Like most travelers from Israel, Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will mix business and pleasure as he visits the US this week. The business part, of course will be meeting with President Obama on Monday, and his address to AIPAC on Tuesday. Most of the rest of his trip, though, will be dedicated to pleasure — which for the prime minister will consist of pushing Israel’s newly-found “Start-Up Nation” brand.
Over the past several years, Netanyahu, along with many other politicians, has jumped on the tech bandwagon, and has become a major advocate for Israel as a tech center. That “branding” effort will continue when he visits the US this week, Netanyahu said in a speech last Thursday.
“On my visit to the US, I will be visiting Silicon Valley,” Netanyahu told a gathering of Israeli manufacturers. “As you know, they speak a lot of Hebrew there, and I want to attract our friends there to come and invest in Israel. It is very important to me to bring Israelis and non-Israelis here so they can see our talents and accomplishments, the entrepreneurship you members of the Israeli business community show, and the great opportunities in the Israeli economy,” he said.
But is emphasizing Israel as tech center really such a great idea — to the extent that Netanyahu plans on making that a central focus of his visit to the US? Is that the “brand” Israel’s political leaders should be promoting?
Not necessarily, said Israeli branding expert Professor Ram Herstein. “As a way to attract business, positioning Israel as a great tech center is a fantastic idea,” Herstein told The Times of Israel. “But if you want to attract a lot of visitors and tourists, high-tech isn’t the answer.” Israel, he said, would be better off if its political leaders emphasized other positive aspects of Israel — aspects that no one in the private sector is going to advocate — and leave the tech stuff to the business people who have done an excellent job of building Israel’s tech economy already.
The prime minister will be making exactly three stops on his five-day trip to the US: Washington, for the Obama meeting and the AIPAC speech; Los Angeles, to meet with community members and launch an Israeli film festival; and Silicon Valley, to which he will dedicate all of Wednesday. There, Netanyahu will meet with some of the top players in Silicon Valley, including leaders of Apple, LinkedIn, Flextronics, eBay and Sequoia Investments, as well as with Jan Koum, the newly-minted Ukranian-Jewish billionaire head of Whatsapp, now a part of Facebook.
In addition, Netanyahu will meet with California Governor Jerry Brown, and sign a partnership agreement aimed at expanding cooperation in the fields of culture, academia, economics, innovation, water conservation, alternative energy, cyber defense, biotechnology, health, education and agricultural technology. The deal will provide Israeli companies with access to California’s 16 iHub centers, which provides start-ups and entrepreneurs a platform to develop their projects, leveraging the state’s assets such as research parks, technology incubators, universities, and federal laboratories.
But by trying to make tech the central “brand” to associate with Israel, Netanyahu and other Israeli political leaders are missing the branding boat, said Herstein. “Other than among some tech executives in Silicon Valley and New York, Israel is not associated in American minds with high-tech or industry, despite the strength of Israel’s tech economy.”
Herstein is a professor at the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan, and is one of Israel’s premier academics in the area of branding. He has written four books on branding management, and are considered “the” textbooks on the subject in Israeli universities and colleges.
Herstein has worked as a branding consultant with dozens of Israeli companies and government organizations, and has done much research work on how Israel is seen around the world. For many people, Israel’s most relevant “brand” is “Land of the Bible,” identifying the country with the story of the struggles of the Children of Israel, as told by the Tanach. Others, said Herstein, associate Israel with “security,” mentioning items such as drones, Uzi submachine guns, satellites, etc. In addition, a small minority might say that Israel is a gay-friendly place, an image tourism officials — and especially the Tel Aviv municipality — have been actively cultivating for the past few years.
Many places in the world evoke multiple images in the minds of people; ask people what images they associate with Japan, for example, and they’re likely to say things like “electronics” and “sushi,” two obviously very different items. Israel, too, can mean many things to many people, but what concerns Herstein is that the government has apparently decided to “ride the wave” and push Israel as a high-tech center, making this a chief selling point.
That, said Herstein, is not going to attract the masses of young travelers who make up the bulk of visitors in the major tourist centers in the world. “The young post-college travelers from Western countries who have the time and money to travel are looking for things like adventure, nightlife, experiences, and other things on their vacations. Making high-tech the centerpiece of Israel’s reputation, as the government seems to be doing now, is not going to get those travelers here.”
The majority of visitors to Israel still come via Christian tour groups, which the government has almost nothing to do with, said Herstein. In addition, there are the masses of Jewish visitors who come to Israel for holidays, family celebrations, and so on. And Birthright (Taglit) brings to Israel thousands of Jewish young people every year.
But Israel has yet to crack the code of bringing large numbers of tourists to Israel for a plain old vacation, said Herstein. Although more such visitors are showing up at Ben Gurion Airport these days, Israel is still no Italy or Greece — it’s not an obvious place for a vacation. The idea of portraying Israel as a place to vacation because it’s a high-tech center is not going to bring in those visitors, Herstein believes.
In a sense, touting Israel as a tech center is a defensive move — promoting Israel’s positive side even as anti-Israel groups try to push boycotts of Israeli products, and of Israel itself. One sign of this is the Twitter hashtag “#BDSFail,” usually tweeted out when a nice story about Israeli technology appears in the news. “It’s understandable why supporters of Israel would push these positive stories about the country, but it’s not going to appeal to large numbers of people,” said Herstein.
What, then, will bring in the masses of visitors? Perhaps surprisingly, Herstein said, it’s the peace and quiet that he says reigns in Israel. “I don’t mean from the political side of things. But the personal safety level in places like Tel Aviv is among the highest of any city anywhere, and that is a feature that could be expanded upon to become an Israeli brand.”
Israel is heterogeneous and democratic and provides all citizens with full legal equality, even if social equality is still elusive, said Herstein, which is something few other countries can boast. “This is a very liberal society in the sense that it is very tolerant of the other, much more so than many other places,” said Herstein. “There is a sense of peace and well-being you find here you don’t find elsewhere.”
Herstein isn’t basing this on intuition; his conclusions are based on numerous studies that he and others have conducted of different visitor cohorts. For the vacationer who is not coming to Israel for family, religious, or business reasons, this feature of Israeli society has a great deal of appeal, Herstein said.
The idea of selling Israel as a peaceful patch of liberal democracy sounds far-fetched only because we’re not used to the idea. But done properly — via a campaign with videos, personal appearances by ordinary citizens in venues abroad, programs and projects that emphasize Israel’s successful co-existence between different segments of the population — the “peaceful Israel” brand will resonate with people around the world, Herstein believes.
Of course, that is if potential “customers” can get to the events, beating back the bands of BDS protesters who are sure to seize on a campaign like this to further browbeat Israel’s image. But Herstein isn’t worried about that. “There will always be troublemakers, but if we believe in what we are doing, others will too — and they will be the ones to shut the protesters up. I am sure all Israelis from all sectors — Jewish, Arab, young, old, haredi and otherwise — will all be very happy to support a campaign like this.”