Even within the male-dominated world of high-end watches, Breitling has a reputation, cultivated over decades, for being a timepiece for a certain type of adventure-seeking man.
The Grenchen, Switzerland-based brand designed watches specifically for pilots starting in the 1950s, nearly two decades before a major commercial airline would put a woman in the cockpit. Its parties at Baselworld, a watch and jewellery trade show, were famous for their topless dancers. As recently as 2015, its advertising campaigns have been decried as sexist, showing attractive, scantily-clad women waiting to welcome daredevil pilots wearing Breitling watches back to earth. In 2017, women wore pilot garb-inspired, skin-baring leotards at a Breitling and Lufthansa event.
Cut to today, and the brand is finally putting a woman in the driver’s seat—literally.
Breitling’s latest ad campaign, a 60-second spot accompanying the release of a female-targeted version of its Navitimer watch, features Charlize Theron behind the wheel of a vintage car, interspersed with shots of the actress walking in a red carpet-worthy gown, kickboxing with a trainer and sharing notes with a director on set.
The ad was, in a sense, six years in the making, since the appointment of Georges Kern as CEO back in 2017.
Almost immediately upon joining the company, Kern scrapped the sexist marketing, and has sought to put the brand on a different course. Besides adding its first group of female ambassadors — beyond Theron, there’s also ballerina Misty Copeland, actress Yao Chen and Olympic snowboarder Chloe Kim — it also introduced female-specific styles of some of its best-known timepieces, like the Chronomat and now, the Navitimer. Its campaigns still feature daredevil pilots or motorcyclists, only now, women are driving the vehicles, not just waiting on the ground for the male pilots to land with a smile.
“It was … a brand that was held in such high regard for such a quality product, but it was more skewed towards men,” Theron told BoF of her decision to come on board as a Breitling ambassador back in 2018. “Being asked to come and open the window on the other side of the room was something that was really exciting, and their eagerness to do that in a way that felt authentic … the challenge was something really interesting to me.”
Breitling is just one of several brands that, over the past decade, found itself out of step with rapidly changing social norms. Victoria’s Secret, for example, famously canceled its signature fashion show in 2019 after mounting criticism over the lack of diversity in the show, as well as the narrow depiction of female beauty. The watch industry, in particular, has had to turn its attention more greatly towards reaching female consumers.
But in making such a major tonal shift, Breitling had to contend with how to retain the value of its history and brand identity while moving into a new era. Its prior image may have been controversial, but it was memorable. As well, Breitling is tasked with selling female consumers on the idea that a brand that had been so closely associated with traditional ideas of masculinity can be a compelling option for women, too.
“A brand like Breitling that’s historically been so masculine, with watches geared towards piloting and towards aviation, it’s a tough pivot,” said Reginald Brack, the SVP and director of jewellery and watches at Hindman Auctions. “I don’t think it hurts to try. But I think they need to do something other than just hiring strong female brand ambassadors.”
A New Breitling
For Kern, making the changes were a matter of “staying relevant in the luxury industry.”
“It’s very much a feeling; it’s intuition,” said Kern of the driving force behind the changes he’s ushered in at the brand in the last few years. “It’s very difficult to be rational in an industry, which is anything but rational. Who needs watches? Nobody. But humankind is irrational.”
However, there seems to be a thread connecting Breitling’s ambassadors, namely, a proclivity for athleticism or adventure, whether it’s on the slopes, like Kim, or the big screen, like Theron.
“They’re really intentional about emphasizing why they work with these people,” said writer and consultant Brynn Wallner, the founder of the website Dimepiece, a publication about women and watches. “It’s not because they’re a pretty face, it’s because they’re doing amazing work in their respective fields, and they want to support that. And that almost comes before the watch.”
Still, Kern said that the watch itself is what the brand views as its distinguishing factor. Its watches, originally designed for pilots, are oversized, particularly on a woman’s wrist. Kern said that the look, a more rugged, less formal take on a luxury timepiece, appeals across genders.
“It takes a very special, stylish woman to truly pull it off, because it’s not so obviously feminine,” said Wallner.
So far, the shift has helped usher in an era for growth for Breitling: When former owner CVC acquired the company in 2017, it was for CHF800 million (then $870 million), When private equity firm Partners Group bought a majority stake in Breitling at the end of 2021, the company was valued at $4.5 billion.
Still, it’s a brand with a lower profile than competitors like Rolex and Cartier. But that may be to its benefit. Watch enthusiasts may know of its reputation, but the average consumer likely does not, said Wallner. With that, Breitling’s Kern sees that as the brand’s next challenge: Taking this new messaging to the masses.
“We have a great strategy, it works,” said Kern. “Now we have to scale it, because most of the people don’t know the new Breitling.”
The Watch Industry Ticks On
Breitling’s shift is happening as the watch industry simultaneously undergoes a similar transition. Historically, the watch industry has been dominated by men, both in the executive teams leading top watch brands and the customer bases they cater to.
In recent years, that’s begun to change. Watch brands are catering more directly to female customers, and women hold top executive roles at brands like Jaeger-LeCoultre, Caroline Scheufele and Audemars Piguet. There’s a growing community, too, of female watch fans, as encapsulated by the success of websites like Dimepiece, a publication focussed on women and watches.
Watch brands like Zenith are doing away with gender-specific labels, instead marketing their wares as gender-neutral. Though gender-neutral is a hot topic in the industry, It’s worth noting that the majority of the major Swiss brands have not yet entirely removed gender labels. (Though on the websites of companies like Rolex and Audemars Piguet, they’re relatively difficult to find.) It’s also a way to sell smaller-faced watches to men as well as women.
Still, the watch industry shouldn’t simply “pink and shrink” its designs to create an option for women, a tactic many brands still use — even Breitling’s new Navitimer lineup includes a smaller version with a pink face. But as Wallner said, appealing to women isn’t that simple.
“Women are wearing their boyfriend’s jeans and Nikes. Women will appreciate something that’s sporty and cute,” she said. “You can make it with a more traditionally masculine palette, but if it’s smaller, it immediately becomes more wearable for a person with a smaller wrist, which is usually women.”