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Breitling - Breitling’s five current focus areas (and some official responses)

Breitling Breitling’s five current focus areas (and some official responses)

With Georges Kern in the cockpit, Breitling is undertaking a thorough overhaul of its brand and product positioning.

It’s a bit like the glass half-full / glass half-empty scenario. Some people will see Breitling’s new strategy as an opportunity, others as a risk.

The reality is obviously a little less clear-cut. Rarely has a watch brand sparked so many comments, at a time when concrete evidence on which to base a valid judgement is still so thin on the ground. Mr Kern has been in post for less than year, too short a time to be able to evaluate the long-term effects of his strategy. Nevertheless, this has not prevented several industry professionals from making their views clear.

Distribution: limited room for manoeuvre

Breitling’s sales network is the keystone of its reorganisation. It is the sole point of physical contact between the brand and its end clients, and will remain so as long as Breitling continues to steer clear of e-commerce. But, given that Georges Kern is a digital veteran, it would be unwise to rule this out.

In the immediate term, however, there are more urgent concerns, most notably: reducing stock levels. “Clearly they have inventory, and they are going to have to shift their old collections,” confides the owner of a famous watch chain. This means not only reducing the volume of pieces currently with retailers, but also accelerating the departure of so-called EOL or “end-of-life” collections.” It’s a considerable challenge: they have to preserve retailers’ ability to absorb all or part of the 50 new references issued for 2018, while simultaneously avoiding a fire-sale situation, which would negatively affect the brand’s image and could also saturate the market.

Response of Tim Sayler, Marketing Director:
“It’s a typical brand repositioning challenge. We will indeed be overhauling our collections, but in a gradual way. Moreover, our cornerstones – the Navitimer, Chronomat and SuperOcean – will remain, and will be strengthened. It’s a natural transition, which will take 12 to 18 months.”

Entrenched positions

The decision to abandon the wings on the “B” of the Breitling logo already raised some eyebrows. But that was nothing compared with the reaction to the new collections. Debate was fierce on social media, so much so that a journalist from the US blog Hodinkee was brought in to field the comments.

Breitling’s five current focus areas (and some official responses)

Navitimer 1 Automatic 38 with black dial and black alligator leather strap © Breitling

Didier Gottardini, a Breitling expert, curator and author of a book about the brand, says, “It’s a shame that the manufacture has not made the most of its potential. Breitling is recognised by collectors for its triple calendars and flybacks, the type of complications that can take a brand upmarket. The Breitling of old never had the image of a great manufacture, and rather than jumping at the opportunity it has today, it is distancing itself”.

Response of Tim Sayler, Marketing Director:
“We will not be going into traditional grand complications. That is not part of the brand’s DNA, which was originally all about tool watches. Breitling invented the modern chronograph, and we will continue in this direction, bringing in improvements and new functions. We will not be investing in complications that would mean raising our prices, which we want to keep between 3,000 and 10,000 francs.”

Wings or no wings?   

The brand’s vintage repositioning, however, has been greeted with appreciation across the board. “The new historical logo is a good thing; it’s completely coherent for a brand that wants to branch out into areas other than aviation,” notes Didier Gottardini. Aurel Bacs (of Phillips, Bacs & Russo) goes further: “Mr Kern has always understood how the market works, the importance of heritage and collections. In this context, the new logo is completely legitimate.”

Response of Tim Sayler, Marketing Director:
“Yes, there were some fierce debates, but today everyone has accepted that going back to our original logo was a good thing. The wings were a relatively recent addition in terms of the brand’s 134-year history.”

Vintage market: good news

Breitling’s change of trajectory should also have an impact on the market for collector’s pieces. Those nostalgic for the wings and the 100% aviation focus are now turning their attention in that direction. They are starting to buy collections from the Schneider era, as well as pieces from the more distant past, which the company has finally made up its mind to promote.

Breitling’s five current focus areas (and some official responses)

Aurel Bacs

In the opinion of Aurel Bacs, things started to change some time back, in fact. “Two years ago, Phillips took the risk of putting a historic Superocean up for auction. We gave it an estimate of 15,000 to 30,000 USD. It went for 65,000 dollars. Collectors have understood the situation: after the Daytona and the Speedmaster, it’s now the Superocean’s turn. Breitling holds all the cards: a panda design it invented, an exceptional catalogue and a legitimate heritage. Those who were already in love with this piece are being joined by people who are starting to realise that it also represents a very promising investment.”

Response of Tim Sayler, Marketing Director:
“It would be great if our work could have such a positive effect on the value of vintage watches! We freely admit that, up to now, we haven’t done very much for collectors or for auction houses. That is going to change. We now have two full-time staff working on Heritage. We have mounted exhibitions of collectors’ pieces, with catalogues, which was a first for  us. There’s a huge amount to do, but sales are already beginning to pick up.”

Partnerships: watch this space

Breitling has begun to explore new partnerships to flesh out its Marine and Earth divisions: Outerknow for the sea, and Norton for the earth. These initiatives are supported by a series of “squads”: trios of explorers, athletes and other ambassadors.

The initiative is intended to support the rebalancing act being implemented by Mr Kern. In its 100% aeronautical past, the Breitling Jet Team reigned supreme. With the growing influence of the earth and sea domains, some kind of counterweight was needed. These Breitling Squads, with their parallel associations, provide a coherent response.

Breitling’s five current focus areas (and some official responses)

Georges Kern with a Norton Commando motorcycle © Breitling

Nevertheless, by venturing onto land and sea, Breitling has acquired a raft of new competitors that it didn’t have when it ruled the skies. On land, Breitling has chosen the world of vintage motorcycles, where Zenith and Baume & Mercier already have some skin in the game. On sea, it faces the titans Blancpain, Panerai, Rolex and Audemars Piguet, which have well-anchored foundations and commercial vessels with far more sail power than Breitling.

Response of Tim Sayler, Marketing Director:
“We are indeed opening ourselves up to new competition, but there are no more virgin lands to conquer in any case, particularly not in our segment of 3,000–10,000 francs. We nevertheless hope to do things a bit differently with our Squads, and we believe that our tool watch DNA will make the difference.”

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