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Breitling: universal ambition

CASE STUDY

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June 2018


Breitling: universal ambition

Georges Kern has delivered his verdict on Breitling, acquired by the CVC Partners fund and placed in his firm hand last year. The consequences were drastic and visible at the last Baselworld: a restructured and expanded brand offering and a new logo with references to air, sea and land; a distribution chain that has been brought back under control and an all-out digital offensive. A strategy that has the merit of being clear, at a time when the brand was suffering the effects of a number of inconsistencies. Breitling is now out to win “its” part of the Asian cake.

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t is a brand of (almost) unequalled reputation, very strong in the United States and Europe, but which seemed to have gone somewhat dormant. So when someone as uncompromising and polarising as Georges Kern takes Breitling’s destiny in hand, the wake-up call is all the louder!

At the last Baselworld trade fair, the storytelling was welloiled, focused on a flawless presentation of the brand’s three worlds in the Kern era and one reiterated phrase: “We’re not inventing anything, we’re simply continuing what already existed.” As proof, a 1950s ad vaunting the three worlds of Breitling: earth, sea and air.

Reopening drawers

“When Georges Kern set his eyes on the brand’s catalogue, one thing struck him immediately: the collections were too similar to one another, with a confusion of genres between the models,” we’re told.

Difficult to contradict him on that, when at Breitling the power of the brand seemed to have taken priority over that of the collections, resulting in an impression of treading water, immobility (which, let it be said, also has its merits when many brands seem, on the contrary, to be navigating on sight and zigzagging strategically). In short, the company was in idle mode.

And stuck largely in aviation gear. By taking a few, highly symbolic decisions – such as terminating the partnership with Super Constellations and the Patrouille Suisse formation, keeping only its own, famous acrobatic jet team – the new man at the helm made plain from the outset his universal ambitions for Breitling, also placing the emphasis on motor sports and sailing to put the brand on a par with other watchmaking heavyweights that occupy that terrain. There again, the idea is to take the brand out of its comfort zone, in which it had grown a little complacent.

Broadening the field of action

Of course, he runs the danger of giving the impression of “clipping the wings” of Breitling (both literally and metaphorically, since wings no longer form part of the brand logo). In fact, efforts have been made to clarify the fact that the brand is not abandoning aviation but broadening its horizons.

If we step back to see the bigger picture, keeping in mind the global strategy of a brand that now intends to fight on several fronts, the choice is understandable. Breitling does not want to address solely fifty-something Western males interested in aeronautics, but also an Asian audience with more classic tastes and, which represents half of all luxury purchases worldwide, and a feminine audience that still largely eludes it.

In reality Georges Kern has his sights set on the Chinese market, notably with the new Navitimer 8 line. He is doubtless counting on reproducing his recipe for success at IWC, where he raised sales from several tens of million francs to several hundred million francs in 15 years.

Because, make no mistake: in reality Georges Kern has his sights set on the Chinese market, notably with the new Navitimer 8 line. He is doubtless counting on reproducing his recipe for success at IWC, where he raised sales from several tens of million francs to several hundred million francs in 15 years.

That means a very strong marketing presence (already visible with the formation of the Breitling Squads, ambassador trios from very different environments), a broader, more universal offering and direct, strict control of its physical and digital distribution channels.

Three key lines

So what about these flagship models? They are now to be structured around three worlds, the Air (Navitimer), the Sea (Superocean) and the Earth (Transocean), plus two cross-cutting families, Chronomat and Professional. Note that the Navitimer 8 launched this year does not replace the original Navitimer, which has now become... the Navitimer 1.

Navitimer 1
Navitimer 1

The emphasis lies squarely on what makes up Breitling’s DNA: the mechanical chronograph. Apart from a few exceptions, the brand will no longer produce quartz models. This exercise in clarification, a combination of a return to the brand’s roots and an expansion of its field of action, will not be followed by a price hike; the aim is to remain in the mid-price range of CHF 3,600 to CHF 7,500, accessible luxury in chic sports models.

The mighty shadow of CVC Partners

While Breitling has been largely absent from the e-commerce scene so far, another keen ambition – also “universal” – on the part of Georges Kern is to rapidly open digital sales channels to allow consumers, whether Asian or not, to purchase a Breitling watch at any time. Underlying this universally ambitious plan are the stringent demands of the brand’s new owner, the London-based private equity fund, CVC Partners. The fund acquired 80% of Breitling from the Schneider family, which had owned the brand since 1979, for an estimated 800 million francs in spring 2017.

Limited Edition Navitimer Aviator 8
Limited Edition Navitimer Aviator 8

Georges Kern himself bought shares in the company – incontestably a great stage entrance for his new mission. That date also marked the buying-out of one of the last great independent, family-owned Swiss watchmaking brands. In an interesting analysis, Alon Ben Joseph of Ace Jewelers in the Netherlands points out that private equity funds retain their investment in companies they have bought for an average of seven years, with expectations of an annual return on investment of around 20%. Consequently, according to his calculations, the new management has a sales target of… 2.5 billion dollars by 2024. Which for Breitling means an average annual growth of around 30%.

Mission impossible? Will Georges Kern succeed in fulfilling the role of providence-sent leader and enter the annals of watchmaking history?