Monday, January 28, 2008

Switzerland and the Language of Sport

In Zurich last week, speaking at an event organised by Swiss Top Sport, which focused on the use of sporting events to raise the profile of Swiss towns and cities, and consequently of Switzerland itself.

It's odd, for a country that hosts so many important international sporting events and sporting bodies, that Switzerland's weakest area (in terms of its national image) should be sport.

Switzerland has come top of the list for governance ever since I started running the Nation Brands Index: if the world had to pick one government to rule the planet, Switzerland is the nearly unanimous choice. It also scores very high for tourism, products, technology, ecology, and a host of other attributes, but comes in at 22nd place for sporting prowess.

Of course you could argue that it hardly matters: for a country with such a positive image, how serious can it really be that people don't think of the Swiss as top-rank sportsmen and women?

The problem is that sport isn't the only part of the culture dimension on the Nation Brand Hexagon where Switzerland scores poorly: there is a perception that the country has very little culture, either traditional or contemporary. And this is undoubtedly linked to the fact that Swiss people are admired and respected more than they are loved: like the Germans and the British, they appear to be the sort of people you'd willingly hire, but don't especially covet as friends. People want to be friends with the Italians, the Brazilians, the Canadians and especially the Australians, but not the Swiss. Perhaps it's that reputation for discretion and humourlessness, or perhaps it's simply that there is no convenient cliché to hand about what Swiss people are like, and so they remain largely anonymous in the world's imagination.

In other words, Switzerland is a tremendously powerful country brand, but a rather weak nation brand.

Given what I've said in the past about how nations - such as Italy and the United States - can "go out of fashion" as public opinion and general moral views and values evolve around them, this fact might put Switzerland and its enviably pristine image at risk. In fact, a quick look at Switzerland's NBI scores shows that it is declining almost as fast as Italy and the USA: nearly 2% during the last two and a half years. That may not sound much, but given that most country images are more like a fixed asset than a liquid currency, any steady decline, no matter how shallow, is a matter for concern.

Five or ten years ago, the qualities which many people seemed to admire in other countries were simple things like prosperity, modernity, attractive landscapes, economic growth, cool products. Today, what makes a positive 'nation brand' has become more nuanced, and questions of integrity, generosity, environmental friendliness, transparency and democracy come into the equation more and more strongly.

In the absence of any clear idea of what the Swiss people have to offer in terms of their values, their personality or their philosophy of life, it is easy to see how the old clichés of cuckoo-clock Switzerland could turn against Switzerland's image. That famous Swiss-banker integrity and secrecy could start to look like corruption; that famous wealth could look like selfishness; that famous precision could look like smugness; that famous competence could look like arrogance; that famous taste for producing and consuming the best of everything could look like smugness and élitism.

Faced with the huge challenge of introducing the Swiss to the world, sport is a singularly appropriate, powerful and eloquent "language". As Germany discovered when it hosted the football World Cup last year, the way a country hosts big sporting events and competes in them can be a highly effective way of communicating warmth and depth of national character; and the Sydney Olympics were no less important in helping to create the strong affection which people around the world feel for the Australians today.

If Switzerland learns to speak sport alongside its other "languages" of culture, tourism, politics, foreign aid and exported products and services, it could do far more than merely fend off the danger of losing relevance in the coming decades.

Consider that if Switzerland's NBI ranking for culture were in the top 5 along with its other scores, Switzerland would now be challenging the UK and Germany for 'most admired nation' status.