Swiss watchmaking city tries to shed gritty reputation

The city of Biel at the foot of the Jura has a lot to offer. A beautiful old town, a lake and nearby hiking areas. Nevertheless, it suffers from a bad reputation.

Home to watchmaking giants Rolex and Swatch, the city of Biel struggles to attract newcomers as it has the highest proportion of welfare dependents in the country. Can viewing the city through a local’s eyes change people’s minds?

This content was published on January 9, 2018 - 17:00

Biel (or Bienne in French) at the foot of the Jura mountains is home to a unique population. On the one hand, its people are perfectly bilingual, on the other, there are more people living on welfare here than anywhere else in Switzerland, and every third resident is a foreigner. At the same time, Biel is an important watchmaking hub.

“Biel has only developed into a city in 1850 thanks to the watchmaking industry,” says mayor Erich Fehr “That’s also why we don’t have an old aristocracy. Biel has always been an industrial city and continues to be one to this day.”

However, the industrial city today needs specialist professionals and not factory workers. The manual jobs have been automated, but engineers, programmers and IT specialists are in high demand. Since the last few years, the industry has been struggling to fill these skilled vacancies because the former worker’s town is viewed as too unattractive by outsiders.

Biel locals are offering to go for a pint with newcomers and helping them to discover the city.

Overcoming prejudices

The proportion of inhabitants receiving welfare payments has continually been rising and is currently at 12%, meaning every 10th resident is living on welfare. This produces high costs for the city whose income is also low because its population generates comparatively low tax revenues.

City officials realised they needed to attract more middle-class people and better earners. From this idea, a new campaignExternal link developed in which over 200 Biel residents spontaneously agreed to serve as hosts and guides for potential newcomers.

“A prejudice cannot be changed,” says advertiser Gabriel Peisker who developed the campaign. “Advertising normally attempts to gloss over and whitewash, but we chose another way. The goal of the ad is authenticity; the city showing its true colours.” 

Peisker counts on a simple formula and insists that whoever knows this city, loves it.

“We knew that people who live or moved here, are totally enthusiastic about it and like to talk about it,” he says. 

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“Tolerance, creativity and innovation”

It is this enthusiasm on which the campaign draws. Biel native Salvador Atasoy describes his home town like this:

“Biel combines the worldliness and tolerance of the Romands [French-speaking Swiss] with the warmth of the Bernese. To me it means creativity and art combined with innovation, technology and specialist mechanical knowledge. It’s a truly unique mix in Switzerland.” 

Atasoy is one of more than 200 Biel locals who are happy to offer their “friendship” to complete strangers online in order to help them immerse themselves in their potential new home town.

“When you are new to a city, you are often alone and need to make new connections. This problem has now been solved for everyone in Biel,” says Peisker. 

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