Sunday, 21 December 2008

Turning NGO’s into brands in the Geneva area

Edited version first pulished on Swisster on 13.12.08
This is the original article.

A small revolution is taking place in the Geneva area. International and non-governmental organizations are adopting brand and marketing strategies to advocate their values. What appeared to be a savvy trend before the present economic turmoil may now become a necessity.

International organizations in the not-for-profit sector are competing against a growing number of worthy causes and the Geneva area is home to the highest density of them in the world. Their ability to sustain institutional and private goodwill will depend increasingly on how they stand out. But this kind of branding is not about logos, it’s about improving internal perceptions.

John Kidd, Corporate Communications Manager at the IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature, says that because the world is more competitive “you can’t get by if you send out confused signals”. As early as 2004, he realized that even within his organization there was “a big gap in common understanding”.

Kidd set out to build his organization’s identity in a process that he refers to as “deep branding”. The essence, passion and values were there, but they needed to be clarified and brought into focus. Only then could the internal business practices begin to reflect those values coherently.

The IUCN turned to the Geneva office of Young & Rubicam to pilot its efforts. Sue Mizera, Managing Director of Young & Rubicam Business Consultants and an expert in branding and brand positioning told Swisster “Organisations do understand that they are brands, but they lack the necessary tools and training to tell their story.”

This is a story that must permeate all the layers inside the organization before it can cross national and cultural frontiers. Feng Min Kan, Senior Coordinator for Advocacy and Outreach unit of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction admits that her organization faces a crucial moment. Because of the complexity of the issues at stake and the need to increase the efficiency of processes with “multi-stakeholders”, her unit too has turned to the marketing agency for help.

The patented methodology used by Young & Rubicam to extract “the story” is the Octagon. It is built on the premise that intangibles can be equity and when coaxed out, can produce strong brands. “If it’s powerful inside, it’s powerful outside” explains Mizera. The novelty of the approach is that it can help build partnerships around core values, including with the commercial world.

What is goodwill doing in bed with the devil, asked Swisster? Feng Min Kan retorted that “We are all marketing people, one way or the other.” And when the IUCN and Shell work together to redirect a pipeline in order to preserve biodiversity, they are “over-lapping their Octagons” said Kidd. In fact, many Shell employees have an NGO background.

Sometimes the brand precedes the story. The red cross and red crescent emblems were created more than fifty years before the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies was formed in 1919 and have remained the universal symbols of its values. Bekele Gelata, the recently appointed Secretary General, declared in an interview to le Temps that his Federation uses its strong branding to accomplish “humanitarian diplomacy”, but now wants it to help transform the very habits that are provoking the disasters, including climatic.

“To remain relevant and accessible to all, the IFRC must embrace new ideas and technology”, adds Pierre Kremer, Head of Communication. He recognizes the importance of partnerships that are a way of reaching new audiences “particularly the young people who will be the humanitarian leaders of tomorrow”.

The appeal to the young raises the question of whether organizations - including in the business world - that are capable of communicating and sustaining their values remain more attractive. Several young people questioned for this article declared that a sense of positive ownership was more important to them than financial rewards.

Sue Mizera is adamant that companies and organizations should not be reducing their branding efforts during the economic downturn, but doubling them. The ones that understand this, she said, will come out better.

Related links:

International Union for Conservation of Nature

UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

Young & Rubicam

DJ’s mix with classical violins to ignite the interest of the young

Published on Swisster on 10.12.08

A novel alliance between a hot dance club and a classical chamber orchestra is about to be launched in Lausanne. “Noces” takes place on Wednesday at the Métropole and the MAD. Over 30 year-olds, please abstain.

Pronounce the words classical music and the I-Pod generation usually responds with a grunt or a smirk. Getting them to take an interest in what goes on in classical concert halls is a problem facing orchestras the world over. Programmers and administrators are looking for solutions that need to be playful and attractive.

The USA has led the way by mixing classical and electro, Germany has followed with the Berlin Philharmonic organizing concerts with non-professional singers and only last week the Scala in Milan reserved a performance of the opera “Don Carlos” for under 26-year olds only.

Not to be left behind, Switzerland has come up with its own program, albeit one initiated by an American in Zurich. David Zinman, at the head of the famed Tonhalle orchestra has been organizing concert-discos under the label of “Tonehalle-Late” for the last six years. And always to a full house. 1’600 young adults pack the hall, discovering for the first time Ravel’s Bolero or Beethoven’s Fifth without a rap beat. But that doesn’t keep them from tapping along with their feet.

Noces is a dare-devil marriage made in Lausanne. The Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, known as OCL, is recognized as one of today’s best chamber orchestras. The Moulin à Danse, known as the MAD, is a trendy venue that has contributed to building Lausanne’s reputation as the clubbing capital of Switzerland. Together, they have put together an evening meant to rapture and electrify.

The evening begins at 8 p.m. in the foyer of Lausanne’s landmark Metropole concert hall with an hour long DJ performance by Igor Blaska of the MAD. Then the wonderfully engaging Christian Zacharias will lead the OCL through a program of Vivaldi (Concerto for four violins), Johann Sebastian Bach (the unusual Concerto for four pianos), finishing off with a piece, Noces (The Wedding, also for four pianos), that Igor Stravinski composed when he was living in Morges around 1917.

The audience will then be ushered out of the Metropole, across the street in the Flon to the MAD, where the cult DJ, Mr. Mike will be joined by two brave musicians from the OCL.

An evening of new cultural frontiers for the price of a pizza. And no old foggys.

Swiss artist, Sylvie Fleury, lights up Geneva's culture scene

Published 29.11.08

Breaking all records of attendance, a retrospective at the MAMCO in Geneva of a contemporary Swiss artist shows that Sylvie Fleury is more than just an art fashionista. She is a master in contemporary iconography.

Hub caps and shopping bags are amongst Sylvie Fleury obsessions and they play a large part in her show at Geneva’s Modern and Contemporary Art Museum (Mamco). So do high heels, neons and mushrooms.

You can’t help feel that Fleury’s show has come at just the right time. Her exuberance is an instant antidote to the reigning gloom. The exhibition may not have set out to be joyful, but it is. It’s like walking into a contemporary Alice’s Wonderland, with undersized rockets instead of flower pots and oversized popcorn instead of hats.

Is she being playful, or is she being perverse? Symbols of consumerism and glamour mix with the vestiges of crash tests and punctured Gucci bags. In mesmerizing videos, creatures of extraordinary beauty wash a 1960’s car in stiletto heels or drift around a mechanics work shop. Real-sized demolition cars are bright pink, red or purple, as if laquered with lady's nail polish.

And everywhere you look large neon messages remind us to “Be amazing” and “That every minute is special” or to “Soothe” “Lighten” or “Purify”. There is even a purpose-built catwalk above a furry white floor and visitors, as they advance one step at a time, admit to feeling like stars the time it takes to cross the room.

The suggestive qualities of the exhibition provoke a form of escapism not unlike that of a spiritual experience. Marcel Duchamp’s transfiguration of everyday objects is considered art at the second degree, but he never had much of a sense of humor. With Sylvie Fleury, we enter art at the third level, because there is a constant reminder of irony in her use of epoxy and sequins. Art may never be the same again, but the real fun is that Fleury seems to be telling us that it's all a big spoof.

Entitled Sequins and Dependencies or the Fascination of Oblivion, the show occupies all four floors of the museum and runs until 29 January. Children are flocking there with their parents.

A Green politician, GPS & art

Published on 22.11.08

Geneva’s Green magistrate, Patrice Mugny, talks to Swisster about mapping a different Geneva.

When a magistrate speaks with pride about making culture more accessible, our thoughts immediately drift to the price of a ticket for an exhibition or a concert. But when Patrice Mugny mentions accessibility, he’s not just talking about money. Mugny is an elected member of the five-person Executive Council of the City of Geneva and a representative of the Green party.

During his tenure as the Director of Culture, Mugny has initiated a major transformation of the cultural landscape. He has obtained from the City Parliament a unanimous approval for a credit line of CHF 3 million to adapt the 51 cultural buildings in Geneva to the needs of the physically challenged, still called the handicapped in this part of the world.

Taking into account those, amongst others, who have broken a limb, are hard of hearing or are confined to a wheel chair, that’s 10% of the population.

To illustrate the obstacles encountered by the physically impaired in their everyday life, Mugny commissioned a Catalan multimedia artist. Antoni Abad had created a similar project in Barcelona, as well as with various other populations in different cities. He provided participants with mobile telephones equipped with GPS. The mobility obstacles that they identified and photographed have been compiled on an interactive website and were the subject of an exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Geneva.

Patrice Mugny is jealously loyal to his city, despite being disillusioned about the role he can play. He speaks of a Geneva that is truly international, “one of the ten most famous cities in the world” and yet intensely local. A tradition of anarchy, the continued influence of the hard left and an unusual tolerance for squats make it a city of many paradoxes.

The funds allocated to culture are extremely generous and represent more than a fifth of the city’s budget. With CHF 220 million to spend every year, you’d think that Mugny would be free to make bold proposals. But his hands are tied. With a touch of cynicism, he says that subsidies are allocated essentially to “preserve social peace”, to perpetrate a cultural status quo, not to reward quality or new enterprises.

He speaks enviously of his counterparts in Barcelona or Lyons who have initiated and completed great cultural projects. In Switzerland, he muses, a politician has virtually no power at all.

In a compelling analysis on the role that the media are playing in Swiss democracy, Mugny recently wrote (Le Temps, La tyrannie de l’opinion et la faiblesse de l’information, 1.09.08) that the immediacy of information is influencing the outcome the way people vote. The sense of constant urgency, stoked by the web, means that there is no time to think issues through, let alone accompany complex political projects. Choices are often dictated by emotion.

Patrice Mugny is considered an outsider and it’s not difficult to see why. He does not pander to alliances, and is the first to decry the process of recourses that slows everything down, to the point of inertia. He acknowledges that his own Green party is notoriously obstructive, but slyly points out that it usually wins.

Because he has decided to leave office in two and a half years, at the end of his second term, Mugny will not have time to assist the completion of some of the projects he launched.

If the extension of the Ethnographic Museum in Geneva will at last see the light of day after so many years, it is only because, says the magistrate with resignation and irony, it will be almost entirely underground.

As for the extension of the Art and History Museum (see Swisster article), observers have been astonished that Mugny accepts the idea that it will be half financed by private funds. In Lausanne, the opponents to the construction of a new museum shrilly maintain that private funds mean selling your soul to the devil. “Genevans have a history of giving generously” say Mugny, “We’re not going to turn CHF 40 million away”.

To highlight yet another paradox, Patrice Mugny asks in how many cities in the world can you go to the opera for CHF 29, or for as little as CHF 9, if you qualify for the culture vouchers given to tax payers with low incomes by the State of Geneva?

Mugny has been a mason, a welder, a trade unionist, an actor, a musician, a journalist, before leading the Swiss Green party at national level and becoming a fulltime politician. It will be interesting to discover what he will become next.

The website of the Culture Department of the City of Geneva is partially in English.