When Georges Kern had actor Richard E. Grant come on stage at the Hallenstadion in Zurich wearing a single wing, the 600 guests assembled that February evening were slightly nonplussed, although the message – typical of Kern’s sense of humour and intelligent communication – was clear: Breitling had dropped (both) the wings adorning its logo. At the following day’s press conference, the brand’s Chief Executive was forthcoming with answers to the questions that came thick and fast as to Breitling’s new strategy. Yes, it was extending beyond the world of aviation. Yes, it was rationalising its 120 SKUs. Yes, it was lining up simpler models with smaller diameters, priced between CHF 3,000 and CHF 8,000. Survival instinct?
The price is right
Luxury has been a shifting landscape in recent years, its contours shaped and reshaped by geopolitical, economic and social transformation. The Greek government-debt crisis in 2008, terrorist attacks in France in 2013, Brexit in 2016, rocketing e-commerce sales… brands have no choice than to adapt. Modern luxury is less about how rich a person is and more about who they are and what they believe in. Storytelling, diversified partnerships and price points a younger clientele can afford are the new cornerstones of a sector in a state of upheaval. Brands need to start communicating in ways that resonate with their customers.
So much for the theory; what does this mean in practice? “We can keep pace with trends by introducing new elements to our watches’ habillage,” posits Michel Parmigiani, founder of Parmigiani Fleurier. “I mean strap materials, dial colours, texture, that sort of thing. We’re an independent manufacture, which allows us to play around with established codes to diversify styles.” This diversification isn’t happening at the expense of the brand’s raison d’être: “There is never any corner-cutting in terms of mechanical quality or the care we afford to the finishing and refinement of each watch. This concern for quality to Haute Horlogerie standards remains the priority that makes all the difference for Parmigiani Fleurier.”
It's a predicament many brands face: how to revitalise product offering without betraying their DNA.
Young buyer seeks watch
It’s a predicament many brands face: how to revitalise product offering without betraying their DNA. Often, the answer lies with an iconic design and steel. “Luxury has to remain an attainable fantasy,” comments Thierry Esslinger, CEO of Breguet. “Hence why we are extending our product ranges with ‘simpler’ variations and proposing watches, such as the Reine de Naples 8967, with versions cased in steel [as well as gold].” Many brands are following Breguet’s lead and offering affordably priced “entry-level” watches, often for European markets whose purchasing power is comparatively lower than in Asia, on which the industry had pinned high hopes.
Examples include Montblanc, Cartier, Vacheron Constantin and Baume & Mercier, which this year made an unexpected incursion into the mid-range market with Baume, a new brand offering personalisable watches which are only sold online and for less than $1,000. It’s a concept that has upset the horological apple cart, and lays the way open for the ultimate stage: digitalisation, the idea being to recreate the customer-boutique scenario online.
Are you experienced
Another way brands are boosting their street cred is by multiplying partnerships with artists and releasing collections influenced by the post-modern urban jungle with its mix of cultures and nationalities. TAG Heuer, which over the past couple of years has been targeting a significantly younger demographic, logically chose Alec Monopoly to paint the white rubber straps on the 300 pieces in the TAG Heuer Connected Modular 45 limited edition that bears his name. In a different register, Hublot worked with Richard Orlinski to come up with a 200-piece limited edition, the Classic Fusion Aerofusion Chronograph Orlinski.
Luxury is also about expecting the unexpected, as experiential luxury gains ground – a vast concept that has plunged every brand into disarray. Every brand? Under Chief Executive François-Henry Bennahmias, Audemars Piguet has embarked on the construction of a museum and hotel with its own ski run in the village of Le Brassus that’s scheduled to open in 2020. In the meantime, the family-owned firm, which has taken its first steps in online sales in partnership with JD.Com, is already tapping into luxury experiences with the opening, last spring, of Asia’s first AP House. The idea? To redefine the notion of hospitality. Says Bennahmias: “Customers can invite friends for lunch, organise a business meeting… there’s no obligation to buy a watch. You can take a seat, relax and chill out, if that’s how the mood takes you.” What better reminder that time will always be the ultimate luxury.