Israel: The World's Worst Managed Brand

09/22/2011 02:21 pm ET | Updated Nov 21, 2011
  • Adam Hanft Political Columnist, CEO of Hanft Projects

As the United Nations sits on the verge of an historical vote on the issue of Palestinian statehood, we can't forget this:

Israel started with one of the world's great brands. Since then, it's been on a reputation trajectory that would make a great Harvard Business Review case titled "The Great Global Squander." So it's time to recognize that Israel's ability to make its own case, using the fundamental techniques of modern branding and marketing, is simply non-existent.

It may seem trivial to introduce the meretricious notion of "branding" into this seminal struggle. But put aside the fractiousness of ancient rights and grievances, of who did what to whom first, and what have you got? A battle of the brands: Israel vs. Palestine.

Israel's current isolation -- a reality which most Israelis would acknowledge -- is due in large part to the country's abject failure to create and sustain a consistent and compelling narrative. And the Palestinian brand -- and I don't want to get political here, but despite corruption, missile firing on civilians, and other imperfect behaviors -- is stronger than ever.

Brands are stories that -- at their deepest level of archetype -- connect with profound cultural and personal imprints. Israel benefited from that constellation of imagery, perhaps more than any modern nation. Its creation in 1948, on the ashes of the Holocaust, tapped into the primal content of the re-birth myth. Nearly twenty years later, its victory in the face of the overwhelming, massed Arab armies in the Six Day War was the David vs. Goliath story come to be told again; a biblical tale re-cast in a living context.

Meanwhile, Israel was adding to its brand narrative, with lush imagery about oranges growing in the desert; a vibrant and even raucous democracy; absorption of immigrants; and bold, storybook rescues in Entebbe. The brand fragments were cohering into a whole.

But the Six-Day War marked the beginning of the end of the high-appeal Israeli global brand. Suddenly, Israel went from under-dog to colonizer. Its military strategy was unsurpassed; its brand strategy stunk.

Yes, it was Israel's bad timing that these post-1967 years coincided with the expansion of the vastly unpopular American adventure in Viet Nam, and the creation of an "oppressed peoples" rubric into which fell the Palestinians, the Viet Cong, blacks in South Africa and so on.

This factors conspired to motivate the left -- in Europe, for sure, and also in America -- to begin the Great Pivot away from Israel. We could discuss at great length all the forces that might have contributed to this -- incipient anti-Semitism, cozying up the oil-rich Arab states -- but none of that matters. From a clear-eyed branding perspective, Israel lost its magic.

Of course, this is an over-simplification, but the fundamental valences are accurate. So we must ask: Why was Israel asleep at the brand switch? And what would smarter and more psychologically incisive global brand management have looked like?

  • The Israeli parliamentary system, like all such structures, can artificially empower small parties. So a succession of prime ministers, even though they came from different parties, became overly fixated on their own base, and on complex internal political calculations that defocused them from what was happening to the Israeli brand.
  • The country's leaders -- with the exception of Rabin and Sharon, who would have found a path to peace -- didn't realize or didn't care about how they were perceived. They pushed the settlements further and further into the territories, often it seemed merely to arouse, or simply because they could, or to buy off a segment. Netanyahu has been the worst offender.

  • A third-rate campaign consultant, working for a lieutenant governor running in a small state, would have given Israel better advice.

  • A sense of moral certitude -- especially on the right, and not just limited to Likkud -- has pervaded much of the Israel worldview. Over-confidence in one's righteousness blunts interest in how one is regarded.
  • Israel's recent leadership is in possession of an implicit belief that world opinion is useless, and faith in it, naïve. One of the founding precepts of Zionism and Israel is a muscular self-reliance that is orthogonal to what can be seen as a wussy concern for what the world thinks of you. If the gas chambers didn't energize the world, what could? What would?

This position -- which, by the way, was not at all held by Ben Gurion and the founding generation, who were totally savvy and attuned to world opinion -- is recklessly self-multiplying. The more you believe you are on your own, the more you are.

The sad thing for Israel is that all of it, every bit, was avoidable on some level. True, the west would not have sustained its love-fest for the scrappy Israel of 1948, but we didn't have to witness the perceptual transition to the brutal, oppressive Israel of 2011.

As I said, brands are narratives in motion. They are mythologies that are composites of associative webs from the past and present. There were -- and are -- plenty of things that Israel could have done to construct a positive, twenty-first century brand story for itself.

Let's start most recently. Like now. Without question, Israel should have embraced the Arab spring -- and everything it ostensibly stood for -- in Tunisia, the first domino. The government should have said, in effect, this is a good thing, this passion for democracy does matter, there is something profound happening here.

As far as Egypt goes, while Israel couldn't throw Mubarak under the bus, it should have sent signals and feelers to the demonstrators that it understood their grievances. And as soon as it became obvious that Mubarak couldn't hang on, Israel should have sent full messages of support to the opposition.

What did Israel have to lose? After all, even if it was worried about a post-Mubarak Egypt, it wasn't like they could do anything to prop the old guy up. So why shouldn't it, as the Middle East's oldest -- and probably only -- true democracy, take a bold stand for freedom? While it might have been seen as cynical by some in the Middle East, it would have been a far smarter course of action than Israel's reaction-less reaction. It would have surprising, and through that unexpected turn it actually might have won some friends. The ability to surprise is something Israeli foreign policy -- and hence the Israeli brand -- desperately needs.

The same holds for Libya. While not a member of NATO, Israel should have thrown its support behind the effort to rid the region of its old nemesis. Of course, Netanyahu would have been accused of meddling and hypocrisy. What right does a country that oppresses Muslims have to insert itself into a fight between Muslims? Well, that same "fix your own house" argument applies to the vote on Palestinian statehood, in which many countries that make life difficult for Muslim minorities -- Russia and China included -- will not be reluctant to opine about the rights of Muslims somewhere else in the world.

So why shouldn't Israel have a right -- if not an obligation -- to speak up about the telluric changes sweeping the region?

There's another dimension of the Arab Spring that should have been a platform for some brand building. Israel could have taken some credit for it, since the "Twitter Revolution" and the role of social media, it can be argued, were built on the back of the instantaneous, peer-to-peer instant messaging platform. A platform which was invented by an Israel company, branded as ICQ, and eventually bought by AOL.

Going back further than just the last few months, Israel failed to understand how critical it is to de-Goliath itself, to offset the gradual but inevitable hardening of its bully, occupier image. It mistakenly thought it could do that with political argumentation, with constant reminders about the threats of extinction from Iran and Hamas -- and with implicit calls to memory and fairness -- remember, world, that the Arab states attacked us in 1948, just moments after the United Nations voted for our statehood.

Putting the relative merit of its arguments aside, it's well known to psychologists and experts in rhetoric and semiotics that you don't win emotional debates with rational discourse, especially in such an over-headed state. It's a far more complex battle for the brain.

To change perception, Israel should have attached positive, new neural associations to its brand in domains outside of the debate. For example, it should have attached Brand Israel to themes like equal rights for women; green transportation -- along with Denmark, it will be on the first countries to implement the Better Place electric car ecosystem; sustainability -- it's a leader in recycling and reuse of water; organic farming; entrepreneurship. (When I tell non-tech, non-Jews about Israel as a "start-up nation" I get expressions of ocular wonderment in return.)

The linkage of Israel's brand to these left-of-center, socially responsible, progressive values -- day after day, year after year -- would have made a huge difference in perception. It could have been executed in the global media, through NGOs and other outreach, and through the work of American Jewish groups, whose failure to construct a conversation beyond "The Palestinians don't want to negotiate" has had tragic consequences for what Israel is seen as standing for.

Eventually, a more balanced portrayal of Israel would have emerged. No, it wouldn't make up for incipient anti-Semitism or knee-jerk leftist antagonism; but not all of Israel's emerging enemies fall into those categories. Israel's incompetent brand management has alienated saddened friends, not just traditional enemies.

Votes -- for politicians, for statehood, for an American Idol contestant -- are simple summaries of complex feelings. Those mental networks are constructed and contoured slowly, over time. And then expressed immediately, on a fall September afternoon.