A look inside Breitling's transformation with its head of digital engagement

And a look at BreitlingSelect, the brand's new subscription service

Today, a conversation with Breitling’s head of digital engagement and e-commerce, Louis Westphalen. Ostensibly, we connected to speak about the brand’s new subscription program, but I think what’s more interesting is talking about how the brand has changed since he joined in 2017. He’s also a personal hero of mine for previously writing the ‘Bring a Loupe’ column at Hodinkee. Enjoy.

Would you rent a luxury watch? It’s the thought-experiment-cum-business-model that, since one subscription business vanished a few years ago, has remained mostly unanswered.

Now, Breitling is here with its own subscription program. On March 9, BreitlingSelect launched in the US, but the brand has plans to roll it out to other markets in the coming months. From Hodinkee:

BreitlingSelect allows undecided buyers the chance to try up to 3 different Breitling models over the course of a year, after which they can pick one to buy via a special offer. So how does it work? Once registered with the platform, the service requires a 12-month contract, a one-time subscription fee of $450, and a monthly payment of $129.

Subscribers will then get special offers to purchase their favorite watch from the selection. This “special offer” price will be based on the condition of the watch, as well as individual factors like the points a subscriber has accumulated from membership (called “Squad Points”).

A couple of days after the launch, I hopped on the phone with Breitling’s head of digital engagement and e-commerce, Louis Westphalen, who you might also recognize from his days at Hodinkee, where he built and led their e-commerce offering of modern and vintage watches in the Hodinkee Shop and assisted with limited-edition launches (in addition to writing Bring a Loupe).

Louis joined Breitling shortly after Georges Kern was brought in as CEO when a private equity firm acquired a controlling stake in the brand in 2017. I mention this merely because it’s part of the story: since the acquisition, Breitling has moved explicitly in a digital direction, cooking up all types of marketing, sales, and product strategies designed to attract younger consumers — forgoing box and papers for blockchain, “squads” of influencers, financing for new purchases, etc.

More interesting than just looking at the launch of a subscription service is zooming out and looking at Breitling’s efforts more holistically since 2017. Breitling has focused on connecting directly with the customer, digitally and physically. While this feels cutting edge and innovative, it’s actually a centuries-old technique for luxury brands. As Louis told me:

“In the book Creating Cartier, one of the reasons for Cartier’s success was that they had these books where they would write about their clients. They’d read the newspapers to see what their clients were doing and sell them jewelry before a wedding or other major life events. That approach is more relevant than ever with digital, which allows for even more scale to cater to your clients for what they really are: unique. It involves knowing your customer, creating a lot of content and developing valuable brand experiences through all touchpoints.”

That’s the business side, but there’s also the watches: from limited-edition heritage models like the Top Time and AVI 765 to updating popular collections like the Chronomat and Superocean, Breitling’s releases over the past couple of years have slowly repositioned the brand from being more associated with Guy Fieri than with fearless pilots.1

Nevermind that my favorite Breitling — the 36mm mint green Chronomat — is technically classified as a woman’s watch by the brand. The Breitling of a prior era never would’ve even considered making such a watch.

In my conversation with Louis below, we talk about going digital, building an audience, and the BreitlingSelect subscription.

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Breitling & BreitlingSelect: A peek under the hood

Let’s get digital

Back when Louis joined in 2017, Breitling was undergoing a re-branding of sorts. “We want to be the cool and relaxed alternative to the conservative traditional watch manufacturers out there,” CEO Georges Kern has said. Rather than being vintage and traditional, Breitling wanted to be modern and retro. This also meant taking stock of the brand’s digital assets to reflect this more relaxed vibe. Louis said:

When I joined, one of the first things we did with my team was define the digital assets we had and determine a direction for them. We decided our assets need to have mastered imperfection. The photos, the videos would need to be relatable and realistic, yet still inspiring and enticing, like a very nice wristshot that the client would take on their own or an adventure trip in Iceland.

The way we talk as Breitling, we’re more straightforward than some of our competitors, so this casual and direct voice is more aligned with our brand. And our digital strategy is tuned to allow meaningful engagement with our customers to always bring value to them.

Building an audience

More than a re-branding though, this approach has required a total shift in mindset at Breitling, from mostly pushing product out through authorized dealers to bringing potential clients in by building an audience and nurturing an audience. Louis told me:

“Any brand should think about how to bring customers in to buy watches, as opposed to pushing watches out. We’re not running an investment fund, but selling a luxury product to clients who need to fall in love with them. As a seller, we need to work on developing an audience and clients. This might have been sometimes forgotten because times were so good in the watch industry. But if you look at Hodinkee, for example, their audience is their core strength. People trust you and want to buy from you based on your advice and the experience they get.”

All kinds of incentives also push retailers to sell through their stock quickly. But, if you change your perspective, everything else changes: for example, the grey market is no longer viewed as another method of pushing stock out, but as a signal that customers want alternative purchasing options, which the brand should offer.

“Brands need to fulfill a customer’s needs end-to-end. That’s not only selling a watch, but caring for it during ownership, enabling trading in or trading up where there’s a wish to switch. Subscription is one part of it, allowing different ways to access the brand,” Louis said.

That’s why Breitling introduced its trade-in program with Crown & Caliber in the US, financing for new purchases, and now, a subscription program. BreitlingSelect is an attempt to reach customers who might not otherwise think about buying a Breitling — or even a serious watch — either because of the upfront financial commitment or because it’s not the consumption pattern they’re used to.

The BreitlingSelect subscription

“[The subscription program] needs to be profitable for the brand and interesting to the clients,” Louis said. “We did it to say to the customer: ‘Is there a benefit to having a long-term experience with multiple Breitling watches before you make a choice?’ If we make you hesitate with three Breitlings and enjoy them, you're going to pick a Breitling, versus if you're just looking at photos, it's less likely because you don't have an emotional attachment. We want customers to choose based on the merits of the best watch for them and not solely on a campaign’s sexiness.”

One of the more practical questions about the program is the overall cost. An annual subscription costs about $2,000, including the set-up fee. With that, BreitlingSelect promises you’ll get special offers on the watches you’ve tried over the course of the subscription, so the question is how much of that price might you see in the form of a discount? Here’s Louis again:

As we learn more about individual subscribers, you’ll get individual offers, based on you as an individual customer. So if we know you really want a model, our mission is to give you an exclusive offer for that very model. Offers we make are really personalized for the client and the watch. If you pay $2,000 for the subscription — how much do you get back when you buy the watch? I can’t answer because you’re going to get offers throughout the program. Those offers will gauge your interest and better tailor the experience to help you find a compelling offer. 

But if I’m being very practical: if we’re both subscribers, we might not have the same offer price. If you’ve been in the program longer, you’ll have a lower offer. It’s also based on the watch’s history and condition. Many different parameters will be taken into account.

Deja Breitling

Of course, one of the first criticisms of BreitlingSelect is “hey, didn’t someone already try that?” And yes, Eleven James was a subscription watch business that mysteriously vanished back in 2018. But, as Louis explains, their business was a bit different than Breitling’s:

“[Eleven James] had the blessing and the curse of the watch industry, Rolex. Their subscribers’ expectations were overly focused on Rolex, so a problem was the multi-brand aspect — people were gravitating to a small choice of watches. Second, they had to pay for their stock, whereas as a brand we have a much lower cost price for the stock. They had less flexibility as well in their commitment to the stock.

Also, the world has changed since they closed. Payment systems are better, the knowledge of the online customer is better, so they incurred a lot of other costs that we don’t have. 

Louis said that Breitling also surveyed the luxury landscape for other subscription models, from Eleven James to car companies like Porsche and BMW (he mentioned remembering this one as a kid in France, when his neighbors would get a different car in the summer and winter). Breitling’s the first watch brand to offer a subscription program, so I asked if he thought others would follow.

“I think a lot will do it. It’s an industry of fast followers when something is successful,” he said.

Looking ahead

So what’s the future of BreitlingSelect? The initial pilot is limited to the US and includes a smaller selection of Breitling’s collection. Louis mentioned that the Navitimer is the most popular choice for those who have subscribed so far, but also pointed out that the subscription doesn’t yet include the Superocean Heritage, an extremely popular line from the brand.2

After the initial pilot and some refining of the offering, Breitling plans to roll it out in different markets, with eyes on Europe first (Germany, France, Austria, UK, and Switzerland). “We also see the opportunity to grow the offering. For example, you could pay more to try more watches or to get premium access to try in-house chronograph movements [these aren’t included in the current offering],” Louis said.

“There’s a saying that ‘your owners are your best ambassadors.’ It’s good to say, but we need to act on it. Everyone who’s interested in the brand should see real, practical benefits to help make it successful with us,” Louis said.

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1

Which, by the way — Guy Fieri is the f*ing man. Don’t you say a bad word about him or his watches.

2

To that point, Louis also brushed off the “is this just a way for Breitling to do something with its watches that aren’t selling through?“ question. “The idea is not to put in watches that sell the least,” he said. Customers are smart, and if BreitlingSelect doesn’t have the watches they want, it’s not going to be successful the way Breitling wants it to.