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Rajeev Batra
  Rajeev Batra

Building Israel's Brand

10/16/2009 --

Ross case study examines Israel's marketing effort to change perceptions about the country's "brand."

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The nation of Israel is often in the news, and many times not for reasons its government appreciates. The site of frequent armed conflict, the country often is perceived as a hardline Jewish state — a nation of "rabbi Rambos." Anxious to reshape public opinion about its image as a war-torn, austere land, Israel's foreign ministry recently sought the services of brand consultants and marketing experts. These efforts to transform external perceptions, especially in the United States, captivated Rajeev Batra, S.S. Kresge Professor of Marketing at Ross and co-director of the school's Yaffe Center for Persuasive Communication. Batra examined those efforts and has now published two case studies, "Branding Israel" (Case A and Case B), available on the William Davidson Institute's GlobaLens site, written under the aegis of the Yaffe Center. In the following Q&A, Batra explains the unique nature of nation branding.

Is nation branding becoming a more common practice these days?
Batra: It is. It's been around for a long time but it is becoming more popular. More governments are beginning to recognize it and use it. And it's not just nations, but also cities and regions. Branding is important for tourism and economic reasons.

In what ways is it similar to traditional corporate branding and in what ways is it different?
Batra: Many of the concepts are identical or very similar. But there are obvious differences in a couple of key areas. The public, when it comes to forming opinions on nations or places, probably gives more weight to what they read and hear in the editorial or public media space than advertising in paid media. The second big difference is that the actual policies governments follow are likely to be much more influential in forming those perceptions. So it's not just what a government claims that matters, but what people perceive the government as doing.

So in some ways, nation branding or place branding is much more of an uphill battle?
Batra: It is. I think another reason for that is most places already have some existing imagery and associations. It's harder to change existing associations than it is to create new ones. In the commercial space you typically have more situations where new brands are being launched that companies are able to shape. Nations and places, meanwhile, are typically struggling to change existing perceptions, which is a harder task.

Are there some techniques or things you've noticed studying the Israel scenario that marketers can use to better fight that uphill battle?
Batra: I think what marketers are beginning to realize these days is that the non-paid media — public relations and word-of-mouth influences — are heavily influential and becoming more so. Consumers are increasingly tuning out commercial media messages and are much more tuned into word-of-mouth, viral influences, bloggers, social networks, and what people say on Facebook. As a consequence of this tuning-out of traditional media, marketers are using new media plus the technique called "advertainment," where you take your brands and place them in editorial material. So you might see brands featured heavily in the plots of movies and TV shows. You try to sneak in below the radar where people see you as part of the editorial message rather than the commercial message.

So if I'm Israel — or its leadership — maybe instead of running an ad showing what a great place Israel is to visit, I'm having government ministers do some interviews with bloggers?
Batra: We have seen members of the Israeli foreign ministry starting to do exactly that. In addition to running their own advertising campaigns in various cities, they're increasingly trying to shape the news coverage given to Israel by local and foreign media, particularly foreign media. So when you have a VIP from the United States visit Israel, what they want to do is show that VIP in non-typical settings. You want to highlight the pretty landscape, the cityscapes, the beaches, and the high-tech settings, because that's the image they want to build.

One of the efforts was a little more unconventional and controversial. Some young women from the Israeli Defense Force posed in Maxim magazine. Was that effective?
Batra: That was controversial both in and outside Israel. But the person who arranged that, as we note in the case study, was very proud of it and thought it was worth it. They were able to reach a younger generation, one that didn't think Israel was relevant. Maxim has 2.5 million readers. They got attention from other segments of the media and they say it proved successful. So when you ask how successful it was, success has to be measured relative to the goals you have for any particular effort. So if their goals for that effort were to gain attention, break through the clutter, and captivate a particular demographic — young males, for instance — they would seem to have succeeded in that regard. In other regards, it may not have done well because it paints Israel or Israeli women in a certain way that people don't like, so it's negative from that perspective.

Would you say this overall branding effort is succeeding or not succeeding?
Batra: I don't have the data to answer that firmly. People in the foreign ministry track those things. But I would venture to suggest it is likely that among the population they are trying to reach, there are people favorably disposed toward Israel, there are others who are kind of neutral and malleable, and there's a third segment of people who are not favorably disposed. Chances are these efforts will work with the first and second groups and not the third group. Even among the third group, I suspect it could work in slowly shifting the perception of Israel from a war-torn, militaristic image toward the other aspects of Israel the government wants to bring to the forefront: its success in the high-tech field, its natural beauty, its bustling cities, and its Mediterranean beaches.

Any evidence these techniques work better than Israel's previous strategy, which was known as hasbara, or a rational, fact-based argument?
Batra: I don't have the data, but in talking to people involved with the case I would venture to say that yes, they did see evidence that this effort was more successful in shifting attitudes than the earlier approach was.

—Terry Kosdrosky

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847,