Branding the Nation

British-born entrepreneur launches 'social start-up' to build up Israel's image from a grass-roots level

Brazil is fun. America is freedom. Paris is romance. New York is temptation. What the average person doesn't realize is that these seemingly natural associations are often no accident but the result of conscious, government-mandated branding strategies to bolster tourism or alter the perception of a locale.

Take Spain, which in the 1970s launched a successful branding campaign to change its global image from a war-torn hotbed of terrorism to a fun, exotic tourist destination.

Joanna Landau - Kinetis - Sept. 30, 2010
Courtesy of Kinetis

In Israel, the Foreign Ministry jumped on the bandwagon in 2004 when it launched the Brand Israel Project. A British company called Acanchi specializing in this field took on the initial task of market research in 13 countries about perceptions of Israel and concluded that at Israel's heart is a unique brand of youthful ingenuity, innovation, and creative energy.

"That pioneering spirit is the same promise that Israel offered my parents when they immigrated to Israel from England 32 years ago," says Joanna Landau, a 37-year-old lawyer and start-up entrepreneur who incorporated the Brand Israel Project approach into her "social start-up" called Kinetis in November 2009. Kinetis' mission is to generate awareness for Israel as the creative energy capital of the world, she says.

"I had never heard Israel framed in those terms before; terms that made up the vitality that I had always felt, living here," says Landau, from her office in Tel Aviv's Ramat Hachayal neighborhood. "It was the first hopeful conversation about Israel that I heard, amid all the doom and gloom of our geopolitical conditions, and I said I want to be involved in it."

Landau says her organization operates on three levels. On one level, Landau established 'Kinetwork' to bring together individuals, groups, business people and NGOs to open up a new conversation about Israel. Her goal is to create "an online network through the Kinetis website that will disseminate information, generate a forum for ideas, and translate an online network into offline action teams."

She says the second project is a pilot program, starting this upcoming semester at the Recanati School of Business and next semester at the Holon Institute of Technology, aimed at revealing the sources not only of Israel's booming high-tech industry, but its creativity in general, to create models for Israel to be taught as a case study abroad. Inspired by the New York Times best-seller "Start-Up Nation" by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, Landau says, "The idea here is to cause kids in this country to see themselves in these terms," says Landau.

Finally, Kinetis will launch next year Musepark, a conference in Tel Aviv modeled after Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park, an area designated for public speaking and debate. Landau says she designed Musepark to give a stage to both Israelis and foreigners behind inspiring accomplishments in various fields, from the scientific to the artistic.

Landau says there is a misguided Israeli belief that if we can convince the outside world of the legitimacy of our political policies, then they will take an interest in the country, want to visit here, invest, buy Israeli products, or read the latest book by an Israeli author. "That is simply not the case," she says. "People are not interested in Israel beyond the conflict because we haven't given them a reason to be interested. Whenever Israel gets a chance to say something, all we ever talk about is this conflict."

She says the Hebrew word for PR, 'hasbara' (to explain ), is indicative. "When do you need to explain yourself? Only when you have done something wrong or if you're unclear," says Landau. "We have been so consumed by crisis-management and self-defense that we have been unable to think of a long-term strategy."

What's needed is a paradigm shift, a change in the conversation, says Landau. "What we want to do is celebrate the things that Israel has to offer that are interesting on a global level," she says. "Branding is about giving people something to relate to and connect to on an emotional level."

Seeking to encapsulate the special creative energy at the heart of Israel, Landau built Kinetis (Kinetic Energy + Israel ) around New York City's branding model.

Many people attribute the improvement in New York City's perception in the mid-'90s to former mayor Rudy Giuliani, who cleaned up the Big Apple through his aggressive law enforcement-deterrent strategy. Yet Landau points to Bill Rudin, who in the early '70s gathered together a group of local real estate competitors to improve New York's image - and ultimately their businesses - as a key initiator in changing the city's image. Rudin's group formed the Association for a Better New York, instigated the 'Big Apple' campaign and funded the 'I Love New York' campaign. It was their seeds, planted at mid-and-grassroots levels that eventually blossomed into a new, exciting and enticing New York, she says.

"Branding is not just a top-down, external effort, but a bottom-up internal one," explains Landau. "I don't think most Israelis are aware of what we're really all about as a country and nation, other than in relation to the current crisis. Israelis themselves need to change their mindset."