Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Israel’s international image is hurting, and the country’s top officials have turned to the wisdom of Madison Avenue in a bid to “re-brand” their product.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met with public relations executives, branding specialists and diplomats in September in Tel Aviv to brainstorm about improving the country’s image by using the marketing insights first developed to sell peanut butter and Pontiacs.

Israeli officials complain that the international press gives the country a warlike image by focusing on its military might and the string of conflicts with its Arab neighbors. Mrs. Livni told the Tel Aviv gathering that she would like to project a more inviting image of the Jewish state.

“When the word ‘Israel’ is said outside its borders, we want it to invoke not fighting or soldiers, but a place that is desirable to visit and invest in, a place that preserves democratic ideals while struggling to exist,” she said, according to a Reuters news agency report. A staffer with the London-based global ad firm Saatchi and Saatchi is already working with the Israelis free of charge on the re-branding effort.

David Saranga, consul for media and public affairs at the Israeli Consulate in New York, said the public relations effort is still at an early stage. Mrs. Livni recently put the image initiative on the government’s agenda and will soon develop a budget for the program, he said.

Mrs. Livni is also forming a coalition within the government that would join with the private sector in defining the essence of the country, Mr. Saranga said.

A report released last month shows the scale of the re-branding job. Author Simon Anholt said his surveys show that Israel’s image abroad is so bad that any re-branding campaign would be “pointless.”

Israel’s negative image results from a variety of factors, from its history of armed conflict to the widespread sympathy in the Middle East and Europe for the Palestinians to simple bias against Jews.

“The politics of a country can affect every aspect of a person’s perception about that country,” Mr. Anholt said. To permanently change the country’s image, Israel has to “be prepared to change its behavior” in the areas of international peace and security.

Mr. Anholt, an independent researcher from Britain and adviser to governments on branding, has developed the Anholt Nation Brands Index — an analytical ranking of the world’s nations as brands. The survey recently polled 25,903 online consumers from 36 countries in North America, Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Israel finished dead last in the survey, behind Estonia, Indonesia and Turkey.

Among the factors considered in a nation’s “brand” are the quality of the country’s government, its culture, its people, its business and investment climate, and its desirability as a tourist destination.

“A nation’s brand is a deep-seated perception that does not change a great deal,” Mr. Anholt said. “There is no evidence that re-branding campaigns change people’s minds.”

Guy Toledano, head of the Branding Israel Committee at the Israeli Advertising Association in Tel Aviv, said he was “not surprised” by the survey’s grim findings. But he rejected Mr. Anholt’s suggestion that marketing and public relations can’t improve Israel’s image.

“This is a long-term effort that goes much deeper than an advertising campaign,” Mr. Toledano said. “… I am worried about this as a citizen. I can never give up or consider this a lost cause.”

Mr. Anholt said this strategy has little hope of success because the only thing people associate with Israel are its conflicts. “The most useful thing Israel can do with the results is stop wasting taxpayer money in a re-branding campaign,” he said.

Although preliminary research on Israel’s global image has been under way for more than four years, “not one penny had been spent on branding so far,” Mr. Saranga said.

The research showed that Americans saw Israel only in terms of its military and its religion. The perceptions were even worse in Europe and other regions.

“Israel is not perceived as a fun place where people live,” Mr. Saranga said.

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