Georges Kern appears to be swearing profusely, judging from the consecutive bleeps over his mouthed words. He is in the back passenger seat of a stunt-performing jet and the profanity picks up in pace as the machine dives and pulls into a series of rolls.
The Breitling CEO laughed along with the crowd of journalists as the video comes to an end, then commanded the room with characteristic composure. He might have been smiling but there was no mistaking he meant business — that gaze was as sharp as ever and beneath the twinkle was a steeliness that could reduce the cocksure to trembles with a glance.
Speculations abounded when Kern announced in mid-2017 that he would be leaving his role as head of watchmaking, marketing and digital at the Richemont Group. Further rumours made the rounds when news followed that the exit was tied to an unexpected entry to Breitling, where Kern was expected to work the same magic he did at IWC Schaffhausen, having turned the watchmaker into an international success story as its CEO from 2012 to 2016.
Breitling was far from an unknown entity but the brand had a rather one-dimensional image, a swagger of machismo that snubbed women with its casual, sometimes overt, sexism. Furthermore, entwined with the stunts of the Breitling Jet Team, the largest civilian aerobatic display team in Europe, it had become synonymous with pilot and aviation watches to the exclusion of other categories in its portfolio.
One of the few manufactures remaining in family hands before it was sold to European private equity firm CVC Partners in April 2017, Kern has a stake in Breitling’s success in more ways than one — the CEO is also a shareholder. His first order of business was pruning bloated product ranges and redressing the weight each category carries. Oversized aviation timepieces were dominating the plinths but delving into its archive, which dates back to 1884, Kern discovered a rich heritage in smaller and dressier timepieces, as well as feminine designs.
The Breitling Summit 2018 at the Rosewood Hotel Beijing late last year, invited an international cohort of journalists to witness the major changes undergone by the brand in the year since Kern had taken over, as well as to preview three timepieces in their Asian debut. The hotel’s conference rooms were transformed into presentation halls, divided into Air, Sea, Land and Professional (genuine instruments for professional adventurers), clearly-delineated categories for the manufacture going forward. They form a cool, straightforward matrix: four segments with a vintage and modern design code each, resulting in eight key watch styles.
Succinctly expressed were the new streamlined collections, encompassing the aviator Navitimer range, the diver’s Superocean line and, in the land segment, the über-rugged Chronomat series as well as a revival of the 1940s Premier collection of elegant dress watches. New timepieces tempered an audacious spirit with novel sophistication and vision. We examined the Superocean Heritage II Outerknown with a nylon strap fashioned from recycled fishing nets; the Aviator 8 Curtiss Warhawk that is a nod to the eponymous fighter planes of WWII; and the striking Premier B01 Chronograph Bentley British Racing Green in honour of its partnership with the centenarian British automaker.
“Too much choice is no choice,” Kern told the media. “You don’t only want to drive an SUV — you also want the option of a convertible, a limousine, maybe even a coupé. But you want to curate them carefully. We can achieve this because we have the DNA and a history other brands would kill for. We could concentrate on a single aspect of our range or we could have wider reach in a smarter way.”
Given its inextricable affiliation with aviation, it surprises us to discover that Superocean, and not Navitimer, is the manufacture’s best-selling range. Perhaps the most obvious indication of Breitling’s new embracing of all its lines equally is the change of logo. The signature wings have disappeared and the alphabet B has been rewritten in cursive script, referencing its 1950s emblem. “Just because a brand is linked to aviation, it does not mean you need to show the pilot’s helmet,” Kern was quoted as saying early last year. “You can still talk about aviation, but in a contemporary way.”
For the first time in his career, the CEO flew key collectors to Switzerland for two days of intensive focus groups, going over the brand’s products, communication, past successes, and strategies for growth, digitisation and modernisation. So meaningful were the insights gathered that this exercise might feature annually on Breitling’s calendar.
Other signs of Kern’s influence are more familiar, even customary: digital initiatives, improved storytelling, extravagant events. He talked about migrating to online sales platforms; acknowledging women as an essential segment in its products and marketing; and redesigning the customer experience with standalone boutiques that evoke its athletic lifestyle with modern-retro cues — think a chic New York loft with a snooker table and displayed surfboard, rather than an in-your-face sales space.
Then there are the parties and celebrities. Kern launched the Breitling Squad last March, units of ambassadors comprising illustrious professionals in their fields to represent relevant product categories. Timed alongside the launch of the Premier line, the Cinema Squad burst onto the scene with a blinding wattage of collective star power in the form of Charlize Theron, Adam Driver, Brad Pitt and Daniel Wu. Photographer and filmmaker Peter Lindbergh shot the campaign, capturing the essence of a collection inspired by theatres and jazz clubs alike. The Cinema Squad was joined by its Triathlon, Surfers and Explorers counterparts the same year, suggesting aggressive investment into this high-performing avenue.
“It is a total 360⁰ concept,” explained the CEO. “The same brand associated with jet stunts represents the elegant Charlize Theron.”
The Summit offered an edifying peek into the workings of a brand on the cusp of a new era and a celebration was compulsory. A long red carpet unfurled at the entrance of the Phoenix Centre, an award-winning architectural wonder in the Chaoyang District shaped like a double helix wrapped into a loop — “the Mobius strip in perpetual motion” is a poetic description. Floral arrangements and sparkling blue lighting infused sophistication and intrigue into a grand hall, which hosted some 500 guests on that gala night.
Key clients from around the region mingled with the attending journalists, and several famous faces were inevitably recognised. Japanese fashion designer Motofumi “Poggy” Kogi, South Korean actress Shin Se-Kyung, Chinese actress Qi Wei and Chinese actor Li Zonghan graciously posed for photos with fans.
The music swelled, the lights dimmed and walking through the doors into tangible anticipation were Kern, Pitt, Wu and Lindbergh. Sustained applause accompanied them to the VIP table and the festivities promptly kicked off.
Testament to the breadth and depth of Breitling’s reach and relevance are celebrated guests such as Australian Surfers Squad member Sally Fitzgibbons and two pilots separated by several generations: young aviator Taylor Stevenson and 93-year-old Ollie Crawford, the oldest living pilot to have ever flown a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk plane. Between performances and courses, they took their turns at the mic, sharing anecdotes about adventures in their fields and their relationship with Breitling.
Screens around the hall began to play Lindbergh’s videos for the “Squad on a Mission” campaign featuring the attending Cinema Squad stars. Kern invited Pitt and Wu onstage, and the latter proved especially charming with his genial warmth and wit, saying, “I think you have seen that the Breitling campaign is unlike anything being done by anyone else. It is very effective but I hope you can also get a sense of how much fun it is.”
Lindbergh joined the trio for a few words, and where that gentleman goes, a camera is sure to follow. Not necessarily his either. Kern pulled out his mobile phone and suggested a wefie (self-taken group photo), placing the gadget in the hands of Lindbergh, of course. “I cannot think of anyone in the world better qualified to take this picture,” he said to laughs from the audience. Flashes filled the room as others strived to capture the moment too, and the photo received over 28,000 likes on Lindbergh’s Instagram profile.
That number is none too shabby and if there is anyone who can multiply such figures or translate them into meaningful action, it is surely Kern. His track record affirms him as a man who stares down challenges — not every civilian would voluntarily strap themselves into a jet for a wild, no-holds-barred ride, for instance. The Breitling Summit was assurance that although its wings had been clipped from the logo, in his hands, the brand will surely soar.
This article first appeared on Feb 4, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.