January 20, 2005

JEWISH WEEK: Marketing a new image

By Gary Rosenblatt

Think of Israel as a product undergoing an overhaul to make it more competitive in the marketplace. What’s called for are fewer stories explaining the rationale for the security fence, and more attention to scientists doing stem-cell research on the cutting edge or the young computer experts who gave the world Instant Messaging.

That’s an oversimplification of what is taking place, but in an effort to improve the Jewish state’s image in America, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem and Israeli officials in New York are working with a team of local business experts to de-emphasize the focus on Israel at war and promote the concept of a country whose medical, scientific and technological achievements bring value to Americans.

The campaign, called Brand Israel, is a strategic marketing effort formed more than a year ago but not made public until now, with seven business and research experts volunteering their expertise on behalf of the foreign ministry. It comes at a time when the foreign ministry, the perennial punching bag for critics of Israel’s hasbara, or public relations, is under renewed scrutiny as the result of a highly rated reality series on Israeli TV, ‘The Ambassadors.’

The program is offering the winner of the 13-week elimination contest a job with the New York-based Israel advocacy group Israel At Heart, and represents an implicit criticism of how professionals are doing their job promoting Israel’s image abroad.

Ido Aharoni, consul for media and public affairs at the Israeli Consulate here, said the Brand Israel operation represents “a paradigm shift” in thinking for Israeli officials, necessitated by research showing Americans know little about the Israel that American Jews think of – democratic, moral, successful – and care less.

“Americans don’t see Israel as being like the U.S.,” explained David Sable, CEO and vice president of Wunderman, a division of the Young and Rubicam advertising agency that has conducted extensive and costly branding research for Israel at no charge.

At his Madison Avenue office last week, Sable, a member of the Brand Israel team, showed a visitor the PowerPoint presentation he has given to Israeli foreign ministry and business leaders based on sophisticated research gleaned from including Israel in the 2004 mix of hundreds of brands (including countries) studied via Y & R’s Brand Asset Evaluator, or BAV, the world’s largest brand database.

Unlike political polling, which asks participants for direct opinions, the BAV seeks to reveal the respondent’s emotional attachment to a product or brand. Beyond the charts and statistics measuring the four pillars of such research – knowledge, esteem, relevance and differentiation – the bottom line is that while Israel as a brand is strong in America, it is “better known than liked, and constrained by a lack of relevance,” according to the presentation.

Or as Sable elaborated: “Americans know a lot about Israel, just not the right things.” They think of Israel as a grim, war-torn country, not one booming with high-tech and busy outdoor cafes.

“That doesn’t mean Americans are anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian,” Sable said. “They just find Israel to be totally irrelevant to their lives, and they are tuning out, and that is particularly true for 18- to 34-year-old males, the most significant target in such studies.”

Part of that phenomenon is due to what Aharoni termed “media fatigue,” the concern that the longer the Palestinian-Israel conflict continues, the less interested Americans are and the more they blame both sides for not ending the violence.

Aharoni said the foreign ministry has come to believe that “in addition to policy advocacy, there is a very real need to talk about Israel beyond the conflict.”

Fern Oppenheim, an advertising and marketing consultant and member of the Brand Israel group, said the BAV data is one piece of what should be a long-term, coordinated strategy that includes ongoing research and evaluation.

“We want to be a resource everyone can benefit from,” she said, “the way a corporate management team would manage a brand.”

That calls for a self-imposed discipline not found in the community until now.

“We’ve fooled ourselves into thinking our grassroots pro-Israel work is relevant” in changing people’s opinions, “but it’s not,”according to Sable, citing the BAV research.

The approach, he said, should be less emphasis on politics and more about making Americans aware of the value and relevancy of Israel. Sable credited Israel At Heart for bringing Ethiopian Jews from Israel to speak in black churches in America.

“That’s brilliant,” he said.

Sable said a group that understands and addresses this new reality is ISRAEL21c (www.israel21c.org), a 4-year-old advocacy group based in the Silicon Valley of California that focuses on Israeli scientific and technological advances that are saving or improving American lives.

“When it comes to Israel, 98 percent of what the media focuses on is the war with the Palestinians,” said Larry Weinberg, executive vice president of ISRAEL21c, “and 98 percent of pro-Israel advocacy is going to waste because it’s all about the crisis.”

Proving that Israel is right and the Palestinians are wrong may be emotionally satisfying for advocates, said the former New York public relations expert, but not necessarily effective in changing people?s way of thinking about Israel.

Weinberg said that by only discussing Israel in terms of its conflict with the Palestinians, “you have a narrow bandwidth, where Israel can only win some of the argument. We are trying to broaden the bandwidth to include Israel’s accomplishments.

“We’re not saying there should be no more discussion of political policy,” he said, “only that we have to change the mix. Let’s not spend almost all of our time on it. We need a strategy that includes more positive imaging.”

Weinberg’s group sends out information to mainstream media outlets about Israeli scientific and business successes, including Israeli-made pacemakers being used widely in America, medical research that is helping fight diabetes and computer advances like Instant Messaging.

He claims that as a result of his group’s contacts and credibility with the media, hundreds of articles have appeared in the press on these and other advancements in the past several years.

The results are incremental more than dramatic, Weinberg acknowledged, but they are helping Americans think of Israel in a different, and vital, context.

Unlike ISRAEL21c, most grassroots pro-Israel groups launched since the suicide war began more than four years ago have focused on gaining political support, emphasizing perceived media bias or the notion that Israel, not the Palestinians, is the true victim. But is that approach working?

Weinberg said advocacy groups focusing on political backing for Israel should realize that with the White House and Congress so strongly in Israel’s camp, support is “as high as it can get,” and the emphasis should turn to making Israel more appealing and relevant to the American public.

Bringing a bombed-out Israeli bus to the United States, for example, as some political advocacy groups have done, may have a powerful emotional impact on some people.

“But studies show that Americans already think the terrorists are horrible, so what do we gain?” Weinberg asked.

Not everyone agrees with this approach.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who heads the Washington-based Israel Project, which has gained attention with its research and advocacy work, said her group’s findings showed that Americans polled about their support for Israel are swayed far more by the fact that the Jewish state is a democracy fighting terror than its production of medical and high-tech achievements helping Americans.

“If we found that such achievements were the reason for supporting Israel, we would change our message,” she said, but that is not the case. (Mizrahi said she looks forward to receiving and reviewing the BAV report.)

Besides, she said, Israel is in the news almost every day in the context of the Palestinian conflict, so “our philosophy is to get Israel’s side into the story the media is already doing. That’s just facing reality.”

And given the press’s attention to conflict, Mizrahi said she was skeptical about how many feel-good stories about Israeli scientific or business advances would “make page 1 like the political stories.”

All sides agree, and emphasize, that pro-Israel advocates, from the foreign ministry to U.S. grassroots groups, need to address both the political realities of the day and the concept of Israel beyond the conflict, bolstering the perception of Israel as a three-dimensional society not limited to politics and the military.

The question is finding the right balance, and Aharoni of the Israeli Consulate here said the BAV data “reaffirms what we have known and provides us with a much-needed over-arching principle to guide the Jewish community [in] long-term strategy and improved coordination.”

“This is the direction we are going in,” he said.

Aharoni stressed that the Brand Israel approach is “in addition” to ongoing political advocacy, “not instead” of it, and that it will take a long time to make a significant impact. He noted that the foreign ministry recently arranged a trip to Israel for architectural writers, and is planning another for food and wine writers.

The goal of these and numerous other efforts is to show Americans that there is another Israel beyond the gloomy headlines, an Israel that enjoys and values life like Americans do, and that is highly successful as a productive, vibrant and cutting-edge culture.

“We won’t change our image overnight,” Aharoni said, “but we have to start somewhere.”

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