Breitling puts go-go days behind as high-end watchmakers look for new markets

Superocean Heritage watches of Swiss watch manufacturer Breitling are displayed at the Baselworld watch and jewellery fair on March 21, 2018.
Superocean Heritage watches of Swiss watch manufacturer Breitling are displayed at the Baselworld watch and jewellery fair on March 21, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

GENEVA (BLOOMBERG) - The Breitling party used to be the most coveted invite at the Swiss watch industry's annual fair in Basel. Guests were bused to a secret location to be entertained by dancers, fireworks and bands such as Kool & the Gang.

This year, after investment firm CVC's purchase of the brand, the music has stopped. After a record-long slump in demand, the industry is being dragged into the 21st century by the arrival of private equity, increased societal concern about sexism and upheaval in the retail business.

At Breitling, gone are ads depicting a scantily dressed woman who refreshes a male pilot with a drink - a nod to the brand's aviation heritage that looked desperately out of touch in the #MeToo era.

New chief executive officer Georges Kern has cancelled air-show sponsorships and even questioned whether it is worth the money to attend Baselworld, the largest watchmaking trade show, which kicked off this week.

No brand is so elite that it can stay above the fray.

Patek Philippe, previously content to wait for grandparents to bequeath their watches to the next generation, recently began pitching its timepieces straight to the kids on Instagram. It gained more than 30,000 followers within a day of its first Instagram post - still well short of Rolex's 7.6 million.

Luxury-goods holding company Richemont has predicted the demise of independent watch retailers as big brands replace distribution networks reliant on outside partners with their own boutiques.

Audemars Piguet, seller of the Royal Oaks - costing US$15,000 (S$19,694) and up - is opening second-hand shops to get a piece of the vintage market.

"We're seeing things we never would have dreamed of five years ago," said LVMH watch chief Jean-Claude Biver, who oversees Hublot, Zenith and TAG Heuer. "The Swiss watch industry is now doing its homework."

Baselworld is feeling the heat. The number of exhibitors has been cut in half this year as watchmakers reconsider whether it is really worth all the hassle of fighting for hotel rooms before they sell out, holding back-to-back receptions and setting up extravagant stands that they will need to dismantle the next week.

Movado expects to save US$10 million a year as it exits. Top brands including Hermes and Ulysse Nardin have left for a rival Geneva fair that is more exclusive and takes place in January.

At Breitling, the first major Swiss watch brand to be bought by private equity, the Baselworld stand no longer is adorned with a giant aquarium full of tropical fish as in years past. Despite the more austere approach, the company says CVC is not just out to cut costs but actually more interested in expanding the brand into markets it traditionally ignored.

"We were very lucky to get our hands on Breitling," Mr Daniel Pindur, a CVC senior managing director, said in an interview. "Now with the new, strong management team we are more than ever convinced that Breitling will have a bright future."

Breitling plans to be "less virile", Mr Kern has said. He became CEO after 15 years at Richemont, where he built IWC Schaffhausen into one of the Swiss company's largest watch brands.

Breitling will add smaller watches to appeal more to the Asian market and women, entering territory currently dominated by Cartier and Chopard.  Annual revenue of about US$400 million puts Breitling on par with high-end watchmakers such as Officine Panerai, according to estimates by analyst Rene Weber at Bank Vontobel.

"We have a great growth plan, contrary to what everybody believes," Mr Kern told Bloomberg Television in February. "We're not here in a cost-saving situation. Of course we want to gain efficiency, but fundamentally we want to build and grow, especially in China."

The industry is also moving away from the macho positioning that once was a signature of IWC's sales pitch.

Audemars Piguet is set to introduce a new line next year with unisex appeal, so couples can borrow their partner's timepieces.

Breitling's new approach will be revealed when new ads appear in a few months.

"It will be a very unusual and cool campaign, also targeting women," he said.