Introduction

There is currently a lot of buzz in forums and internet articles regarding these two heavyweights of the watch industry and while much of this is the usual trash-talk between fans of one brand denigrating the other, there have been some interesting arguments raised about which of these manufacturers is better.

At first glance it may seem somewhat unfair to be comparing the two given that Rolex boast a brand recognition rating of almost 100%, a level currently far beyond the reach of most others. Their closest competitors however, including Breitling, have been working hard to close the gap and we’ve decided to put together our own take on the matter in what we hope is an objective look into the Rolex v Breitling debate.

 

A little background to Breitling & Rolex

Both manufacturers have been plying their trade for well over a century, Breitling having formed in 1884 with Rolex officially established back in 1905. Most people automatically identify both as Swiss watchmakers, however Rolex actually started out in London and didn’t make the move to Geneva until 1919.

Despite Breitling having been a Swiss brand for considerably longer than Rolex, the latter proudly lay claim to having the leading global watch brand, with Breitling coming in 15th overall.

Both have an excellent reputation for producing high-end timepieces which are precision engineered to be as accurate and reliable as possible with Rolex regarded as being the ultimate in luxury and Breitling having forged a reputation as being the choice for professionals in aerospace, aviation and maritime.

Rolex are in a unique and enviable position in that the company is owned by the Wilsdorf Trust (established by Hans Wilsdorf, one of the original founders). This means that the company cannot be sold and is not answerable to shareholders which has given them a sustainable competitive advantage over the years.

Breitling in comparison have historically failed to eat into Rolex’s market share, in part due to vying with a number of competing groups (such as Cartier and Omega) and also precisely because they have to balance any competitive edge against the whims of their shareholders.

 

You pay your money…..

Price is not the be all and end all when comparing watches, however it is worth noting that the least expensive model Rolex produce is almost double that of the lowest-priced Breitling.

Purists might argue that Rolex only use mechanical movements (they stopped using quartz movements entirely shortly after the turn of the millenium) which are inherently more complex and expensive to produce than the quartz movements used in some of the cheaper Breitling models. On the other hand of course quartz movements are smaller, more accurate and require less maintenance than their mechanical counterparts and Breitling boast both quartz and mechanical watches in their range.

Rolex have again traditionally held a stacked deck with regard to the quality of their materials, as an example the recognised industry standard for steel in watch components is 306l and this is used by almost every watch manufacturer. Rolex alone use 904l steel on the basis that it offers superior resistance to corrosion and scratching plus produces a better polished finish. This insistence on only using the best materials goes a long way towards justifying why Rolex watches command such a high price, though their competitors would argue that much of this is overkill and that they prefer to offer their customers “better value for money” within the luxury watch market.

Of the two companies, Breitling appear to be slightly more consumer friendly when it comes to customisation of their watches with more options in terms of strap/bracelet choice or case-back style on certain models, so whilst a Rolex may be regarded as THE statement piece, in some respects Breitling actually feels more like a bespoke brand.  

 

Playing to their strengths

Both companies have established themselves as being amongst the leading brands in their field retaining a strong core of “brand devotees” whilst also recognising the need to attract new customers. At the heart of this have been the marketing strategies. Whilst sharing some common themes, the underlying approaches have been very different.

One common theme is that Breitling and Rolex have each been extremely keen to use brand ambassadors and sponsorship in promoting their products and a look at some of the names associated with each reflects the sort of demographic they are aiming towards. Some names are from identical fields, whilst one or two stand out as specific to the brand.   

Below we outline some of the names linked with each brand.

 

Rolex

Breitling

Sir Jackie Stewart Buzz Aldrin
Roger Federer Bear Grylls
Daniel Craig Brad Pitt
Cristiano Ronaldo David Beckham
Arnold Palmer John Travolta
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa Justin Timberlake
The ATP Breitling Jet Team
The U.S. Open Norton
The Open Championship Bentley
Daytona The Ocean Conservancy
Le Mans
Formula 1

A key area where the two company strategies diverge relates to discounting. Rolex rarely if ever offer discounts and despite producing up to 750,000 watches a year have begun habitually suppressing the quantities released of some models in order to ensure that demand remains far in excess of available supply. Whilst on the face of it this seems counter-intuitive to many modern business models, it has actually created enormous hype and helped reinforce brand loyalty with a 5 year waiting list for models like the Stainless Steel Daytona.

In addition, this has further driven the already huge demand for pre-owned Rolex models to incredible levels with some models attracting three times their recommended retail price.  

Breitling on the other hand have offered some quite attractive discounts on their models from time to time. Unlike the Rolex policy of “drip-feeding” models onto the market (essentially making almost every watch a special edition) Breitling do regularly issue Special or Limited Editions of their models, usually linked either to specific events or to reinforce links to their partners, such as the Breitling for Bentley range.

Unlike almost all other watch manufacturers Rolex do not rely on a multi-brand strategy. They remain extremely selective in their use of distributors and have retained the same conservative and traditional ethos almost since inception with an essentially consistent tone in terms of both product and communication throughout.

In contrast Breitling have periodically struggled to gain brand recognition due to having what some regard as only niche appeal. More recent ventures, such as the Breitling Jet Team and Breitling for Bentley have certainly helped bring them more exposure but the company’s trump card may be the appointment of Georges Kern as CEO as his track record suggests he has something of the Midas touch in leading brands to glory.

 

In their defence

In opening this article, it was stated that we would present the facts as objectively as possible and in that spirit there are a few points we’d like to address which have been raised in criticism of the two companies.

As the leading brand, Rolex have unsurprisingly had to deal with various knocks against their image. There appears to be a degree of perception that Rolex watches are essentially all variations upon the same theme and that their range is limited. Well, a quick visit to the Rolex website should dispel that and in common with most manufacturers Rolex regularly introduce new models to their range. The fact that retired or rare models remain extremely sought after also speaks volumes.

Equally Breitling have been accused in the past of producing products which are “Excessively manly.” For many their heavily engineered chronometers are regarded as being too chunky or niche to have a broad appeal. Having long been associated with aviation and aeronautics  it should be of little surprise to people that many of their watches reflect this. These are pieces that are built to exacting standards and made to last through the rigours of some very intense usage. Even so to offset this the company have introduced various models which are much slimmer or of less cluttered design and include a number of models which take inspiration from far more classical dress watch styles.

 

So, who wins?

As in all things, this really is a matter of personal choice. Some people will always favour one brand over another, others will quite happily entertain both in their collection. Personally we think it is a shame that there are those prepared to dismiss either of these great brands purely based on preconceptions.

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