The tools of brand marketing throw useful analytical light on the problems Israel faces in the court of world public opinion. Sophisticated salesmanship cannot solve Israel’s fundamental problems, but the discipline of brand management has some useful lessons nevertheless for a nation that must trade, attract investment and tourists, and participate in world affairs.
A study was conducted evaluating the competitive landscape of the popularity of nations, in a process referred to in marketing circles as â??place branding.’ Israel , to no one’s great surprise, has come up short in brand likeability, ranking last out of 36 nations included in an August 2006 survey. Simon Anholt, who conducted the study and is also the publisher of the journal Place Branding and Public Diplomacy,
“foresees a day when the most important part of foreign policy isn’t defense or trade but image-and when countries would protect and promote their images through coordinated branding departments.”
His Nation Brands Index, in which Israel fared so poorly, surveyed 25,903 individuals online about their perceptions of 36 countries and how, in their opinion, the respective countries excelled or were deficient in: investment and immigration; exports, culture and heritage; people; governance and tourism.
Why is strengthening a normal commercial brand and building brand equity-that value accrued to a brand by virtue of its intangible assets and worth-desirable? It reduces marketing expenditures, it is a barrier to entrants in the same industry, it creates higher degrees of brand loyalty among customers, and the costs are lower for retaining existing customers than they are for acquiring new ones.
For nations, Anholt points out, the stakes are just as important and help attract not only tourism and investment dollars, but also international prestige and diplomatic muscle.
“A strong national brand helps to attract investment, talent, consumers and tourists,” he says, “and enhances the country’s cultural and political influence. It’s virtually impossible for countries to compete today without one.”
Apparently, many nations have bought into this same way of thinking about constructing their public faces: witness, for instance, England’s semi-successful ”Cool Britannia” campaign, Turkey’s “Turquality” effort, “Pure New Zealand,” “Incredible India,” ”Brand Oman,” Spain’sÂ high-successful “OK Spain,” and even the United States’ own “Brand America,” introduced after 9/11. Less successful endeavors might include France’s hiring of Woody Allen to sell a favorable image of the country to Americans.
Like their counterparts in other nations and for the same reasons, Israel’s policy makers have been understandably concerned about their â??product’s’ brand image, that bundle of emotional and rational aspects that affect how consumers embrace-or reject-a national brand. In fact, Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has been pushing a re-branding effort for several years now, with the intention of shifting the widely-held perception that the country is defined by images of war and religion, and insuring that the country’s positive attributes are framed and defined by Israel itself and not by its critics and enemies.
That effort will not be easy or obvious, and involves more than bringing in talented teams of marketing gurus and sloganeers. In fact, Arholt and some other experts contend that “repositioning” a country-that is, changing the way it is perceived by the target market-is virtually impossible unless real and substantive changes take place in the way countries actually behave, that, as he put it, “a nation’s brand is a deep-seated perception that does not change a great deal.”
That opinion, of course, is not widely shared, especially by marketers whose entire profession is based on helping brands become profitable by changing the way people see them and showing how involvement with the product will enhance the customers’ lives. Positioning, a concept conceived of by Jack Trout and Al Ries a generation ago, outlined what marketers could do so that consumers would respond favorably to a product by changing the way customers form attitudes about it; their notion was that “positioning does not change the product, it changes the way customers perceive the product,” a formula that still works, not only for detergent but also, as shown, for nations.
New products can be positioned from the outset in whatever way the marketer wishes. For existing brands, however, such as countries, a branding effort generally involves a re-positioning effort, which involves redefining the attributes, benefits, and overall image of the brand so that customers see its value-relative to competitors-in different and more positive ways. Strong brands, and countries whose brand images are powerful, have also been successful in telling a compelling brand story and appealing to consumers on different levels. Wally Olins, chairman of brand consultants Saffron, suggests that this is critical, that what he calls this “core idea” behind a brand “needs to work on an emotional as well as a rational level, to appeal to people’s hearts as well as well as their heads” in order to resonate.
How should Israel tackle the task of rebuilding its image? Philip Kotler, Northwestern University’s prolific marketing professor at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management, has articulated some alternative positioning strategies in Marketing Places: Attracting Investment, Industry, and Tourism to Cities, States, and Nations (with Donald H. Haider and Irving Rein), several of which are applicable to Israel’s own process of shaping the way it is seen by the outside world.
Kotler’s first suggestion involves what he calls “real positioning,” changing Israel’s actual attributes to make the country more attractive, the same systemic cultural, social, and political change that Arholt feels is necessary. For some countries, real positioning could entail simply building a new world-class airport or industrial complex. For Israel, it may involve shedding the specter of militarism so that tourism is not adversely affected by travelers wary of terrorism or business investment put off by continuing political instability and some firms’ ethical misgivings about dealing with country at war. But of course Israel’s enemies have a sort of veto power in this realm.
Kotler’s second suggestion is to implement the process of “psychological repositioning,” the most commonly-employed technique and one that is particularly suitable to Israel’s situation, where the many actual attributes of the country are in themselves sources of strong brand equity. However, decades of international propaganda about “occupation,” oppression of the Palestinians, being a mighty military force confronting a weak foe-all of these commingled images, whether real or imagined, are, unfortunately, also part of people’s attitudes when they think of Israel.
Getting consumers to remember-or think about for the first time-other, more positive aspects of the country, such as its natural resources and scenic beauty, its open, democratic society, flourishing educational systems, biblical and holy places wrought with history, and an exploding high-tech economy will start the process of psychological repositioning; it will begin to get people thinking about what the actual essence of Israel is, and what about the country is relevant to their own lives. That message has to be repeated continually, clearly, and consistently so that every “touchpoint,” instances at which consumers come in contact with the brand, reinforces Israel’s value proposition.
Israel’s visibility, of course, has not been the country’s major problem: survey respondents indicate a high brand awareness of Israel. The problem has been that the impressions people have of the country, their perceptions and brand image, have been dominated by negative attributes, almost to the complete exclusion of the positive. Part of Israel’s particular problem is that its “competition,” the other brands competing for the same target market of customers, are not merely a group of other countries vying for consumers’ business, trade, and tourism needs. Israel’s primary competition, affecting how their brand likeability factors and brand images have been largely constructed, is the clouded brand story evolved from their strife with the Palestinians, and how world-wide divestment campaigns and anti-Israel rhetoric, not to mention anti-Semitism, have created a whole group of brand images neither controlled by nor flattering to Israel. That pattern can be reversed, but, again, only through an integrated marketing communications strategy that speaks with one voice and tells the positive story that Israel can actually tell when it is not only defending its politics and blunt responses to terror.
The irony is that Israel’s founding brand story, that of a tiny, plucky new nation emerging from the ashes of the Holocaust, defeating an Arab onslaught, and bringing bloom to the barren desert, was a powerful, resonant image for the first 20 years of the State’s existence. That position has effectively been pre-empted by the Palestinian cause now, as they have assumed the victim role and their own struggle for nationhood and self-determination has eclipsed that of Israel and has garnered wide-ranging sympathy. So even though Israel still sees itself in its original position, and defines itself as such even now, its consumers-the outside world-have repositioned and “diluted” the Israeli brand without the consent or understanding of Israel itself. That former brand image does not resonate and cannot contribute to brand equity for Israel any longer.
What is needed is a memorable, engaging branding campaign that dramatically changes Israel’s emotional associations with its customers. Nation branding, as Wally Olins reminds us, “must be distinctive. After all, the point of branding is to set your offer apart from those of your competitors.” That is, however, easier said than done, as many countries and states who have tried to create brands images have discovered.
As part of the psychological repositioning process, the task is for Israel to sidestep negative perceptions which comprise the current bundle of people’s emotional and rational connections to the country and start to tell a different brand story. Researchers in an earlier survey by The Brand Israel group found that younger, non-Jewish Americans, in particular, had a singular view of Israel being “militaristic” and “religious,” and none of these aspects were seen as positive associations, according to David Saranga, consul for media and public affairs at the Israeli Consulate in New York. “Israel is not perceived as a fun place where people live,” he said, signaling a complete turn around from the early years when Israel’s military competency and the religious orientation were at least perceived favorably as part of the country’s cultural dynamic.
Clearly, there is a need to personalize the essence of Israel’s value proposition, by rewriting the brand story, deliberately shifting the focus away from the chronic negative aspects of Israeli politics and strife, and showing the less-known or unknown positive attributes that Israel can bring to the table.Â Pollster Frank Luntz, author of a new book, Words That Work, that investigates how language can help shape people’s political perceptions, also did some focus group testing of the Israel brand and urged the use of carefully selected “themes and emotions” in positioning the country, including one he called “the human touch.”
But if the outside world’s only images of Israel-real or imagined-involve negative “themes and emotions,” then those can be replaced by personalizing the identity of Israel, moving it away from repetitive impersonal stories of strife and ethnic and religious tension, and creating emotional connections by putting human faces, real lives, in that brand identity. That can be achieved by building a branding effort around an “I am Israel” campaign which would be the presentation of an evolving series of real Israelis representing the multifarious character of the country and not normally seen by the world: Arabs, Muslims, Druze, and Christians who comprise some 20% of Israel’s population; Palestinian businessmen working in strategic partnerships with Israeli businesses; young entrepreneurs from some of the two thousand active hi-tech and biotech startups and some 300 more launched in 2006; Nobel prize winners; one of the 13 Arab Israelis Knesset members; artists, musicians, poets, sculptors, and writers; children in cafes, young people in chic cafes, and families on beaches-all making Israel more accessible, lending it that “human touch” that Luntz suggested was critical for establishing a brand connection.
Of course, nothing could replace a lasting peace including acceptance of Israel’s right to exist. There is only so much that marketing can acco,plish.
Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, is director of Boston University’s Program in Book & Magazine Publishing at the Center for Professional Education.