January 9, 2005

How to make Israeli companies aware of their importance in the image war.Among the dismal facts and figures in a recent survey of Israel’s image in the US are two surprising findings. One is that Americans don’t think Israelis are bons vivants. The other, which was stressed by Wunderman EMEA vice-chairman and president David Sable when he presented the survey at the very lively session on “Israel as a Brand” at the Globes Israel Business Conference, is that Israel is not perceived as a source of innovation.

We sing and shout all the time about our cutting-edge high-tech, about our pharmaceuticals and biotech companies, about the medical devices developed in Israel, and the average American simply doesn’t hear. For him or her (particularly him, according to the survey), Israel is assuredly a place of violence, of holy sites, perhaps of kibbutzim and oranges, but not, apparently, of advanced technology. Which is a shame, because, according to Sable, inventiveness is an important quality to project in creating a positive image for a company or a country.

On second thoughts, though, should this disappointing finding be such a surprise? Is it not in part a result of deliberate policy on the part of Israeli companies? Allow me a short personal anecdote that will illustrate the point. I have an accessory for my cellphone that very much improves the sound quality, and is supposed to prevent harm from radiation. I was delighted with it, until a couple of weeks ago it suddenly stopped working. Actually, this was the second time the same part had gone wrong, but the first time, the accessory was under warranty; now it isn’t. So I thought I’d send it directly to the manufacturer; maybe I’d get a second replacement despite the expired warranty, and besides, I wanted to point out the apparent design fault.

But where should I send it? I searched the Internet. Great, the company has a website. But there’s no sign on it of a physical address. Still, I did eventually manage to track down the company. Yes, it’s Israeli – based in Jerusalem. Where did I find the clue? On the site of an Islamic organization that calls for a boycott of Israeli products.

This is an extreme case, but not entirely unrepresentative. Some time ago, I met a group of US Jews who had certainly heard of network security company Check Point, but who had no idea it was Israeli.

There are many companies of similar standing that, while they don’t go to extraordinary lengths to hide their Israeliness, don’t highlight it either. Does anyone in the world not know that Microsoft is American, or that Sony is Japanese? Japan, by the way, is an excellent example of a country that has been transformed from an inferior brand to a strong one. After the Second World War, Japan was despised, and its goods were considered cheap imitations of Western products. Now, no-one recalls its actions during the war, and “Made in Japan” means quality and reliability.

I shouldn’t be disingenuous. A company that fears harm to its sales and profits if its Israeli identity is exposed has a clear duty to its shareholders and workers to prevent that harm. The trouble is that the company’s immediate, individual interest clashes with the long-term, public interest. An innovative, useful product, preferably free of faults, bespeaks strong technological and business abilities in its country of origin, a high educational standard there, sophistication and creativity, even an open society and joie de vivre, or at least some kind of normality.

Whoever buys such a product and appreciates such characteristics will feel that they have something in common with the country concerned. They will consider buying other products from that country; if they hear negative news about it, they will tend to balance this with something positive; who knows, maybe one day they will even feel like spending a vacation there.

Israeli industry, and Israel as a whole, can only derive these benefits if Israeli companies identify as such. Of course there will be companies unwilling to change what has so far been a winning strategy in the US market of looking as much as possible like a local enterprise. But I hope that many others will see that a little daring could pay off. At any rate, it’s hard to see how Israel can win the branding game if it is hampered in playing one of its strongest suits. Publicizing the contribution of Israel’s knowledge-based companies is an effective way of making the country appear an asset to the world rather than a dangerous liability, but the companies themselves must play their part.

About one thing, the participants in the “Israel as a Brand” session were unanimous: building a brand starts from within. As a British immigrant, I cannot help but be reminded in this context of Jews in Britain who change their names in an attempt to conceal their Jewishness. There remain Diaspora complexes that we should uproot from our souls.

Once we have done so, here is a modest proposal for the branding experts to consider. Design a symbol with the caption “Israeli technology”, which some authority (the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor?) will license any worthy company to use. Like Intel’s successful “Intel inside” logo, such a symbol will be applicable even when the technology is behind the scenes, and/or when production does not take place in Israel. This is one way in which we could strive to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. For as the tale of my cellphone accessory shows, either way, our enemies will find us. Let them find us charging, not cowering.

(Reprinted with permission from Globes)

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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