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A telling sign of the times


The “brand” William Tell adorns everything from beer to butter in Switzerland, with scores of restaurants, chemists, garages and television stations thrown in.

But the shameless use of Tell and his crossbow is more than mere marketing – the legend embodies all the qualities that are thought to make Switzerland Swiss.

There are about 50 Swiss restaurants bearing the name of the 13th century marksman, including one which has a distinctly un-Swiss flavour.

Yet few of them – and even fewer of the many other establishments named Tell – have anything to do with the legend. Indeed, many are located well outside Tell country, which is centred around Lucerne in deepest Switzerland.

But before accusing anyone of cashing in unfairly on the Tell “brand”, it is important to note that Tell stands for the values the Swiss think best represent their country, and therefore their goods and services.

Precision and reliability

These qualities are, according to Rudolf Horber of the trademark organisation, Swiss Label, “precision, reliability, flexibility, adaptability, innovation and sense of duty”.*

Swiss Label allows certified companies to put its crossbow trademark on their goods in order to denote Swiss-made or at the very least Swiss-design.

Swiss army knives are not surprisingly among the many products, but so is baby food made by the Swiss multinational, Nestlé.

The crossbow as a uniquely Swiss symbol, Horber says, is recognized worldwide as a sign of quality.

Pay high price

This has made it a sought-after label by Swiss companies because it helps to justify the higher price they usually demand for their goods compared with foreign competitors.

“The crossbow is still associated with William Tell, at home and abroad,” Horber continues. “And it encapsulates Swiss standards better than anything else.”

Lucerne has only recently jumped on the bandwagon. It is the main town in central Switzerland, the region where the Swiss confederation and the Tell legend were born.

Motorists approaching Lucerne are greeted by Tell’s face on a sign, and then find themselves in a town which sells itself rather absurdly as “Swiss-made”, as if it too were nothing more than a brand of pocket knife.

“Our marketing is based on the historical events which took place here,” says Mario Lütolf, head of the Lucerne tourist board.

“That’s why our message is ‘Swiss-made’ without specifically mentioning William Tell.”

Tell Bombay

But not everyone shares the view that Tell is good for business.

“It’s just a common name for a restaurant, like Rössli (small horse), Sternen (stars) or Krone (crown),” sighs Heinz Schär, owner of the Gasthof Tell in the village of Bützberg north of Bern (see audio).

When he took over the establishment six years ago, he did not dare to change a name that had hung over the door for more than 200 years, even though he wanted to turn it into a restaurant serving Indian as well as Swiss cuisine.

So Schär decided to do what he had done before and simply added “Bombay” to promote the traditional Asian food served up by his Indian cook.

“Before we took over the Tell, we ran a place called the ‘Brewery’ and had it renamed ‘Brewery Bombay’,” says Schär who, having lived in India, has a greater fascination for Indian culture than Swiss folklore.

Pictures of Indian landscapes adorn the placemats in the Tell Bombay, and the smell of curry wafts from the kitchen.

In deference to the legend, two statues of Switzerland’s national hero have been given a niche in the corner.

“You can’t have a Tell restaurant without a Tell,” Schär says matter-of-factly.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

The greatest concentration of businesses bearing the name Tell are in central Switzerland, the birthplace of Switzerland and the legend.

However, companies in every corner of the country use the name Tell to market their products and services.

Tell’s crossbow has been used as a quality label for Swiss made goods since the 1930s.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR