Edwin Schmidheiny on International Branding

Edwin Schmidheiny in this interview shares his thoughts on the meaning and purpose of brands, international branding and the differences and similarities between commercial and place branding.

Edwin is Creative Director with Accent Brand Consultants AG in Zurich, a Swiss agency specialized in the development of international brands.

Edwin, you have four decades of experience in design and branding. Do you remember what first got you interested in this area of work?


My area of expertise is international branding, and it has become my theme. I have always been interested in the world, I always wanted to see it.

I guess this is a fairly Swiss trait; coming from our unique small country with our unique place in the world, we have an interest in expanding our horizons and in engaging with the world. I have worked and lived in many places around the globe but have never been the only Swiss anywhere. Wherever you go, there is some compatriot already there.

This desire to see the world motivated me to venture to California in the mid 70s, which was already then the place where the future was born. I was lucky to have worked with two of the most influential designers of that time: Saul Bass and Walter Landor. They revolutionized the world of design and were pioneers of many global brands (i.e. AT&T, Minolta, WWF, Levi’s, FedEx, etc.). This showed me the magic of branding – that brands truly have the power to change the world. Walter Landor’s statements are still quoted to this day as the axioms of branding (“Products are made in the factory, brands are created in the mind”).

Coming from a Swiss school of design which was admired in those days and sought after worldwide, I profited already then from the brand of Switzerland.

My desire to see the world led to a passion for the quintessential international industry – the airline industry. Working for mentors who created the first modern identities for commercial airlines (United, Continental, Alitalia, Iberia, Singapore Airlines), I became an airline expert myself and ended up working for many global airline projects – Northwest in the US; Lufthansa and Swissair in Europe; Japan Airlines, Thai Airways and Korean Air in Asia; and for Royal Air Maroc. This enabled me to travel and lead multi-cultural teams in different markets worldwide.

This international aspect is what I find the most inspiring in branding. International branding is a never-ending story of discovery. It gives one the opportunity to get to know people, places and the world.

How have your views on brands and branding changed since you first got involved in the field?

From visual only to holistic branding

When I got to the US, there was already a clear distinction between agencies for general communication and for brand identities. But it was mostly design, with much focus on the visual key elements, such as the logo, typography, colors and design principles.

Today, we have integrated branding programs where graphics, environmental design, digital media, and engaging design platforms are seamlessly connected into a holistic branded experience. Where consistency in the implementation used to be the holy grail, today it is replaced by coherence and the distinctiveness of the entire ecosystem.

But a brand is more than a branded experience – it is a multidimensional culture with its unique behaviors, symbols and language.

Branding has become a familiar term for many, and there are many different interpretations of what it is. For some, it still means a set of services for developing and managing brands. For me, it is a way of thinking about a holistic experience where everything communicates and contributes to the brand.

Brands have become platforms for communities where relevant issues are presented and discussed between interested constituencies and stakeholders. With design as only one part of a broad set of tools, many expressions must play together to build and support a unique and authentic brand that must be agile and flexible to adapt and remain relevant.

How do approaches to the brand positioning of business locations or destinations differ across different markets?

The US is artificially creating its spaces, Europe is authentic, Dubai is hyper branding

The US has a long history of commercializing its locations and destinations. Opening new frontiers attracted millions of people to come to the new world and to go west. This led to promoting constantly new destinations and, when there weren’t any left, creating artificial ones. Disney Land and Disney World are the descendants of this tradition, destinations that even got exported across the globe. Creating attractive and new destinations helped build and connect a country of vast dimensions.

Europe is about authenticity and unique individual traditions. It has traditionally built on its authentic diversity and distinctive differences. European cities and regions are known for their heritage and sophisticated cultures, that are – also due to the colonial tradition – known and desired around the world.

In the Middle East, particularly in Dubai, location branding is hyper-branding. A brand is an integral part of every construction and development project. The market is highly competitive and there are few authentic points of differentiation, so desirability is mostly brand-driven; the brand is usually developed and marketed before anything tangible is available.

We often hear from strategy consultants that too many brand managers still think that catchy logos, slogans and advertising campaigns are enough to enhance the reputation and competitiveness of their country, city or region, whereas such initiatives by themselves tend to be of very limited effectiveness. What would you tell country brand managers – how to do it better?

Respect and empathy

There is only one good approach to creating any brand, and this is even more true for a country brand: respect and empathy. We need to be mindful to promote what the country really is, to capture its essence.

There is nothing wrong with an attractive campaign; you need it to promote the idea. But it is important not to mistake these elements for the brand. Logos and slogans represent the brand, but they are not the brand. It is about the idea behind the surface.

Photography and video are some of the most effective tools in country branding; they can capture the people, the environment, nature, music and art and thus authentically bring the character and the soul of the country to life. But the brand is already there, you don’t have to create it. You need to be a good listener and really commit yourself to understanding what it stands for. It’s about respectfully bringing the authentic essence to life, not create something artificial.

It is also important to not just reflect but also project. A brand manager needs to lead from the future. Our task is to capture the minds of the next generation. We need to know where the country and where our international audiences will be going and meet people where they will be next. Also here, empathy and listening to the signs of the times is essential.

Christopher Browning, in his interview with TPBO shared how the use of humour is increasingly having branding effects, intended or otherwise. What role do you think humour plays in the context of location branding?

Entertains and differentiates but can be disrespectful.

Humor is tricky. It can be an effective emotional appeal; a sense of humor makes people instantly personable. It is also a useful differentiation tool; the ironic exaggeration of certain traits can help emphasize perceived qualities. For example, when a former campaign of the brand Switzerland showed an owner of a remote mountain hut climbing the ladder to iron the Swiss flag high up on the pole, or others scrubbing the steep rocks to create the “Swiss perfection” for the holiday tourists, this irony helped emphasize the perfectionism of the Swiss in everything they do and the impeccable, spotless environment awaiting visitors.

But humor can also be somewhat disrespectful. It often belittles something or even someone; not everyone appreciates that. Moreover, the emotional appeal humor creates is somewhat artificial; we are replacing the authentic appeal of the underlying experience with an artificially created interest.

Irony is a very post-modern tool. As the global branding community is moving towards a more meta-modern sensibility, contemporary branding practices tend to pay more attention to people’s feelings and states of mind and are more mindful of effects words and actions have on people. One even speaks of “non-ironic living” and “New Sincerity”. But, regardless of the Zeitgeist, humor and auto-irony will probably always be an attractive option in place branding efforts.

In a recent article by Landor on the branding of Azerbaijan, the authors point out that “local languages matter even more in a globalised world because it influences the way a nation thinks”. In your work experience, how does language benefit a branding exercise? Which are the do’s and don’ts?

In international branding, cultural literacy is a must.

In branding, the concept of language plays an important role. We work with both verbal and non-verbal languages and strive to create a harmony between the vocabulary, the syntax and the meaning.

A language is an important part of a culture. How we treat a language is a reflection of the way we feel about its culture of provenance. In international branding, cultural literacy is a necessary requirement. We constantly negotiate between different cultures and promote an understanding between them, so multilingual and multicultural teams are a plus.

For us in Switzerland this is a familiar concept. We have a unique situation with four official languages in a small country and, on top of that, as many dialects as we have valleys. Our example shows how our dialects are defining our provenance and heritage and how, at the same time, sharing our major languages, connects us within the country as well as with our neighbors and with cultures beyond our borders.

As designers, we have additional means to communicate and to understand different cultures. We can often grasp the ways of thinking and feeling through the forms and visual symbols used by a community, and thus have an intuitive understanding of unknown experiences and different histories.

Looking back at your career so far, which three bits of advice would you give to young designers or brand strategists keen to offer their services to locations – business regions or destinations?

Be a citizen of the world.

Get to know the world.

You can only appreciate the differences and richness of cultures and places if you can compare it with others you’ve experienced. You also get to know yourself when you have to reinvent yourself over and over again, as you find yourself in different contexts.

Be adventurous.

Be on the lookout for and explore unexpected situations. Unexpected experiences are where you will discover the real soul of places and people.

Above all: be open.

Only immersion in all aspects of life and an openness to traditions of a new culture will reward you with the full picture. As fragmented as it still might be at first, eventually it will culminate in entirely new insights and understanding.

What can place branders learn from commercial branding, and vice versa?

Transforming places into spaces.

What place branding can learn from international commercial branding is how to turn places into spaces. In order to transform a place into a brand, we need to make it meaningful to people. This takes the knowledge and the skill to turn features into experiences that connect with people’s values and touch people’s hearts. With our experience in international branding, we have the tools to transform a place into a mindset and to make it a conscious choice.

We also have experience with international audiences and with differences in perception between the local and the international audience. Those who live in a place have a different view of it than the ones far away. One must skillfully negotiate between these different needs. Place branding tends to devote a disproportional amount of attention to either the local or the international audience, an issue that international branding solves in more sustainable ways.

On the other hand, a place brand is a more complex phenomenon than a commercial brand, because it goes beyond marketing and involves the society. It touches everyone, engages many, and evokes passionate opinions. The promised experience entails the collective involvement.

This authenticity is something that I am promoting in commercial branding also. I don’t believe in the idea of branding as a mere customer-facing communication vehicle. Brands should never be only communication shells. The brochure or the company youtube channel has to be an authentic expression of the life inside.

One could say that destinations are the ultimate brand experiences – by their nature, when there, one becomes totally immersed in brand experience, physically and emotionally. That authenticity is something commercial brands should also aspire to, and many indeed do create their own authentic and distinctive cultures.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

Working in international branding has enabled me to live in many places and to work with some of the most creative and interesting people from around the world, clients and colleagues.

While still drawing from my Swiss design school, I came in touch with many different design attitudes and thinking to reflect on and to learn from, trying to incorporate them and adapt them and hopefully come up with new and more exciting solutions.

And as my international colleagues taught me how to look at the world differently, I hope I could also contribute something to the world with my «Swiss backpack».

Thank you, Edwin.

Connect with Edwin Schmidheiny on LinkedIn or find out more about his work at Accent Brand Consultants in Zurich, Switzerland.

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