Man of the Hour

Thierry Prissert is rewriting the marketing playbook for Breitling, the luxury watchmaker

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?