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Breitling and the emotional appeal of “modern...

Breitling and the emotional appeal of “modern retro”

Thursday, 18 June 2020
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

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6 min read

At the online presentation of the brand’s first new releases for 2020, Georges Kern gave insight into Breitling, a brand he’s led for three years, and the chaotic environment of the past months.

Breitling’s Summits, where the brand unveils its latest watches, are as much about the show as the products themselves, but in the current far from normal context, chief executive Georges Kern, at the head of the brand since 2017, had to forgo the bells and whistles of a global tour in favour of more convivial, more personal online presentations. Before getting down to the main business of introducing the new releases for 2020, Kern took time to say a few words about the present situation: “The first thing I can say is that since markets reopened, sales have been progressing in a positive way. In a time of crisis, the luxury industry benefits from the fact that purchases are postponed, not cancelled. I’m confident we can make up some of this lost time.”

Boutique-Bistrot © Breitling
Boutique-Bistrot © Breitling

Breitling’s CEO is sure of one thing: “Luxury will have to adapt. Adapt to consumers whose values are changing, to lifestyles that emphasise health and wellbeing, to more diverse purchasing habits… This mindset confirms that companies need to step up their environmental commitments. Luxury can’t save the world but it must make sustainable development an important principle. Some of the things we’re doing at our level are to organise beach clean-ups and propose recycled materials whenever possible, in particular for straps. Breitling is also responding to this more informal lifestyle with a boutique-bistro concept and by creating closer ties with our customers.”

Chronomat B01 42 © Breitling
Chronomat B01 42 © Breitling

After this, it was time to look at the brand’s latest products, already teased in a Summit Webcast. First off was the Chronomat, a contemporary redesign of a 1984 model and the one Georges Kern declared he would “take with me to my island!”. The new Chronomat is an all-purpose sports watch, described by Kern as having “amazing perceived quality with a modern-retro style that anchors Breitling in the grand tradition of watchmaking but without exuberance.” Next in line was the Superocean Heritage 57 capsule collection, i.e. watches that are not numbered but are produced for a limited time only. Inspired by the 1957 original, it “gives us a chance to tell stories that are rooted in our history.” Kern ended the presentation with the Navitimer 35 in the women’s sports watch category, “a segment Breitling has always occupied and which is clearly in the brand’s blood.”

Breitling and the crisis

“We had to improvise. We shuttered the production site for three weeks and cut production capacity by half in April. This period was also marked by the gradual development of our e-commerce. Throughout this time we maintained contact with our 1,500 retailers through video conferencing. Prior to this, I’d never had so much interaction with them. This new way of doing things proved so successful we are going to make it standard practice within the company. I think society overall is evolving and values are changing, particularly with regard to the environment which is something we care about and are committed to through our support of various foundations. Once you know that, you understand why Breitling can never be about over-the-top luxury, and why we don’t sponsor golf or sailing. We partner cycling and triathlon instead; sports our customers can identify with.”

Superocean Outerknown and Outerknown econyl Nato strap collection © Breitling
Superocean Outerknown and Outerknown econyl Nato strap collection © Breitling
Breitling and ecology

“We’ll be supporting and developing a number of environmental projects. Personally, I’m convinced that economic growth and sustainable development can go together.”

Breitling and China

“Chinese citizens won’t be travelling this year, meaning they will be spending at home instead. We have the advantage that Breitling is a strong brand in the local market. Also, China is one of the markets where we still have a lot of potential, where we’re probably at just 20% of our development capacity. Globally, the question is whether we’ll be able to start making up for lost sales as from this second quarter. I’m personally confident, bearing in mind that it’s going to take time and it won’t be easy. Still, the first signs are encouraging, especially for e-commerce which we’ve launched in China, the United States and now Europe. Taking into account purchases that go via retailers, this now represents between 10% and 15% of sales. Also in China, even though footfall has decreased, the number of people actually buying has increased, hence we have a better store conversion rate. So the early indications are reassuring, particularly as we aren’t confronted with problems of destocking. We have a longstanding policy to buy back watches that are no longer in the collections. We take back stock then work with a dozen factory outlets worldwide. The important thing is to control prices and to convince retailers to collaborate with Breitling and our networks so as to avoid the grey market.”

Breitling and "modern retro"

“I often get asked if we’ll be making a smartwatch any time soon. To which I invariably reply that Breitling isn’t credible in that market segment. We have neither the means nor the R&D capacity to compete with Apple on that score. Mechanical watches and connected watches are different, complementary products that can happily cohabit. The real challenge for us is that we keep intact the appeal of a 200-year-old product in a digital age. This inevitably means communication but also capsule collections such as the Superocean Heritage 57 which emotionally anchors the brand as it takes us back to the “good old days” when the world got along just fine without digital. This is precisely the emotional value we are cultivating through “modern retro”. Let’s not forget that today’s best-selling watches are products that are between 40 and 50 years old such as the Chronomat, which takes us back to the 1980s. Yes, we’ve updated the design, in particular the characteristic “Rouleaux” bracelet, and we’ve put in a new-generation movement, but it’s the watch’s vintage roots that are the real draw. It’s a genuine advantage for Breitling to have one of the biggest back catalogues in the industry, thanks to which we can revisit the past while maintaining strong horizontal diversity, excluding grand complications, with products that range from electronic instruments for professionals to pilot’s watches and dive watches.”

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