt agreed on the concept. He’s being wearing Breitling for 15 years, he’s a pilot and he’s had many Breitling watches in his life, so he knew the brand. Secondly he loved the idea of a squad where he’s not the centre of attention. And then with Peter Lindbergh, they have been working together for a long time. I think he loved the diversity of the squads from the explorer to surfers etc. I met Brad for the first time in LA during the campaign shoot and then in China where he was fabulous. He was nice, helpful, engaging with people, very professional. He stayed late during the night and I think he felt at ease in the whole environment. He likes what we’re doing.
And what about Charlize Theron?
She is a very interesting, amazing and extemely talented woman. She won an Oscar, she’s a fabulous actress, she’s super professional and obviously beautiful and it’s a pleasure working with her.
Peter Lindbergh is obviously very fond of you and he summed up in a previous conversation that the brand to him is “Georges”. What is your take on the partnership with Peter and why did you choose him to bring the Squads to life?
This is my third time working with Peter. In my previous life I had two big projects with him, beautiful projects. We’ve always worked extremely well together. I call him and we talk and I explain to him my fundamental idea. And then I let him work because I know that he understands what I want. So I explained the Squad idea and that we wanted to have that feeling of action in a relaxed way. We did one elegant style shoot for China because they are more formal, and a more relaxed style for the rest of the world. It was a huge production, there were 30 or 40 people on the set in LA it was crazy. But it’s very easy, I know him, he shares the pictures, we talk about it. Of course he knows that I’m influencing the brand. I have a vision, I know what I want and I hope that we will see everything falling into place. The visuals, the boutique and the products are all fitting together. This is something that was in my head and you have to be confident, that once everything is done it works, and it does work and I guess this is why he [Peter] said that.
What is the challenge that Breitling faces today?
Speed. We have the concept which I think works and is very beautiful. Now I know that for physical reasons it will take probably 24 months to really roll out. And this is annoying because you want everything immediately implemented which is physically impossible. It’s been a process of a couple of months, we only took over only a year ago so it has been super quick, but still we are in an industry where things don’t happen quickly. When creating a watch you need machinery, prototypes etc. – it takes time. To build a boutique you have to have the design, the location, you have to build it – it all takes time. And that’s the point, our biggest challenge is to implement all of this as quickly as possible.
You recently created the Superocean watch with Kelly Slater and his brand Outerknown. How committed is Breitling to sustainability and is this something we can expect to see more of in the future?
Sure. There are two aspects of it, the first is that as a corporation I always believe that everybody should do the maximum he or she can do in their sphere of influence. If we at Breitling, which is a small company compared to the big players, can at least raise awareness and educate people I think that’s a great success. The partnership with Kelly Slater reflects how I see the relationship with our celebrities or partners. We want to do relevant activities with them. I recently did a cycling race with our triathlon squad and we support a charity called Qhubeka in South Africa that buys bicycles for children who sometimes have to walk for two hours to get to school. Some of them have to wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning (especially the girls because they have to clean the house etc.) and then they end up dropping out of school because it’s too much for them. This project is to bring one million more people into the schools and one million more educated people can change a country, all because of a bicycle that will get them to school in twenty minutes instead of two hours. So it’s a very simple charity but it’s very efficient and this is an example of what we can and want to do.
With Kelly, because of his company and because he’s so well-known with millions of followers, we can contribute through implementing the innovative material of the econyl strap to bring this message across and raise awareness and this is what we want to do more of. We want to be involved with our squads and support what they are working on. So it’s not just advertising.
You mentioned the Coronation Double Century triathlon race in South Africa with the Breitling triathlon Squad – how was that experience and what did it add to you as a person?
I decided to do it because I’ve never cycled 210km before. It was one of the most beautiful races I’ve ever done and it was tough because I had just landed from China. I had to fly from Beijing to South Africa which was around twenty hours and then straight on the bike. But the guys pushed me up some of the hills so I achieved it with the help of my friends. I think I posted a picture when I was pushed by Vincenzo Nibali and Jan Frodeno. Vincenzo won Tour de France and Vuelta a España. Jan Frodeno is a gold medallist and won Iron Man twice – I don’t think there’s any man in the world who was pushed by these two guys of that level ever in history! I had cramps for 10 kilometres and they pushed me to the station where I could get a massage and eat. Otherwise I would have had to give up.
Obviously all the eyes of the industry are on you and the solid changes you have made, it is said that any product you touch turns literally into gold. In your opinion what are the prerequisites in creating a product or object of desire?
I think at Breitling we have lots of experience. We have a new team – I probably have one person from every watch brand. So we have a very senior, experienced team. The second point is that we have a phenomenal spirit – Breitling has this feeling that we are in a huge start-up company and people are happy and enthusiastic. For instance we have a picture of the team after our China event and everybody is happy because we are successful, we have a great project, we have a quick decision process, experience and this huge start-up feeling. We have supportive investors with CVC Capital Partners and most of the management are shareholders of the company which amplifies the whole feeling. So experience, spirit and I think lots of courage and imagination. Nobody is doing what we’re doing and this combination is working and will continue to work.
What can you tell us about what you are doing with the digital platforms?
We are definitely reaching out to a new customer base. The interesting thing is that the new products introduced this year are sold much more online than the previous lines are. We are rebranding and when we do it with online we reach people who were never Breitling customers before. Since then we have introduced two new product lines. This is what our customers are in contact with and what we have advertised. So this is what they are seeing and what they want to buy. Online is helping us to reach out to a new, younger customer base.
The use of the right platforms is a very controversial topic, especially when it comes to influencers. What’s your take on using influencers and what is the correct criteria in choosing them?
The world is changing and influencers have, as the name suggests; influence. They post and they have followers and their communities etc. As long as it stays authentic and credible and is not totally commercialised, I think it’s a valid additional channel. You will see, like with traditional press – the good ones will get better and the superficial ones will lose traction. Which is normal. But it’s part of it because we are in a social media world where some of these influencers have hundreds and thousands of followers. But they have to be careful that they remain authentic, real and credible because everything is transparent and consumers are not stupid.
What is something you still aim to achieve at Breitling?
Be more successful and reach out to more people and get my message across. I think it’s a super-cool brand and I think all the elements come together very well. When people come to the boutique they will understand the brand and I am convinced that Breitling can be one of the biggest brands in the world – as we are already in the western world. If we have the same success in countries which we are now starting to be in like China, it will be phenomenal.
You are very interactive on your Instagram account that has over 32,000 followers. What or who are the pages that you like to look at on a daily basis?
I obviously follow all the guys we work with. I follow cars and some fashion brands, because this is inspiration to me. We did a couple of products that corresponded to what I’ve seen in the car industry in terms of colour combinations and materials. I tell my team; “travel the world with open eyes”. I look at all the boutiques and all the developments and it’s not tiring, I’m interested. It’s not a burden – I love it! And this is why I love this mall so much because you see the latest developments with all of these flagship stores that are the best of the best. If you walk through Fashion Avenue you see the latest of the latest which is amazing. I haven’t seen anything comparable anywhere in the world – not even in Shanghai. This is probably the best mall I’ve ever seen.
What is the motto you live by?
Enjoy the moment.
What book are you currently reading?
You will laugh but I’m actually reading the book of Jan Frodeno who is one of triathletes in our squad. He just published a book – he’s a very young man so it’s not a biography but it’s about how he started his career and I’m on the second chapter. When he came to ride with me in South Africa I knew that he was quite an amazing guy. I generally like to read biographies.
What do you say no to?
Many things! The older you get, the more you say no. Because you don’t have to make compromises. You cannot be overloaded with emails and meetings, so I say no to a lot of things. I say no to many meetings because I want to breathe. When you run a company and are in a way so visible people suck you up. I try to only do stuff I want to do.
Baselworld 2019 is approaching, what can we expect to see from Breitling?
A lot. We have phenomenal novelties. Inspired by traditional product lines. It will be great. We have more coming in the sports segment.
We know there are three thematic worlds of air, land and sea, what can you tell me about the offering on the professional line?
We are working on new novelties within that segment. Not for Baselworld, but for later in the year.
How would you describe Breitling in one word?
Give me two – Cool and successful
Interview by Lindsay Judge