The association Swissness Enforcement gives companies abroad a hard time if they unlawfully adorn their products with the Swiss cross. We talked to the Managing Director David Stärkle about how it enforces ‘Swissness’ outside Switzerland.
“We’ve followed up on over 100 tip-offs and managed to stop numerous cases of misuse,” says David Stärkle, the Managing Director of the association Swissness Enforcement. Copyright: IGE
Outside Switzerland, it’s usually both easy and rewarding to place a Swiss cross on a watch dial, adorn the packaging of a face cream with the Swiss flag or integrate ‘Swiss’ into a company name. But even where it says ‘Swiss’ on the outside, there’s often nothing ‘Swiss’ on the inside.
Swissness Enforcement has been fighting against free-riders abroad for the last two years. Its members consist of companies and associations. The Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property (IPI) has joined up too. Swiss companies generate over a billion Swiss francs every year with ‘Swissness’, as customers abroad are prepared to pay up to 20 per cent more for high-quality Swiss products. “That makes it all the more important to systematically pursue free-riders,” stresses David Stärkle. Otherwise, this key competitive advantage of Switzerland would be compromised and the ‘Swiss’ quality label would be diluted.
What has Swissness Enforcement achieved since it was founded two years ago?
We’ve followed up on over 100 tip-offs, with very good results: we’ve managed to stop numerous misuses. Our work is having an impact and is being noticed. So much so that the Icelandic government asked us for advice in the ‘Iceland v. Iceland’ case. The state of Iceland wanted to make the British supermarket chain Iceland change its name. The retailer refused. In the end, however, the Grand Board of the European Union Intellectual Property Office decided in favour of the country of Iceland. The Board thus accepted the arguments that we had advised Iceland to use.
Which products and sectors are particularly affected by misuse of ‘Swissness’?
Misuse affects all products, especially products that consumers associate with Switzerland: the classical items are cheese, chocolate and timepieces. But we now also see shoe manufacturers, software suppliers and medical service providers in the area of health and beauty advertising with the Swiss cross – although their products or services have nothing at all to do with our country. What’s more, companies like to use the word ‘Swiss’ in their names. This is another area where consumers are misled. Such activities have greatly increased. We process most cases in Europe. But there has also been a growing number of cases in China and India in which the Swiss cross has been used as a seal of quality.
How do you spot ‘Swissness’ cheats?
Many members of our association have issued monitoring mandates that include checks on the IP rights registers. We benefit from every report from members, including the IPI. Additionally, we receive reports about potential misuse from Swiss embassies and also from consumers themselves. We then decide whether to take action and in what manner. There are a number of procedures that we can adopt, but our first step is to contact the companies directly with a warning letter.
How do companies react to your warnings?
25 per cent accept our demands, 25 per cent refuse to do so, and the other 50 per cent don’t respond. We aim to initiate nullity actions against the ones that reject our demands or lie low. Whatever happens, we don’t let up on the pressure. Each case costs us 5,000 euros. We rely on the solidarity of our members in such instances, even if they’re not affected by every case. We can only defend ‘Swissness’ if we pull together.
What goals does Swissness Enforcement have for 2023?
First of all, we’d like to thank all our members for their support. Their participation shows that defending the ‘Swiss’ brand is of key significance for our economy. If we can win more members in 2023, Swissness Enforcement will become even stronger. Many companies don’t yet realise how much the ‘Swiss’ brand is weakened abroad by false indications of source. If we don’t do anything to counter such free-riding, it will compromise the reputation of Swiss products over the long term. In 2023, we aim primarily to strengthen our activities on online platforms.
While we’re on the subject, I find the way that the pharmaceutical group Roche justifies its membership very interesting. The firm doesn’t use ‘Swissness’ directly. But if dubious pharmaceutical companies abroad misuse the Swiss cross and their products are bad, that indirectly impacts Roche and the entire sector. If a skin cream causes health problems, consumers will remember the wrongfully used Swiss cross on the packaging. Every export company of a certain size should take a stand to ensure that Switzerland’s reputation is not harmed by products that mislead consumers and are of dubious quality.