The Image Matters


Ambassador Martin Dahinden, Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States of America

On the Occasion of the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce Award Event in Beverly Hills, California

Speaker: Ambassador Martin Dahinden


It is a great pleasure for me to be here in Beverly Hills tonight. I am deeply honored to receive the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce Award. I am in awe of the outstanding personalities who are among the former prizewinners.

Thank you very much!

The award will always have a place of honor and remind me of Southern California, where my parents once considered moving when I was a little boy. Fortunately they decided to stay in Switzerland. Otherwise I most likely would not be here today as Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States.

From the beginning of my term as Ambassador, economic, financial and trade issues have been pivotal in my work in Washington and beyond. Martin Naville just gave us an impressive outline of Swiss-American relations and pointed out the huge untapped potential as well.


Trade Relations Are More than Business Opportunities

Trade relations are more than mere business opportunities. They have a deep political meaning. Preserving peace and allowing individuals the pursuit of happiness, democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights, and a free market economy are fundamental. That is our most important inheritance from the time of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution.

Conducting trade with all countries in order to preserve peace was one of the key messages of George Washington’s famous farewell address. More than two centuries later, that wisdom is still valid. By promoting trade and investment between our two nations, we are also making Washington’s vision come true. I am proud to have contributed to that effort through my own work.


The Image Matters

In the vicinity of the great Hollywood studios, the dream factory, I will speak about another topic today. About images; about the image of Switzerland; about the image of Switzerland in the United States; about how images matter with regard to the actions taken by people who have such images in their minds.

Images are more than the reflection of something. Images are bearers of meanings and thus the basis for action. We act on images, on what we think about something, whether it is accurate and fair or not. We have no other choice than to act on what we perceive. This is my deep conviction. And it is the reason why I spend so much time communicating about Switzerland and thinking about how to communicate about Switzerland.


What Is the Image of Switzerland in the United States?

What image does Switzerland have in the United States? The question is as simple as can be. But the answer is not.

When asked about Switzerland, Americans have very different, even contradictory things in mind: Switzerland is associated with objects like cheese, mountains, watches, and bank accounts. They are all stereotypes often far removed from present-day Switzerland.

My generation strove to destroy stereotypes in all parts of society. Yet, I myself have never considered destroying stereotypes to be a desirable task. Stereotypes are important and useful most of the time. They frequently contain strong messages and are important in creating and  handling expectations. Without stereotypes, it would be difficult to grasp reality and we would stagger about in a confusing and scattered world that is difficult to understand.

It is more important to reflect on stereotypes and work on them than to try to dismantle them.


Hollywood Has Contributed to the Stereotypes about Switzerland

Hollywood has magnificently contributed to the stereotypes about Switzerland. From very early on, Switzerland has served as a backdrop for Hollywood movies.

The 1937 movie Heidi, starring Shirley Temple, and other movies disseminated the image of Switzerland as an Alpine country with untouched, sometimes wild natural beauty. A year later, Swiss Miss, starring Laurel and Hardy, had little to do with real Switzerland in the year before World War II broke out. But it celebrated the timeless, funny stereotypes tourists look for when they come to Switzerland for the first time, like the St. Bernard dog with the little liquor barrel or the fairly strange inhabitants of the place.

Decades later, Mission Impossible and The Bourne Identity revealed entirely different stereotypes about Switzerland: the world of opaque financial transactions, secret bank accounts, and Switzerland as a meeting place for spies and dark figures in the globalized world.

A very different image of Switzerland appears in the Star Wars movie, where the Swiss Alps served as a wonderful landscape on a remote planet.


Working on Switzerland’s Image

When my colleagues and I started to ponder about the image of Switzerland in the United States a few years ago, it was not about polishing the image. It was about making sure that the image reflects Switzerland accurately and that the image shows opportunities for cooperation between Swiss and Americans.

The beautiful landscape, the old traditions of my country are neither wrong nor should they be hidden. They are suitable for Switzerland as a tourist destination. But they do not allow one to discover Switzerland with its real strengths and capabilities. Our idea was to show Switzerland as an innovative, forward-looking country rooted in its traditions. Some called it “Heidi and High Tech.”

That new approach became the essence of all our activities. The most visible one is the SwissTouch campaign, a roving table. The table was designed and produced from timber grown near the Matterhorn. Early last year, the table started to travel across the United States, to encounter Americans and to share an image of Switzerland beyond its breathtaking landscape, its tasty chocolate, and its reliable watches. The table is a focal point, a story line. But more important is the Swiss Touch campaign’s outreach through social media.

With every step in the table’s journey, a different Swiss story is told to many more people than to those who would physically attend an event.

Images show this better than words (PowerPoint Presentation):

  • The Matterhorn

  • The National Mall, where people walking by could sit down and ask me anything

  • The National Building Museum, where we discussed how to build smart communities for the future

  • The National Archives, where we explored digital information

  • The National Portrait Gallery, where we celebrated the Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler and his painting Femme en Exstase at the Gallery

  • The table traveled “on the Road,” from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, tackling sustainability and brainstorming eco-friendly initiatives from local to global initiatives

  • The U.S. Botanic Garden to taste a variety of Swiss herbs and cocktails 

Once again, I would like to thank you for your award. I am greatly honored to have been invited to the Beverly Hills Hotel by the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce.


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