How many novels and movies have the villain stashing money in a secret Swiss account? How many references to dodgy bank transfers appear in James Bond movies? As Bond tells banker Lachaise in The World is Not Enough; “if you can’t trust a Swiss banker, what’s the world come to?” Although Ian Fleming began writing just after World War II, his portrayal of Switzerland as a haven for illegal funds continues to haunt Switzerland’s image.
Are we the projection of what we want to be or are we as others see us?
This metaphysical question is not just limited to poets and philosophers. It was the light motif of a round table at the recent 21st Festival of the Press and Communication in Geneva. Given the continuing financial difficulties of the press and diminishing enthusiasm for multilateralism and organizations like the United Nations, the topic of “Geneva’s Image and the Role of International Geneva” was more than pertinent.
Everyone wants to have a good image. But how to get there? Rebranding has been a major priority of the United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG) for several years. Its Director General, Michael Moeller, launched an International Geneva Perception Change project in early 2014. He set out “to highlight the impact of the work done by all of the UN and international organizations, non-governmental organizations and other institutions based in Geneva.” Moeller regularly states that “Everything that is done here, in Geneva, has a direct impact on every person on this planet, in any 24 hour period." The objective of the Perception Change project was to get the message out in an understandable way to the largest possible audience.
Perception change and management is very much in today. As one of its gurus, John Rendon, proudly announced in 1996 before the U.S. Air Force cadets: "I am not a national security strategist or a military tactician. I am a politician, and a person who uses communications to meet public policy or corporate policy objectives. In fact, I am an information warrior and a perception manager."
Branding experts are flourishing. In addition to private companies trying to sell their widgets, governments, non-governmental organizations as well as individual politicians are all surrounded by communication experts trying to rebrand to sell a product or person. We have gone way beyond Marshall McLuhan’s “The medium is the message” of 1964 wherein the focus was on how to get a message across through new mediums like television.
How far we have gone beyond focusing on the media was expressed by Nicolas Bideau at the round table. “A brand belongs to the people who consume it,” explained the Swiss Ambassador and head of Presence Switzerland. His view of how to analyse perception was markedly different from inside out. The career diplomat explained how his organization tries to scientifically monitor fluctuations in world opinion about Switzerland. “When Federer plays well Switzerland’s popularity increases by 10%,” he said as an example.
Federer’s winning is not something that anyone but Roger, his team and his opponent can control. On the other hand, Bideau emphasized how third parties can increase Geneva’s reputation, such as Third World countries extolling the work of the Geneva-based World Health Organization during an epidemic crisis.
While Genevans and Swiss participants focused on getting a message out, Bideau focused on the audience and their perception of the message. According to Bideau, it was by understanding the outsider’s perceptions through scientific studies that eventual change can take place. Audience’s perceptions, for Bideau, should be the basis of any campaign to rebrand.
Are we truly only as others see us? Obviously not. How we present ourselves influences how others see us. Donald Trump’s power ties and yellow hairstyle enhance our perception of him as an alpha male wheeler dealer. If he wore different hues with a different hair style we would probably change our perception.
Dodgy Swiss bankers or lionized Federer? Switzerland’s image remains a mixture of both. But Bideau’s emphasis that you are as others see you is a powerful reminder that without Roger, Kofi Annan and another major Genferei on the horizon, whatever efforts to positively brand International Geneva, Geneva and Switzerland will fall on deaf ears. And it is those ears that do the final branding.