Have you ever wondered what makes a country a country? What makes India Indian? Or France French? People are people, everywhere. But cultures are different.

The question was on my mind this week, when our family headed off to Switzerland for an extended Christmas holiday and to celebrate the 80th birthdays of my parents. Starting the year in the high snowy Swiss mountains in the company of our family seemed like a good idea.

We had planned the entire journey meticulously, because experience told us that it is possible when travelling in Switzerland.

With seven adults and five children, we took the 6.55am KLM flight from Amsterdam which touched down in Geneva 30 minutes ahead of schedule at 8.05am. Then Swiss precision took over. Some 15 minutes later we were at the belt, where a screen told travellers the exact number of minutes before luggage would start to appear on the carousel. Within the predicted time frame, we collected our luggage and headed to the train platforms.

According to the SBB timetable we had accessed in May, we had to take the train to Brig on platform three. As the flight arrived early and the transition at Geneva airport was as smooth as a fresh deep snow ski slope, we collected some coffee and a local newspaper and boarded the train an hour before we had estimated. The train left dot on time at 8.54am. And this meant that within an hour of touch down, our group of 12 was cruising along lake Geneva, where some thin fresh snow had fallen. The rest of the journey commenced like clockwork. At Visp, the group took the post bus in front of the station for a ride of 49 minutes, which climbed from 680 meters to the 1,800 meters altitude of our destination of Saas Fee.

The precision and transparency of the Swiss travel system mean that one can focus entirely on every moment of the journey, rather than managing disturbances and connections. One savours the beauty of the landscape, which became noticeably more snowy and pristine the closer we came to our destination.

What certainly helped was a very friendly conductor. After blowing an old-fashioned whistle at each station, which sometimes echoed against the mountains, he stopped regularly at our seats to check in with the children to tell a joke or a riddle.

Another striking feature is the cleanness of the entire country. Making even Singaporean officials envious, Switzerland as a whole is almost as clean as Disneyland. The Swiss call it being “proper". From the train toilets to the air, from the stations to the roads, from the cities to the countryside, everything is clean. Some find the country’s vacuum-cleanness a bit too much. But it certainly provides a nice contrast to many other countries. And the country is highly branded: the Swiss flag is used as a logo in every nook and cranny. It stands for reliability and cleanness, and a pride about that which is deeply rooted in the national identity.

Another striking feature that makes Switzerland Swiss is the business model. Many people say that travelling in Switzerland is expensive. While that depends on your reference point, of course, it is difficult to call that a striking national feature. What is more characteristic, perhaps, is the philosophy behind the way the Swiss charge. The Swiss lease their country and all its features and resources to you. They have found a way to tangibilize the intangible, to capture the value inherent in the country’s natural touristic resources, and the highly efficient and effective systems the Swiss have built to access it.

The country is run on a highly coherent philosophy, it seems. Everything you buy in Switzerland and every service rendered shares in this identity. You buy the brand through every little thing. You experience the brand for the duration of a train trip, a coffee, a bar of chocolate—and pay a premium for every element.

Switzerland is a country that more than perhaps any other has understood how to project itself and capture the value of its natural endowments and cultural achievements. Perhaps that is what makes Switzerland Swiss.

Tjaco Walvis is the managing director of brand consulting and advertising agency THEY India, and a speaker at the Outstanding Speakers’ Bureau. He writes a fortnightly column on the softer cultural aspects of marketing that often tend to be ignored by marketers.

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