Talking With the Godfather of Israel Branding

Since leaving his diplomatic post in Los Angeles in 1998, Ido Aharoni has become arguably the foremost expert in branding for the Jewish state — except he no longer uses that term.

“I don’t really feel comfortable with the word ‘branding’ anymore,” Aharoni said during a recent visit to the Jewish Journal office.

Instead, he prefers the word “positioning,” which lacks the negative stigma of “branding.” Although he was careful about the words he picked to describe his life’s work, Aharoni returned to Los Angeles free of the constraints of officially representing the Israeli government. In 2016, he retired from a 25-year diplomatic career that included stints as Israel’s longest-serving consul general in New York and its first head of brand management.

“We should never view Israel as a perfect nation.”

Now a consultant and professor at New York University, he was more keen to inform than to persuade, and the conversation quickly evolved into a master class on positioning the brand of the Jewish state. Here are four branding basics Aharoni laid out in his Jan. 10 interview with the Journal.

1. It’s not branding — it’s positioning.

What exactly is the difference? Aharoni said that “positioning” takes into account the organic nature of Israel’s approach.

“Many people see many things in Israel at the same time, but there’s only one positioning, and that is the positioning of the story,” he said. “The story that Israel is telling is the story of its creative people, the story of people that created something out of nothing. I call it the story of ordinary people achieving extraordinary things.”

2. Focus on creativity

Plenty of places are creative, Aharoni said, but no place is quite like Israel.

“L.A. is creative,” he said. “Barcelona is creative. Berlin is creative. But Israeli creativity is different. In what way? Israeli creativity, first of all, stems from our Jewish roots, from the permission we’re given to argue, to challenge authority, and to refuse to accept limitations. So the positioning of Israel is Israel’s creative spirit. This is the DNA of the place. It goes way beyond ‘Startup Nation.’ ”

3. Israel is not perfect

“We should never view Israel as a perfect nation,” Aharoni said.

Rather than explaining and apologizing, Aharoni said, Israel advocates should recognize Israel’s flaws and sympathize with the Palestinian struggle without seeking to directly take on detractors. In a digital world saturated with information, debating critics one by one is a futile effort, he said.

“Even if you win the debate, today, because of these devices,” he said, lifting up his cellphone, “you still stand to lose. Because it’s not about winning debates anymore.”

4. Ethnocentrism is the central challenge to Israeli diplomacy

“The fact is that Israel is a very self-centered, self-absorbed, parochial, ethnocentric society, and there are historical reasons for it,” Aharoni said. “I happen to think that this very ethnocentrism is the biggest threat to Israel, more than the Iranians.”

He laid the blame on ethnocentrism for what he called Israel’s “colossal, dramatic failure” in presenting itself to the world, which he said resulted in low tourism numbers. Specifically, he said, ethnocentrism is responsible for a failing approach to branding — namely, a focus on conflict.

“We thought that because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is on the top of our agenda, that it should be also on the top of your agenda,” he said.

Here again, Aharoni returned to the language of marketing and branding to make his point.

“Israel became defined by its problems,” he said. “The last thing a brand wants is to be known for its problems, and that’s the reason why Israel is underperforming.”

Israel, the brand

In the 19th century, industry in what became the State of Israel consisted mainly of small workshops that made farm implements. Today, the country manufactures everything from drugs to lasers to shoes, and the closest thing to farm implements are complex drip irrigation systems.

Everyone knows the big names in Israeli manufacturing, like Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and Ahava cosmetics, and there are others, just as successful on the world stage, that fly under the radar. The establishment of world-leading companies and brands marks a significant stage in a country’s development.

“BMW is Germany. Hermès is very French. Burberry is very British,” said Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business. “For some brands, location is a big part of the brand meaning. A strong brand can give a sense of pride to a country.”

Manufacturing generates almost one-fifth of everything Israel produces in an average year, according to the Manufacturers Association of Israel. North America is Israel’s largest export market, with 30 percent, or $12.7 billion, of all exports, with Europe close behind at 29 percent.

Even 40 years ago, Israel didn’t have the luxury of thinking about branding. Manufacturing had advanced, but until the 1970s most of the country’s resources were directed into economic necessities: food production, infrastructure and immigrant employment. Traditional industries such as food processing, textiles, furniture, pesticides, rubber and plastic products provided most of the country’s industrial output, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The next phase of development concentrated on weapons manufacture due to various arms embargoes, and that in turn created the base for the high-tech industry that hogs the limelight these days. But even as high-tech has exploded, manufacturing has grown, too, often from a base in Israel to production facilities around the world.

“No doubt, the good reputation of Israeli products and companies in countries around the world contributes a great deal to how Israel is perceived,” said Shraga Brosh, who heads the Manufacturers Association. “It is the Israeli industry’s commitment to assure that our products are not only competitive on a global scale but also leading in both their quality and innovative technology.”

For example, Strauss Group Food Products, the country’s second-largest food and beverage company, makes Sabra-brand chilled dips and spreads. It also owns the Max Brenner Chocolate Bar chain, which has locations in New York and Las Vegas,  in addition to 36 others, and is an international corporation with 13,500 employees manufacturing in 21 countries.

Less visible is Delta Galil Industries, whose apparel products most people have worn, although they may not have known it. The company’s clientele includes retail giants such as Target, Wal-Mart, Calvin Klein, Nike, Maidenform and Tommy Hilfiger. Delta has design, development and manufacturing centers on four continents and employs 7,000 people.

Israeli manufacturing also has its grittier side. ICL is one of the world’s leading fertilizer and specialty chemical companies, with a monopoly on certain Dead Sea and Negev Desert extraction concessions. Palram Plastic Products makes polycarbonate, PVC and other thermoplastic sheets for industries such as construction and graphics.

And then, of course, there are high-flying consumer product brand names like Naot, which makes footwear; Ahava, maker of cosmetics with Dead Sea ingredients; and Gottex, the high-fashion swimsuit manufacturer.

Such companies aren’t as big as Teva, which operates in 60 countries, but they play an important role in shaping Israel’s image. Nations have long defined themselves by their manufacturing. The production of luxury goods has shaped French identity, for example, at least as far back as the days of the Sun King, Louis XIV, who nurtured those industries in the belief that the sale of shoes and Champagne would help him dominate Europe.

Like 17th century France, modern Israel is known for the export of footwear — sandals — and edibles — hummus. And in decades the country has developed to the point when it has its own brand, one that mainly plays off the country’s rugged beauty, wholesome natural products and active lifestyle.

“There’s no question that Israel is bolstered by some of its strong brands,” Calkins said. “They reflect back on the country, and the country reflects on the brand. It enhances both.”