For a nation that prides itself on pillars built around security, discretion and solid foundations, Switzerland’s had a challenging few decades. The grounding of Swissair in the early 2000s, curbs to banking secrecy from various jurisdictions, the crisis of 2008 (and all that ensued): it’s forced a rethink in many corner offices in Zürich, Basel and Geneva. With a sharper focus on what its core areas of operations should be and how it should communicate, UBS has recently embarked on a massive brand overhaul that stretches from retail banks in its home market to advertising and its approach to sponsorship.
Tyler Brûlé: Here we are sitting in Lugano on the Swiss border with Italy. How important is the national brand of Switzerland to UBS?
Sergio Ermotti: It’s very important. We are a globally active bank; we employ around 60,000 people, one third of whom are in Switzerland but one third are in the US, and we have around 10,000 people elsewhere in Europe and 7,000 in Asia Pacific. We are a global bank but we are also an organisation that needs a home. It’s very difficult to be a global player without having a stable home and I think Switzerland is a good one for us.
TB: I was recently looking at a ranking on innovation, particularly in the digital space. It was incredible to see that, of digital entrepreneurs around Europe, hardly any of them are in Switzerland. Is the country out of step?
SE: If you look at the World Economic Forum’s statistics, Switzerland has been at the top of the list in terms of competitiveness for many years and is top of the Global Innovation Index. You’re right that the digital world has put some pressure on the country. But a group of entrepreneurs and organisations in Switzerland have put together the Digital Zürich 2025 initiative. We’re trying to catch up a little bit with those tech trends.
TB: Is there a tension between the personal touch and digitalisation in banking? Lots of people want to interact on an iPad but as a customer I like dealing with a proper banker who understands proper service. Is one-on-one interaction still a key part of what you do?
SE: You need a combination of digital and personal, particularly with more complex client requirements. There’s no substitute for that. Digitalisation helps our advisers give our clients better service. It’s more accurate. Just to give you an example: we have a system that screens more than 650,000 advisory client portfolios every night. It identifies quality issues across seven different risk parameters and proposes tailored solutions to mitigate them, thereby improving overall portfolio quality. To generate a customised lead offering for each portfolio, we conduct about 50,000 simulations a day on every one of them. So when you call your client adviser, she’s able to give you insights that are only possible through technology and digitalisation.
TB: I was on Zürich’s Paradeplatz the other day and I saw an extraordinary sight: some Chinese visitors were standing in front of the UBS logo taking self-portraits and group shots. Would you have expected the attachment to the logo and brand that we see in Asia?
SE: This goes back to the importance of branding and logos. We have been through some difficult times over the past few years. I think that the loyalty of our client base around the world and particularly in Asia as well as in Switzerland has been extraordinary. Clients see UBS not only as a bank but also as a company that has a quality of service that matches that of luxury brands. And that is what our aspiration is: to give the best possible service and to get recognised as different from the rest of the banking industry.
TB: You could say that the bank went a bit quiet on communications for a while – it was present but the volume was turned down. Was that because you wanted to get the house in order and build a new path or because you felt there was just a need to tone it down and ride things out for a while?
SE: I am a firm believer in getting your work done first before going out and talking about yourself. There was a point in time when banks in general were not the most popular companies in the world; we needed to adapt our communications and our brand campaign to that. We first needed to validate our transformation by taking definite measures that were backed up by results. That’s the reason why towards the end of 2013 we started to think about what was next in respect of our internal and external communications. We already knew that we were on a good trajectory with regard to the strategic transformation we announced in November 2011. But we knew that we still had work to do in 2014 to develop what you’re seeing in 2015. We wanted to deliver first.
TB: As you hinted there, you’re relaunching the brand this year. What needs to ring true when people see this? What does a bank such as UBS need to do to make sure it holds on to clients? What do you promise in order to make sure that they stay loyal?
SE: You mentioned promises – what we can’t promise is short-term performance. We want to have long-term sustainable performance in the service we give our clients. It took more than 150 years for UBS to get where it is today. It took us 50 years to get us where we are in Asia. People have to remember that, while things move very fast nowadays, it takes time to build up relationships and trust and that’s what is needed to succeed.
TB: Finally, if we fast-forward to 2016 you will have been living with this reinvigorated brand for some time. What do you hope will be the measurable differences? What will it have achieved by then?
SE: It is no coincidence that we started the process of building up our brand by involving our colleagues from within the organisation. What I want to achieve is a high degree of confidence and pride among my colleagues in being part of this organisation. I want them to communicate this to all our stakeholders, whether they’re established clients, new contacts or from any other part of society. Over time I think this will create a sense of value. So my first objective is to get the 60,000 people who work for the company to understand the message, embrace it and influence our current clients – and our future clients.