Literally and figuratively, Breitling is a brand with time on its side. Not only has the renowned maker of chronometers been in business since 1884, the demand for the Swiss firm’s timepieces is such that (so the story goes, anyway) only about 150,000 watches a year leave its Grenchen workbenches. When you’ve made chronographs for the RAF, sent watches into space on the wrists of astronauts, and have a following that includes Roger Moore, Harrison Ford, and Sir Richard Branson, you don’t face much in the way of an image problem.
In fact, things have actually been moving rather quickly for this privately held company. Earlier this year Breitling opened its first boutique on a choice corner in Midtown Manhattan, an ambitious move that’s now one of the many responsibilities of its new president. After 20 years without a change of U.S. leadership, Breitling recently pinned the wings on 40-something Frenchman Thierry Prissert, whose arrival clearly signals the brand’s desire to explore different altitudes. Prissert doesn’t come from the watch world. His last gig was running Vilebrequin, the Saint-Tropez stitcher of $250 swim trunks.
Meanwhile, with a choice chunk of sidewalk at 5 East 57th St. in New York, Breitling finds itself flying in formation with other luxe brands—Louis Vuitton, Montblanc, Dior Homme—that have chosen to shape their images not just with advertising, but with brick-and-mortar boutiques in pricey ZIP codes. Sure, department-store shelves might still pump in most of the revenue, but the flagship boutique is what incubates a public image for many brands. In Breitling’s case, that’s a 4,500-square-foot, Frederic Legendre-designed triplex featuring Kevin Kelly’s aviation-themed pop art, a bar, a museum of vintage Breitling timepieces, and, of course, a few counters that actually sell watches.
Adweek dropped in at the company’s new digs this past week to talk to Prissert about his brand, its marketing, and the future of Breitling on his watch.
Adweek: Breitling hasn’t had a new U.S. president for an awfully long time—and now that president is you. So what are your plans?
Thierry Prissert: Yes, I’m replacing someone who had been here for more than 20 years. But the values of a private company that makes beautiful Swiss watches are pretty simple, and I’m here to continue that. Of course, the network of distribution is changing in this industry. A lot of brands are trying to display who they are—to show their DNA through flagship stores, as you’ve seen. We’re lucky to have a beautiful one here that gives you the heritage and value of the brand, especially its link to aviation. It transcends what Breitling is about.
Can I take that to mean you’d like to have a few more of them?
We will try to open a store in Miami before the end of the year, and in a big capital city like Las Vegas or L.A. But we already have strong distribution in this country, so we need to make sure we’re opening our own stores with the purpose of communicating the brand, not taking business away from the jewelers who carry us. It’s more about promoting the company. Today, we’re sitting in a beautiful store—but we still have two dealers across the street who carry Breitling.
That sounds like it could be a bit delicate.
Some of our retail clients tell me, “I’ve been carrying Breitling for 15 years, 18 years.” So my job is to continue those relationships while also continuing to grow the brand.
Prior to taking this job, you ran Vilebrequin—a luxury brand, certainly. But French swimwear can’t have much overlap with Swiss watches. Was there anything about your old job that’s useful here, in your new one?
Actually, the two are very similar. Vilbrequin was a niche product and a luxury business. We had a network of clients and we targeted an audience of men. We had our own store. We were on Madison Avenue, and selling to Neiman and Bergdorf. We were selectively distributing a brand. In some ways, my old job was tougher because Vilebrequin was nonexistent in this country and I had to make it known. Breitling is an established player, and some people are fanatics about it.
One of the ways you made Vilebrequin known was by opening a vest-pocket store in SoHo, right?
I opened that in 1999.
Is it fair to say you’re employing the same strategy here—using a store to explain the brand in a way that a mass retailer simply won’t let you do?
Yes. It’s a real-estate issue. When you’re in a big retailer, you have limited space in which you can show your collection. Maybe you can display 10 watches—but can you show the heritage of the company? Not really. A retailer has to care about 12 other brands besides you. But here, people live and breathe Breitling.
Why now, though? Breitling’s had over a century to build its name. Why did it wait until 2011 to open a flagship store?
For many years, opening a retail location was seen as cannibalizing your business—taking it away from jewelers, in our case. But we don’t see it like that now. The brand is big enough now and New York is an international presence. We want tourists from China to see us and discover us. Being at 57th and 5th Avenue is like advertising the brand 365 days a year. If you showed me a map of New York and asked me where I’d like to be to enhance my brand, I would not move it very far from here.
Apple opened its store two blocks north of here in 2006. Following their site scout seems like a pretty good idea.
Louis Vuitton, two doors down, isn’t too bad either. But the point is that the trend of every brand going retail is pretty recent. Brands are taking their destinies into their own hands. They can say: “You know what? I have my own real estate, I can show you my product—and I can sell it to you.”
But what’s more important for a location like this—to be a profit center or put a shine on the brand? Lots of companies will take a loss on an expensive Manhattan lease just to have that killer address. Does that sound familiar?
One hundred percent. It doesn’t mean we’ll lose money. We’re successful selling watches here. But the main ambition was not to sell. Theodore Schneider, Breitling’s owner, said he wanted to build a store where people will live the experience. So it was purely to enhance and establish the brand.
Montblanc built its flagship store a few doors down from here. At one time, Montblanc was a fountain-pen maker. But that store sells wallets, belts, jewelry, eyewear—and even fragrances. Can you see Breitling expanding horizontally into lines like that?
We have a different agenda. Mr. Schneider makes beautiful chronographs and watches, and he wants to continue to focus on that.
Let’s talk specifically about your marketing plans. How important is social media to Breitling right now?
We need to communicate to a new generation, so we have an iPad app. We also have an online game now. [“Breitling Reno Air Races,” a mobile game for the iPhone and the iPad iOS, debuted on June 20.] Even five years ago, I don’t think we’d have been ready for that. But if you open a magazine or a newspaper or look at a billboard, Breitling is there, too. So the avenues of traditional marketing will continue.
The Web often presents a unique problem for luxury brands because high-end consumers not only tend to be slightly older, they tend to value in-person service, too—and that’s not a strong suit of e-commerce.
We don’t really need to use the Internet as a media of selling. We see it as a means of educating. Also, if I’m going to buy a $10,000 watch, am I going to do that online? I don’t think so. I want to see it on my wrist. Now, will the younger generation buy a watch online? Probably. But today, the ultimate goal is not to sell online; it’s to communicate and tell the story. Ideally, that’s what we’d like to do. People will go online, see Breitling, see the images, then go to a retailer.
Your advertising relies on two prominent themes. First, celebrity endorsers like John Travolta. Second, images of classic, stainless-steel aircraft. Breitling’s links to aviation go way back to 1936 when you started making timepieces for the Royal Air Force. But can the war-bird theme serve you indefinitely?
Some people say that could limit us in communicating. I don’t think so. I think it gives us a real heritage and a real direction. We have our ambassadors like John Travolta. Why? Because he’s a pilot. Aviation is what we’re about.
Is it true that 5 percent of your customers are really pilots?
I think it’s actually more than that.
Your direct competitors are brands like Rolex, Omega, and Tag Heuer. But these days, it seems like every luxury brand has decided to make (or, frankly, license to have someone else make) a wristwatch. Guess, DKNY, Kenneth Cole, Polo Ralph Lauren—they’re all selling timepieces. Has that been a challenge for Breitling?
I don’t see it as a challenge, because of the price point we’re at. We sell something that people are seeking. It’s not an impulse buy. There is a Swiss watch industry and there are the others. And we have a legitimacy because we only focus on this, and we’ve been around since 1884.
That’s something Guess can’t quite say.
No. And not even Montblanc.
One more question. A lot of people say they don’t need to wear watches anymore because they can just check the time on their cell phones. Does that scare you?
When we please and attract the father, what do you think he’s going to buy for his son? And . . . a cell phone replacing a watch? I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.