Nicolas Bideau on Brand Switzerland, Nation Branding and Culinary Diplomacy

Ambassador Nicolas Bideau, Head of Presence Switzerland, in this interview shares his thoughts on the meaning of Brand Switzerland, and the country’s nation branding and public diplomacy strategies to reach audiences in Asia and virtually, through social media. He also highlights how culinary diplomacy has benefited Switzerland as country-of-origin.

Learn about:

  • Brand Switzerland, what it stands for;
  • The main challenges of positioning Switzerland internationally;
  • Which strategies Switzerland uses to increase its country brand awareness;
  • How Switzerland monitors the performance of its nation branding;
  • Which place branding and public diplomacy practices to avoid, especially in Asia;
  • How culinary diplomacy and Brand Europe impact Switzerland’s country brand(ing).

Nicolas, do you remember the first time you thought about Switzerland as a ‘brand’, or became aware of the country’s image abroad?

Being born abroad with a non-Swiss mother made me understand from the very beginning that Switzerland is a country with a strong image – associated more than many others with landscapes, cheese and chocolate.

But the brand appeared to me for the first time when I was studying in China, in the beginning of the 90s. Being Swiss there at that time allowed me to feel the power of our brand, where a small country like ours was respected by the giant country for its values and the quality of its products.

As Head of Presence Switzerland you are in charge of monitoring the country’s image abroad. In your view, what does ‘Brand Switzerland’ stand for?

There are not many other countries with 8 million inhabitants that are as well-known and liked as Switzerland. As you say, we are monitoring our image abroad, in the media and through image studies. Even if the numbers are different from one region to another, we are globally perceived as a stable country with good governance, high quality products and oriented towards nature.

Tourism, food (chocolate and cheese help in that), watches, finance and political independence are recognised as strong Swiss assets. This image is pretty stable, which strengthens how we are perceived in a changing world.

Within the last ten years, the changes in regulation in the field of finance have allowed the way people see Switzerland to evolve in a positive way, even though this remains a less positive part of our reputation.

To your mind, what are the main challenges of positioning Switzerland internationally, especially in the Asian market?

There is a mirror effect with Asia. Many Europeans think that the region is a coherent space, without acknowledging national specificities, even if China and Japan for instance are very different, as well as Shanghai or Beijing.

Our main challenge is to make our targets in Asia understand that Switzerland is not Sweden or Belgium, even if we are geographically close.

As our brand is strong in many countries in Asia, especially thanks to tourism and watches, we have a real advantage in our communication. And we are working on keeping the ‘Made in Switzerland’ image high.

We also want to use this quality label to support our image as an innovative country, thanks to our world-class universities and the strength of R&D (research and development) in the private and public sectors.

In our interview with Annika Rembe of the Swedish Institute she lamented that more and more audiences especially in the growing Asian market have no knowledge of small countries like Sweden. Is this an issue Switzerland also struggles with? What strategies does Presence Switzerland use to increase country brand awareness, especially among the younger generations overseas?

As some postcards sent to Switzerland arrive in Sweden, and vice versa, I can only agree with Annika Rembe! And as I mentioned earlier, although some of the bigger countries are perceived individually, geographically Europe is often seen as one place.

We are lucky to have very strong brands that are appreciated in Asia. A Swiss watch or the Matterhorn act as great ambassadors for us and keep brand Switzerland well identified. But we do have to invest in order to maintain this image among the younger generations.

Having so many students coming to Switzerland definitely helps us make the country better understood and perceived. And we are currently developing our social media strategy, with dedicated channels and PR actions, to increase awareness of our country.

How do you measure success and demonstrate return on investment (ROI) of your country branding work through Presence Switzerland?

Demonstrating the ROI in the field of nation branding is never easy. This is a long term investment by different actors in different fields, such as exports, tourism, education and politics. We are also convinced that strong nation branding has an impact in terms of the country’s soft power. But how can it be measured? Is it measurable?

We do nonetheless work on monitoring our impact, with different metrics. Social media provide tools that are more precise than ever to measure one’s reach. Press clippings allow us to analyse our impact in qualitative terms, which we can also measure in advertising value equivalencies (AVEs).

The image studies that we produce every two years in almost 20 countries measure developments over the longer term. And we are working with academics to improve the metrics and better understand which factors are impacting on our nation branding.

Nation branding is what makes a tourist travel to our country, a client buy a Swiss made product, a politician support an agreement with us or a student study in one of our universities.

Key performance indicators (KPIs) are thus more important for us than ROI.

The influence of online platforms and social media feeds as sources of information about countries is growing. How do you work with Facebook & co. to ensure your message gets through to them?

We are convinced that the local impact improves the global one. This is why we support our embassies in having a strong presence in their host countries in the local language(s). A more specific content has a better reach than a global one posted from Switzerland.

In Switzerland and abroad, we organise workshops to educate our communications officers and heads of missions.

Social media are great for public diplomacy and need to be well understood and used by our diplomats.

During major international events, like the Olympic Games and the World Expos, we develop specific channels, focusing on the particular themes and the interested audiences, both locally and globally.

As is the case in any other field, content is central to nation branding. It has never been so easy to create and curate content, but there has never been so much content either. To get visibility and engagement, you need content that is original, different and true.

We are working on this, ready to keep our messages and adapt the packaging for social media.

How do you monitor the performance of ‘Brand Switzerland’ online?

We are currently working on developing a dedicated tool to monitor Switzerland as a brand online, in articles as well as on social media. Until now, we have been using the existing tools, which are effective up to a certain point. We use the standard metrics in order to identify the performance of the brand, through defined hashtags and key words.

As an expert in place image and communication, what place branding and public diplomacy practices and mistakes would you advise fellow country branding professionals to avoid, especially in an Asian context?

I would recommend forgetting the Asian context, which does not exist. Think about it: if you are not on WeChat in China, you are not in China. But if you are on WeChat in Japan, you are not in Japan. Even if there are some similarities in the region, each and every country in Asia is different and has to be approached differently.

Every Western country wants to be strong in Asia and the communications there at the moment are hectic. In order to be heard, benchmarking should be done. It will allow you to define your USP (unique selling proposition) and your asset to a country and to focus on it, by using these strengths to push your advantage(s).

Culinary diplomacy is an increasingly popular form of country branding, and Switzerland is renowned for its excellent chocolate and cheese, among other things. How do you leverage this important part of ‘Brand Switzerland’ and engage foreign audiences ‘through their bellies’?

There is almost no one I have met abroad who does not expect me to have chocolate or cheese in my luggage. Even if I must admit this is not always the case, this expectation shows how strong the positive clichés around Swiss food are. This is an opportunity for us. Emotions are a door opener for communication and we have two magical keys! You would be surprised how many strategic discussions have happened around a raclette or a fondue.

But these products are not only a magnet for opening up discussions on other topics. They have a value in themselves and show the passion of our country for quality. You can stay true to the traditions and be innovation-oriented at the same time: today’s Swiss chocolate and cheese are sourced more responsibly, have a lower water footprint, use new ingredients and still taste just as good! And they are both export products that you can find worldwide.

In times where the unsatisfying management of the refugee crisis and now failure of many EU country leaders to speak out against breaches of democratic principles and human rights in Catalonia are hampering the image of the EU, how much of an asset or liability is ‘Brand Europe’ for your work at Presence Switzerland?

Not being a member of the EU has an impact on our brand. We are seen as European, but also as a neutral country. For many years, we have often held this position of broker. I cannot talk about the challenges the EU is facing, but I can only wish that it goes well.

So far, a positive or negative evolution of Brand Europe has not had a strong impact on our brand, even if we can sometimes appear like an alternative safe haven, as we are perceived as being more stable.

How do you involve your citizens, to make sure their actions and stories align with the strategy of the Swiss Federal Council on Switzerland’s communication abroad – and the other way around?

We do not expect Swiss citizens to follow the Federal Council’s strategy! But we are willing to use the user-generated content to feed our digital presences. We also use social media to share Swiss citizens’ stories about Switzerland. It engages people on both sides and our followers like to see what is happening in Switzerland from a local point of view.

We are also working as much as possible with Swiss citizens for the content in our House of Switzerland during the Olympic Games and the Swiss Pavilion World Expos. There are no better brand ambassadors. The diversity and the values of our country play an important role in our image. This is why we tend to have a crew mainly composed of Swiss members.

Thank you, Nicolas.

Learn more about the work of Presence Switzerland here.

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