December 10, 2018

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.”