When you think of Israel, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? War? Terrorism? Bombs? Unless you just returned from a seminar at Tel Aviv University, I guess you wouldn’t say things like “science development” or “buzzing cultural life”.
But that’s precisely the kind of things that the Israeli government wants you to think about. So they recently engaged the services of Acanchi, a British firm specializing in nation branding, to conduct a major overhaul of brand Israel.
The rebranding passes for an effort to steer people away from all the negative perceptions associated with the Arab-Israeli conflict and getting them to develop a more positive image of the country, associated with its cultural heritage and scientific achievements.
This will be a truly titanic task. In 2006, the Anholt Brand Index found Israel ranking last across all categories. OK, the inquiry for the report was conducted right after the Lebanon War, which saw Israel’s image sink like a ton of lead all over the world. But the latest available data shows a consistently low image of the country among the general population, even in friendly countries like the US.
The Israeli government conducted its own research, and came to similar findings. Ido Aharoni, Israel’s assistant foreign minister responsible for the brand management unit inside the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, recently told Haaretz that “Israel’s brand is essentially the conflict”, with people seeing it as a “supplier of bad news”. As a result, even people (like most Americans) who are firmly on the Israeli side of the fence are not attracted to the country.
These findings dawned on the Israeli officials that a change of tactics was urgently needed. For years, a debate had been raging inside the Israeli Foreign Office over the best way to tackle negative perceptions of the country, tied with the Arab-Israeli conflict, and especially Palestine.
There were two main options: a) argue Israel’s point of view, portraying it as being “right”; and b) divert public opinion away from the conflict and into other more palatable areas, thus portraying it as “attractive”. Ido Aharoni came to the conclusion that “it is more important for Israel to be attractive than to be right.”
So, off with the old talk about “palestinian terrorists” and “justifiable military action” that peppered every official statement and press-release and, unwittingly or not, became the cornerstone of Israel’s brand image; on with softer talk of science and culture that, if all goes according to plan, will displace war scenes as the top-of-mind images whenever Israel is mentioned.
Having reached 60, Israel is preparing to shed its rhetorical body armor, replacing it with more appealing garments. Whether this will conflict with Israel’s internal image is what remains to be seen.
Acanchi believes that a nation’s brand “is always rooted in the reality and essence of the place”; Fiona Gilmore, Acanchi’s founder and director, argues that “if a brand is changed or built only on the surface and it’s not supported by deeper changes and values within a country, city or region, it will not engage people.”
So, the real question now is: has the Arab-Israeli conflict become an indelible part of Israel’s identity? Acanchi prepares to find out.