Israel mulls branding campaign to counter negative image

tel aviv | What kind of image does the average American have of Israel?

According to recent focus groups, the picture of the Jewish state is a grim one: gray and fortress-like, militarized, male-dominated, uniformly religious and generally uninviting.

“They don’t see anything of normal, everyday life,” said Boaz Mourad, CEO of Insight, a research group that conducted focus groups in the United States. “All they see is conflict and religion.”

With the help of some of the country’s top advertising brains, the Foreign Ministry is hoping to “rebrand” Israel. The idea is to remold the country’s public image — possibly the worst in years — from a bloody cauldron of conflict to a vibrant, dynamic society brimming with night life, innovative businesses and attractive and welcoming people.

At a recent conference, government officials and international experts exchanged ideas on how to make that happen.

The concept of national branding, which began about 15 years ago, was borrowed from the advertising world when people began to wonder if the tools of product branding could be translated into promoting countries. The goal was to help countries craft a highly managed, positive international identity that would boost investment, tourism and international status.

Countries like Spain, Turkey and Croatia have launched branding campaigns to improve their images, aided by experts who helped identify their major selling points and develop core messages that could be coordinated among government, business and cultural leaders.

Once a brand concept is developed for Israel, part of the challenge will be keeping all the players in line, from squabbling government ministers on down.

“Israel is not perceived as fun or normal. Our job is to say, ‘Yes, we are not normal, but we are far more normal than you think,'” said Ido Aharoni, media advisor to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

For years Israel has worked to build political support, but government officials say that’s not enough in today’s global economy. Israel needs to be seen as a competitive place so that businesspeople and tourists see beyond the conflict and see Israel as a place to invest and visit.

But how can Israel repaint its image as a conflict zone as the seemingly intractable and violent Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues?

Guy Toledano, vice president of business development for Bauman Ber Rivnay Saatchi and Saatchi, says it could take 10 to 15 years — but that with the right approach, Israel could significantly shift its image.

He pointed out images Britain used in its “Cool Britannica” branding campaign, of an Oxford student and a bartender at a pub. The goal was to give the sense of a country that was approachable and hip.

“Brands are about stories, and the story of Israel should be revised,” he said. “It was once the story of pioneers, of making the deserts bloom and the swamps disappear.”

But with the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967 and Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the world’s image of Israel changed drastically for the worse, Foreign Ministry officials and others said.

Among the speakers at the conference was Larry Weinberg, executive vice president of Israel for the 21st Century, which promotes stories of Israeli technological and scientific innovations that benefit Americans.

Weinberg said Israeli representatives must shift their focus from “hasbara,” a concept that means public relations or propaganda and essentially refers to how Israel explains itself to the world. Officials long have assumed that if they can convince the world that Israel is right in its conflict with the Arabs, international support will follow.