Baselworld said it was in “survival mode” before this week’s walkout by Rolex, Chopard, Patek Philippe, Chanel and Tudor, and that was before TAG Heuer, Hublot and Zenith joined the exodus.
The show’s survival is now seriously in doubt.
Watches & Wonders Geneva will take place early in April, but we not yet have a date for it, and the Rolex-anchored show will run alongside it. Nobody knows where middle-ranking brands will present their collections next year. And we do not know what LVMH and Swatch Group will do this year, let alone next.
Against this backdrop, Breitling’s decision to launch its key 2020 collections via a webcast today looked inspired. If the online event was a huge hit, brands could save millions by going the same route.
For those — like me — hoping Geneva in April 2021 is spectacular demonstration of how a global show should be done, it would be troubling if Breitling hit it out of the park with its webinar and pushed fusty trade shows closer to extinction.
I need not have worried.
Chief executive Georges Kern set the right tone with an introduction recognising that the world faces an unprecedented challenge keeping people safe without devastating the global economy. He is a natural in front of an audience or a camera, and delivered his message with sincerity.
The new watches presented were also impressive. A 35mm ladies’ Navitimer is a significant launch and looks great.
The core Breitling enthusiast — middle aged and male — will be attracted to the comprehensive collection of 42mm Chronomat sports chronographs on the tubular retro Rouleaux bracelet.
It is good to see a whole collection being launched, particularly one with such obvious commercial appeal as the Chronomat, and Breitling has done an excellent job of hitting currently hot trends in its choice of dial colours, the steel on steel look and the sporty tool watch vibe.
The Superocean Heritage watches are also well-considered, although everything on a leather strap, particularly when it comes to dive watches, looks tougher to sell to my eye right now.
The freshest and best looking watches were in a capsule collection of SuperOcean Heritage 57 dive watches, particularly the youthful limited edition models with brightly coloured straps and dial markers.
One watch with many looks just by changing the strap looks like a winner to me. I want a full set.
If Breitling can appeal to younger men and women in general, Mr Kern will have opened up significantly under-served markets for the brand.
All the watches launched are available immediately online at Breitling.com and its authorised dealers around the world will also be able to sell them online this month. That is an important offer while ecommerce is the only commerce allowed.
Production of the webcast was slick, well-paced and effective; with Mr Kern commentating on launches that featured brand ambassadors such as Charlize Theron wearing the new Navitimer and the surfer squad strapped into the SuperOcean Heritage watches.
Editors and bloggers across the world were sent news and images of the new watches while Mr Kern was speaking so, within minutes of him starting, stories were appearing across social media. Comments from the first people to see the watches online were almost universally positive and the stories were being widely shared.
In every objective and subjective way, this was a success, and Breitling has every reason to be delighted and congratulated. Given the challenges of launching watches during the current Covid-19 pandemic, it was a triumph.
However, I am convinced that when this crisis abates, webcast launches will whither. You simply cannot replicate the excitement that a physical crowd generates or the intimacy that touching a brand new watch for the first time evokes.
Webcasts are precisely the same as the videos that Breitling shows on big screens at their physical summits. During these video interludes, most people in a crowd will start checking their e-mails because they are just fillers for the main event, which is listening to what Mr Kern and other speakers have to say, putting questions to them in the Q&A sessions, and getting up close and personal with the watches.
With the exception of LVMH’s hugely successful Watch Week in Dubai, Breitling has handled its marketing better than any watch business so far this year with regular news about limited editions keeping momentum even in these terrible times.
The Webcast Summit was better than any other brand has come up with in the past month, but it is no replacement for the global tour of Brietling Summits, nor is it a model that any other brand should contemplate as an affordable alternative to mass participation events once the pandemic passes.