Basic blunder of ‘branding’

Mar 17, 2011

Op-ed: Hiring American PR firm to brand Israel undignified, may make matters worse

Martin Sherman

It seems that in government circles there is some difficulty in distinguishing between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Tourism. Indeed, there seems no other satisfactory explanation for the next imminent blunder looming before us in the long saga of Israel’s failed endeavors at promoting its image abroad. This impending debacle is an enterprise known as the “Branding of Israel” or perhaps more accurately the “Re-branding of Israel.” For as we shall see, this is an idea that has been tried before – with notable lack of success.

The sad tale of failure-foretold has its beginning in a recent press announcement that the Israeli government has engaged the services of the prestigious SS+K corporation – for a fee of a quarter of a million dollars – to advise on how the nation-state of the Jewish people should “brand” itself to improve its standing abroad. The release also stated that SS+K has had considerable success in promoting Lance Armstrong’s wristlets, and Michelle Obama’s health-food awareness campaign to contend with the problem of obesity in American youth.

As mentioned, “branding” is not a new idea. It was, in fact, the centerpiece of Tzipi Livni’s public-diplomacy strategy during her term as foreign minister. And we all remember what splendid success that turned out to be!

For despite all of her efforts to adopt a pliable posture vis-à-vis the international community, despite all attempts to present Israel as “cool” hedonist hub, a haven of tolerance for gays, brimming with vibrant pubs, and sensual beachfronts adorned with curvaceous bronzed bodies, who can forget what glorious “victories” Israeli public diplomacy achieved under her stewardship?

From the frittering away of unprecedented world support at the start of the Second Lebanon War; through the increasing volume of voices from a wide range of academic, professional and labor organizations clamoring for censure and sanctions against Israel; to the torrent of unfounded, unfettered and unfair attacks on Israel because of the IDF’s actions (“Cast Lead”) to quell the bombardment of its civilian population in the south, and which finally culminated with the grotesque Goldstone report.


Intellectual surrender

These diplomatic debacles under Livni expose the entire notion of “branding” as a failed – and somewhat self-demeaning – exercise …which makes the latest burst of renewed enthusiasm for it rather difficult to understand.

But perhaps even more troubling is the intellectual surrender reflected in the eagerness with which those charged with the conduct of the nation’s diplomacy embrace the “branding” approach as a solution to Israel’s international beleaguerment. Can they be oblivious to how unbecoming and undignified the idea is that the Zionist endeavor – one of the most stirring and dramatic enterprises of the past 100 year – should be “marketed” as if it were no different from a tube of toothpaste, a bottle of shampoo or a weekend package deal at the local spa.

Could it be that the Israeli leadership is so devoid of substance that it cannot formulate independently its own persuasive credo as to the moral justice and historical imperative inherent in the Zionist ideal? Could it be that its leaders are so lacking in depth that that they cannot articulate an authentic claim to justify the moral necessity for the exercise of Jewish political sovereignty in the ancient Jewish homeland? Do they feel that this is beyond their capacity without needing to invoke the aid of a foreign commercial entity whose areas of expertise are promoting yellow plastic bracelets and creating awareness of the health hazards involved in guzzling cholesterol-laced burgers and calorie-laden fries?

But what is even more distressing is that the obsession with “branding” betrays a grave misperception of the true nature of the animosity towards Israel, of its origins and its structural texture; it reveals a gross misunderstanding of the motivations and the mindset of Israel’s international detractors.

After all, the hostility towards Israel is not due to its critics being unaware of the quality of Israeli Merlot, or the lures of the Tel Avivian nightlife. So if the anti-Israel acrimony cannot be traced to a lack of appreciation of the culinary delights available in Israeli restaurants or the beguiling charms of Israeli women, why would anyone believe that by enhancing such appreciation, Israel would somehow become less distasteful to the international community?


Ignorance, malice and envy

Moreover, does anyone seriously believe that the legions of foreign journalists, who publish outrageously distorted accounts of events regarding Israel, are unfamiliar with the realities that exist here? After all, many of them choose Israel as a base from which they make short sorties across the border to gather material – authentic or contrived – for their next biased report to be disseminated in London, Lisbon or LA.

Here they enjoy not only unfettered freedom of expression, which allows them to publish anything they like whether factual or fraudulent, whether the authorities approve or disapprove, without fear of regime-reprisals. They also have the benefit of full gamut of “first world” comforts immediately adjacent to their “Third World” beat – including gourmet meals, abundant cultural activities, diverse leisure facilities and all attended Western-style “mod-cons” on the fringes of the Levant.

This conduct of the representatives of the foreign media provides a clue as to the components of international animosity towards Israel: (a) Ignorance (b) Malice (c) Envy. Or more precisely – ignorance regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; malice towards the Jews; and envy at their extraordinary achievements.

In contending with these factors, not only does the tactic of “branding” have little to contribute, it may in fact be detrimental. For, on the one hand, superficial slogans and sound-bites, picturesque panoramic posters of alluring resorts will do little to rectify the misperceptions and disperse the ignorance regarding the Palestinian problem – which are the major ingredients of the fuel that drives the international crusade to de-legitimize Israel. On the other hand, highlighting Israel’s technological advancement and economic prosperity are liable to reinforce the sense of resentment, nourished by malice and envy, that all these accomplishments were achieved at the expense of Palestinians and their sufferings.


In conclusion, two points:

“Branding” is merely an attempt to evade engaging the real difficulties in the struggle for the hearts and minds of those who determine the tenor of international public opinion. This is not to say that “branding” has no place in a comprehensive strategic blueprint for Israel’s public-diplomacy. However, its role will be of a secondary, auxiliary nature rather than a major component. Branding is not a measure that can contend with adversarial Nobel Prize laureates such as Mairead Maguire and Desmond Tutu, hostile intellectuals and journalists such as Noam Chomsky and Robert Fisk or biased organizations such as UNHRC (that begot the Goldstone Report) or the Global BDS (that promotes economic cultural, academic boycott against Israel.)

It is these individuals and groups – and others of their ilk – that influence international attitudes toward Israel, and not the typical target audiences of branding campaigns, such as the politically indifferent consumer contemplating whether to vacation in Tenerife, Tangiers or Tel Aviv

The contour-lines of an appropriate public-diplomacy strategy and the elaboration of its principal components are beyond the limited scope of this essay. But whatever the details of these elements may be, they must include resolute efforts to disperse the fog of ignorance that shrouds the debate on the Palestinian question; effective means to expose the toxic pockets of malice and envy as the major inputs that poison and distort the manner in which Israel is portrayed in the international arena; and assertive measures to foil the detestable designs they spawn.