“We’re among the [watchmakers] doing well,” Breitling CEO Georges Kern assures scmp.com. “I truly believe that the values we set three years ago – inclusive luxury, sustainable luxury and casual luxury – are the ones helping us today.” As Jerry Lee Lewis might say, there’s a whole lot of jargon going on! Let’s unpack Breitling’s corporate values and take a closer look . . .
At first blush, inclusivity seems a totally unnecessary “value” for Breitling’s corporate canon. Like any watchmaker, like any business, Breitling happily sells its products to anyone with enough money to buy them.
Perhaps Mr. Kerns used the term “inclusive” to highlight the hiring practices at Breitling’s Grenchen-based HQ. Perhaps not.
The term certainly reflects the CEO’s desire for Breitling to be seen as inclusive – in the politically correct sense of the word. Case in point: the “Spotlight Squad” video combining America’s Misty Copeland, South Africa’s Charlize Theron and China’s Yao Chen.
As an African American principal ballet dancer, Ms. Copeland is certainly a groundbreaker. Meanwhile, all the other members of Breitling’s “Squads” – Cinema (Theron, Pitt, Driver), Surfer (Slater, Gilmore), Explorer (Piccard, De Rothschild, Solheim), Triathlon (Frodeno, McCormack, Ryf), Aviation Pioneers (Gonzalez Torres, Bannister, Kelly) and Watchmaker (Cassard, Jacot) – are white.
Speaking to scmp.com about Breitling’s “Squads” strategy, Mr. Kerns used an unfortunate adjective to describe the “holistic” campaign’s advantage over the usual solo celebrity endorsement: “With three individuals, we tell a much more diverse story than we could working with individuals.”
With no appreciable racial diversity within the company or their marketing message, it looks like Mr. Kerns has some work to do to help his employer live up to Breitling’s corporate values.
“In terms of sustainability, we recently launched a digital passport based on blockchain technology, new packaging which is made from 100 percent up-cycled PET bottles, and the new Outerknown Econyl® yarn NATO straps,” Mr. Kerns tells scmp.com. “Of course, all of these initiatives cannot change the world, but they allow us to contribute to making the planet a better place, and to being part of the solution.”
I have no idea how Breitling’s digital passport program helps the environment; it doesn’t even replace the traditional plastic warranty card. Also notice that Mr. Kerns doesn’t claim that all of the watchmaker’s packaging is made from upcycled plastic bottles. And setting aside questions about the upcycling process’ carbon footprint, preventing plastic bottles from ending up in the ocean is the real trick.
As Outerknown knows (their buttons are made from reclaimed ocean plastic). To be fair, Breitling’s Superocean Outerknown NATO straps are a credible effort to “make the planet a better place.” But both the packaging and the strap seem marginal you might even say symbolic pro-environment efforts.
If Breitling was fully committed to sustainability, they’d tell us about their manufacturing facilities’ carbon footprint. And assure us that any Chinese part was made without releasing heavy metals into the environment.
Alternatively and/or additionally, Breitling could quietly write a check to a reliable environmental group. Then again, “quietly” doesn’t cut it. The Kerns interview makes it clear that Breitling’s corporate values are as much about PR as “doing the right thing.”
“The casualisation of luxury had already started before Covid-19,” Mr. Kerns opines, “and I think it has been reinforced by Covid-19.”
The fashion industry uses the term “casualization” to describe the rise of “high-end streetwear” (e.g., expensive sneakers and hoodies). Mr. Kerns uses it to trumpet Breitling’s commitment to “casual” watches (the video below calls their entire range “informal”). So why are Breitling boutiques sporting signage with their Cinema Squad dressed in formal wear?
I also wonder why Breitling feels the need to declare itself a maker of “casual watches.” I don’t think anyone within the company ever turned to a colleague and said, “You know what we really need? A superthin three-handed dress watch in a precious metal that can compete with Jaeger leCoultre’s Master Control series.”
Breitling’s Corporate Values
According to the video above, “In 1884, Leon Breitling created watches with functionality, reliability and style.” In his interview with scmp.com, Mr. Kerns says “You don’t talk about the functionality of the watch in the first place. Today you talk about image, you talk about the dream, storytelling, craftsmanship, aesthetics and beauty.”
No wonder Mr. Kerns is busy touting inclusivity, sustainability and casualization. He’s selling an image. A dream. A story. If you look closely, there’s not a lot of substance behind the image.
As the smartwatch crisis continues, traditional watchmakers need one thing more than anything else: authenticity. As far as Mr. Kerns is concerned, once you learn how to fake that, you’ve got it made.