Israel's reality makes its brand unsellable

August 30, 2011
Sarah Benton

Israel’s Image Won’t Improve Without Policy Changes
Sexy Photo Shoots Amount to Marketing Mission Impossible
By Gary Wexler, Jewish Forward
The thousands of scantily clothed bikers, skateboarders, walkers, hawkers, gawkers and performers were simply taking advantage of another breezy, crystal clear Southern California day. They had fought their way valiantly through relentless freeway traffic to participate in the year-round weekend ritual of parading down Los Angeles’ bohemian thoroughfare, the Venice Beach boardwalk.

This was not a place you would think would inspire deep thoughts about Israel’s increasingly desperate efforts to brand itself – and the wastefulness of all the dollars contributed by American Jewish organizations to mount a defense in the media of the Jewish state. But that’s exactly where my mind went when I came upon a food truck dispensing thousands of little containers of hummus.

Along a stretch of Venice Beach, tables were set up, covered with colorful tablecloths and bowls of fresh limes, lemons, red peppers and other fruits and vegetables. Hundreds of young people were seated, giggling and diving into their free samples.

Signs were posted that this event was sponsored by Sabra Foods, the makers of “Mediterranean Dips.”

Without a day-school education or perhaps a distant memory of Leon Uris’ “Exodus,” one would have no idea that “sabra” meant native-born Israeli. And nowhere on any of the packages did it say that Sabra was anything other than the product of an American distributor. So I pulled out my smart phone and did a quick Google search. I found that Sabra Foods is owned by Pepsico Corporation. But as I searched further, buried under other information, I read that Sabra is a joint partnership between Pepsico and Strauss Foods. The next Google search brought up Strauss Foods of Israel.

Why is the national identity of Sabra Hummus not clearly stated right on its label, like the pride with which spicy red tomato sauces are called Mexican Salsa? Or tomato sauces with garlic and oregano are called Italian Tomato Sauce? Or Indian Curry? Or Greek Olives? Or Turkish Delight? Certainly not because other Middle-Eastern nations can also claim hummmus as their own cuisine. The Turks and Greeks claim everything each other cooks. The same with the Indians and Pakistanis, as well as Mexicans and all their Central American neighbors.

Is the Israeli-ness of the hummus hidden because of boycott fears, legitimately fueled by the smashing of Israeli wines in Europe and Canada? Perhaps. But isn’t America supposed to be the last bastion in the world of big Israel supporters?

I don’t blame Strauss Foods for positioning these product lines in America as “Mediterranean.” They’re in the business of selling food, not selling Zionism. The unfortunate truth, though, is that “Israel,” associated with anything except hi-tech and security products, is proving to be an increasing liability, especially when it is identified with mass consumer goods. Even with all the efforts of Camera, the Israel Project, the Jewish Federations and all the other organizations that blast my email inbox daily with defensive statements, Israel is increasingly emerging as the world’s pariah nation.

Yet, as strange as it may sound coming from a marketer with an advertising background, who has represented hundreds of Jewish organizations worldwide, I have arrived at the conclusion that the solution will not be found in branding, marketing, public relations or the writings of political pundits. The problem is that all their concepts, strategies, words and legitimate defenses – no matter how powerful and clever – are not going to elevate Israel’s plummeting image. Hundreds of thousands of dollars from donors and the Israeli government have been poured into this effort, yet the situation only worsens every month. I am as much to blame as anyone for being a supporter of these actions.

It has become clear that the world doesn’t care about Israel’s wines, its Bauhaus architecture, its fashion, its alluring women, its sexy gay men, its beaches, its ballet or its hummus. The world, its media and its university campuses are riveted upon Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians as well as the state of its democracy.

No, the answer to Israel’s image problems does not depend upon the marketing. It depends first upon the policies.

Something is proving wrong with several of the ingredients in Israel as a product. The policies – whether we argue they are right or wrong internally – are spoiling the taste for the world consumer as well as for many in a new generation of young Jews, even those who have been on Birthright. This is not a left- or a right-wing opinion. It is a fact. No matter how Israel markets or defends itself in the media, the policies seep into the equation and kill the success of the image.

Do I have the answer for how to fix the policies, or even which policies need fixing? No. But I’m not a politician. I’m an adman and a marketer. And I can tell you, from my years creating ads for products from Coca Cola to Apple Computer, if people keep reading about some bad ingredients in the ketchup, very few people will buy the bottle, no matter how much money and creativity you pack into the marketing. No amount of branding, slogans, viral ideas or clever engagement is going to lead towards the success that supporters of Israel need.

What I can say is that Israel, and those who love her, need to take a hard, honest look in the mirror and uncover the deeper problems, the ones that cannot be fixed with a better logo. The loss of “Israeli” hummus might not seem detrimental right now. But that scene on Venice Beach might be a sign of things to come, when it’s more than just the producers of hummus who refuse to identify with Israel.

Gary Wexler is the Adjunct Lecturer in Nonprofit Marketing in the Masters Program at the USC/Annenberg School of Communications in Los Angeles. He owns Way Beyond Branding, which consults with nonprofits worldwide.

Comments (94)
Ben Levi: What should be the policy of Israel? It is no accident that Mr Wexler has no advice for us. He claims that he’s not a politician, but it is a poor excuse for not expressing an opinion. No matter what Israel’s policy might be, the attack on her legitimacy will continue unabated. The whole conflict in the Middle East is about legitimacy, and no policy change on the part of Israel is going to win the hearts of her enemies and those who identify with her enemies.

Janis: Has he forgotten what has already happened in Gaza?

Pinchus: The ball is in Israel’s court. It must end the Occupation, tear down the apartheid wall wherever it goes beyond the Green Line, give Israeli Palestinians full equality and provide justice for the refugees who were illegally deprived of returning to their rightful homes starting in 1948. Basically, Israel either needs to follow international law or create one binational country with equal rights for all like we have here in America. Take your pick but either way Israel’s days of being a “Jewish” state at the expense of over 20% of its own population are coming to an end. Discriminating against non-Jews has left Israel with a nasty legacy.

H ROSEN: The problem for Islam is that Israel is a Jewish state. What Wexler is doing is the continuatiion of blaming Israel for everything…being too Jewish …retaliating for attacks and always overeating..being too successful… having a powerful military …etc..etc. The killling always starts with the Arabs and ends with Israel..and it is Israel who gets blamed because of occupation…apartaid ..settlements ..and so on ad nauseum.
So now Israel is faulted for being too what? too sophisticated and too cool?
Mr Wexler is from the American left and we know that to themwhatever Israel does is suspect.
This is a form of antisemitism from Jews…Lets face it ..the world thinks Jews can do no right

shushan mussa: either israel will do the foolish thing and give all the west bank to arabs or the smart thing and transfer all arabs out of the country. only when israel makes 1 choice or another will israel have a chance of getting a better image

Joel A. Levitt: It is very clear which policies need to be abandoned. They are the policies that are contrary to Jewish ethics and law:
> the promotion of laws that punish dissent,
> the lack of police protection for the strangers (the Palestinians) among us, who are being beaten , having their crops destroyed and being cut off from their agricultural lands,
> the seizure of Palestinian lands, both by permitting new illegal settlements and by expanding long-time settlements in the territories, and by making it very difficult for Palestinians to seek legal redress, and
> the imprisonment of thousands without trial.

Herb Grossman: Why do the editors of the Forward, supposedly proud of their Jewish heritage, run an article by a glorified salesman (excuse me, marketer), who admits to lacking knowledge, intellect and insight, that parrots the traditional line of craven, ghetto Jews of blindly accepting anti-Semitic libels and blaming ourselves for our own victimization? If they can’t compare the humane, democratic and tolerant state of Israel favorably to the genocidal barbarians that surround them, what is it about yiddishkeit that they claim to promote in their publication? Are the non-Arabs, non-Muslims, Muslims of the wrong sect, tribe or family, and other people of difference also at fault for being persecuted and slaughtered by these same barbarians in countries surrounding Israel?

Jonathan Kuttab: Mr. Waxler has a tough sell. He is addressing an audience that have for far too long been told that the only solution comes through force of arms, and that Israel’s military victories over Palestinainas and Arabs translates into Right. His subtle argument that Israel needs to **** its policies towards accomodation, not forcing its will on Palestinians will not be qucickly heeded, and the results, I fear will be disasterous in the end. A better argument would be to remind Israelis that relying on military strength alone is insufficient, and that ultimately their legitimacy and even survival requires a different approach, which means accepting concepts their reliance on military strength told them they do not need to accept, including Palestinian statehood, dismantling settlements, equality for Arab Israeli citizens, and yes, also reaching an accomodation on the issue of the right of return instead of dismissing it outright

P Nader: professional & honest advice. if the core of your brand or product is not working/unacceptable, no matter what, eventually no one buys it.

Dan O. An article on marketing results in an anti-semitic rant in favor of genocide, and an ultra-nationalist rant in favor of ethnic cleansing in Israel. Ick.
Here are a few easy things that Israel can do to clean up its image problem, especially with young-diaspora-Jews:
1. Stop alienating Reform and Conservative Jews by putting more power in the hands of the ultra-orthodox Rabbinate.
2. Stop the ridiculous anti-deligitimization campaigns in the US.
3. Tell the foreign minister to shut the hell up.

Ian: It’s a shame that folks at the Forward have chosen to censor comments that warn the Jews of “Israel” that the American people are waking up to the fact that their country has been taken over and hijacked by Zionist Jews…. I was simply trying to inform the readers of the forward that (1) Americans are waking up to what has been done to us by the “Friends of ‘Israel'” and (2) when enough Americans realize what the Jew has done to their country, they will demand blood from “Israel” and WE WILL HAVE IT.

delia ruhe: Keep it up, guys. The more pro-Israel types continue in denial, the faster a solution will be reached — albeit one that Israeli Jews and their foreign loyalists won’t like.

Joe : Thanks for the clarification, Gary. I have a container of Sabra Hummus in the refrigerator that my wife bought. I know what sabra means, but when I looke for ‘Made in Israel,’ it said ‘product of usa.’ So there is a connection to Israel though it is hidden very well. Delicious product but I am not buying anymore (can’t speak for my wife…) as I am supporting the boycott of Israeli products until Israel stops building illegal settlements and lifts the seige/blockade of Gaza.

Rabbi Tony Jutner: The world is rejecting the concept of a Jewish state as treyf and there is nothing that marketing can do about it. In order to join hte interenational community, inhabitants of ziostan must leave en masse, leaving their apartments fully furnished to accomodate the legitimate Palestinian owners of the land. Only by unilaterally giving up their “right” to a state can the Jewish people regain the moral high ground they held before 1948. I call on Mr Wexler to formally sign on to BDS and campaign for the release of Marwan Barghouti

Yam Erez: Mr. Wexler, this is such a true and important article that I’m sending the link to everyone in my Address Book who reads English. Thank you for saying what so badly needs to be said, no matter how much it hurts to hear it. You are a true friend of Israel. This is not facetious.

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