The “I love Switzerland” brand, represented by the white cross with a white heart on a red background, is commonly seen in Japan. However, Switzerland has not taken any action to protect its trademark rights, leaving questions about whether it can or chooses not to intervene.
In early October, a gift with a CD from a popular singer sparked discussions on social media in Japan. The card case, which shows a white cross and an apple on a red background, resembles a “Helpmark” issued by the Tokyo prefecture.
The symbol stands for the message “I need your support.” It is intended to help people with a non-visible handicap or in the early stages of pregnancy. If someone sees someone with this symbol, they should give up their seat on public transportation or provide assistance in an accident, evacuation, and the like. The Helpmark was introduced by the Tokyo prefecture in 2012 and became the official brand nationwide for the Olympics 2020.
Critics of the singer’s giveaway argued that the new symbol was confusing, making it difficult for people with the Helpmark to get the necessary support. At the suggestion of the Red Cross and the Tokyo prefecture, the CD’s distribution decided to change the design of the giveaway on October 18.
Another point came up in the debate, namely that the design of the Helpmark resembled the symbol of the Red Cross and the Swiss flag, which could be considered a violation of trademark conventions. One person admitted to having always confused the Helpmark with the trademark of a Swiss bag.
Roger Mottini, a Swiss national living in Japan, has been dealing with this issue for a long time and has approached various authorities. He teaches at the University of Tokyo and has written a book on the history of Swiss-Japanese relations.
“If Japanese tourists appear in Switzerland with this Helpmark and explain how it is understood and used in Japan, I can imagine – depending on the temperament – very ‘unfriendly’ reactions from Swiss people,” he said.
Mottini complains that the Helpmark is an abuse of the Swiss cross. He has explained this, among other things, to the Governor of Tokyo and the Swiss Embassy in Tokyo. However, authorities and politicians do not see any need for action.
The Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property (IPI) stated that it would not intervene because it was not a commercial use. The Foreign Policy Commission of the Swiss Parliament did not respond to Mottini’s inquiry at all.
Legally unable to intervene for “I love Switzerland”
Swiss authorities remain inactive in addressing concerns about the potential trademark violations of Swiss symbols in Japan, including the use of the “I love Switzerland” Helpmark, due to legal limitations that prevent them from intervening.
And the answer to the question of whether Switzerland could even lodge a complaint against Tokyo’s Helpmark is no. While Switzerland regulates the use of its flag very strictly – the Trademark Protection Act and the Coat of Arms Protection Act have detailed provisions since 2017 on when the Swiss cross may be used to market products and services as “Swiss Made.” A product must be made in Switzerland, and 80% of the raw materials must come from Switzerland (with some exceptions like watches or chocolate).
For services, the base and headquarters of the company must be in Switzerland. Subsidiaries can also use the coat of arms if the services are managed by a Swiss parent company.
However, the Swissness Act applies only to Swiss companies. Abuses by foreign companies are challenged based on the trademark or unfair competition law of the country of origin, or on the basis of multi- and bilateral agreements.
The Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property intervenes worldwide in about 200 cases per year – together with the embassies and private associations. According to David Stärkle from the IPI, the intention is not always to abuse the Swiss cross. Sometimes, it arises…
In conclusion, the use of Swiss symbols in Japan, including the Helpmark symbol, has raised concerns about potential trademark violations. Despite efforts to bring attention to the issue by Swiss citizen Roger Mottini, Swiss authorities have not intervened in the use of “I love Switzerland” branding due to legal limitations and lack of commercial use. While the Swiss government has strict regulations for the use of the flag and emblem in commercial settings, these regulations only apply to companies, leaving it uncertain whether any action will be taken to address the potential misuse of symbols in Japan.