How one man rebuilt Breitling
Words by Rob Chilton
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Refreshing a successful brand that started in 1884 is a brave step. But that’s what Breitling CEO Georges Kern began to do a year ago, the results of which are now being felt
Kern told EDGAR how he engineered the daring evolution of the classic watch company, starting with a phone call to a famous movie star.
For his new look company, Kern needed famous faces and immediately knew the first guy he needed to call. “I’ve known Brad Pitt’s manager for 20 years,” says Kern. “For 20 years I’ve been saying, ‘John, one day I’m going to call you on Brad’.” Kern met with Pitt and explained his plans and they reached an agreement in just 10 minutes.
“Brad is a pilot and has worn Breitling watches for many years, so he knows the brand,” says Kern. “He’s such a gentleman, a sweet guy, and he loved the squad idea. He didn’t want to be the single person in the campaign and liked the idea of being part of a group.”
Adam Driver and Charlize Theron completed the trio of cinematic ambassadors. “I wanted big, talented stars, of course, and Adam is well-known for Star Wars, plus he’s ex-military. Charlize is an Oscar winner and very engaged in social matters.”
As part of Breitling’s land, sea and air core values, a motorbike partnership seemed like a good fit. Kern looked for a niche brand and Norton fitted the bill. “Rather than go with the more aggressive motorbikes out there, we liked the Norton, it’s more of a café racer bike,” he says.
When Kern took over Breitling he knew about the last 10 to 15 years of the brand but not much beyond that. “I saw the archive and I was in shock to be honest,” he smiles.
“I had no clue about the richness of the history" he admits "I didn’t know, for example, that Miles Davis wore Breitling in the 1970s. I saw an old Breitling ad about civil aviation and I immediately thought of the movie Catch Me if You Can with Leonardo DiCaprio. We want to revive these treasures and stories, which are phenomenal.”
Kern met with Breitling’s biggest collector, an Austrian named Fred Mandelbaum who owns hundreds of watches. “I now have inspiration for products for the next 20 years,” says Kern.
Big brand watches often choose to endorse athletes from exclusive, blue chip sports followed by wealthy fans, but Kern wanted to step outside this familiar arena. “As we rebuilt the brand, instead of golf, tennis and Formula One that everybody’s doing, we intuitively chose sports like surfing and triathlon.”
World renowned surfer Kelly Slater was secured as an ambassador, as was multi-winning triathlete Jan Frodeno. “Kelly Slater has been approached by every watch brand out there over the years,” says Kern, “but he chose Breitling because we wanted to support his environmental ambitions through his company Outer Known.”
Watch stores can be intimidating, palatial places filled with sparkling marble, shiny brass railings and red velvet ropes. But Kern wanted potential customers to feel welcome at his stores: “We want to be accessible and young, more relaxed and informal so we chose this sort of New York industrial loft design.”
Boutiques in The Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates have been revamped with this man den look in mind.
Inevitably, such a huge overhaul of a major brand caused the raising of eyebrows in the boardroom, but Kern stuck to his guns. “My people had doubts, they said you can’t do this, it’s off course for the luxury industry. But I co-own the company so I do what I want,” he laughs. “I want inclusive luxury, not exclusive luxury. We rebuilt the brand and now, after 12 months all the elements of the puzzle fit together.”
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