What's in a Name? Actually, It's the Steak and the Sizzle

One of Israel's lead branding experts explains what's right about Rami Levy, wrong about El Al and and Bar Refaeli's sunglasses, and other matters of style and substance.

Bar Refaeli holds the 2009 cover of Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, as she unveils SI One, a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 wrapped with her SI image at La Guardia Aairport in NY, Feb, 11, 2009.
Bar Refaeli holds the 2009 cover of Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, as she unveils SI One, a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 wrapped with her SI image at La Guardia Aairport in NY, Feb, 11, 2009.Credit: AFP

Peddy Mergui, the founder and owner of the Talking Brands design and branding agency and a senior lecturer in design and visual communication, explains it all:

Q. How do you explain the success of the brand “Bar Refaeli?”

Mergui: Okay, first she is exceptionally beautiful, but what’s more important is that she communicates herself wonderfully, flirts and creates a dialogue with the public. People feel connected to her. Carolina Lemke, the sunglasses brand, would not exist without her at the front.

But they still suffered a fall.

True, they said the brand was from Berlin and hid the fact that the glasses were manufactured in China. That is not honest, and people don’t like being deceived. They simply could have said, “We make the glasses in China and that is why they are cheap.” Of course that is not a death blow like what happened to Remedia, where the brand ended and that was a good thing. You cannot imagine how harsh consumer feeling can be when you deceive them.

But as a sunglasses brand you are not interested in just being inexpensive, you also want the pretense.

Okay, but today people are more aware and are looking for the truth. Many people feel they were lied to and so are looking for honesty — both the image and the product, and they are disgusted by the manipulations that were common in the past. We no longer want companies to lecture and lecture and with us accepting it like a flock of geese being fattened up. People research and examine, because they are rational. A society will not survive for long if its messages are not honest.

Part of the social protests of 2011?

The waves of the social protests are continuing to be felt today. The consumer social awareness about price, image and packaging is very significant. People compare prices. The term “social justice” sinks much deeper. The consumer says: Don’t screw me, tell me the truth, don’t mess with me, tell me what you are selling, even if it’s lifestyle.

Give an example of a company that speaks nonsense.

[Real estate developer] Gindi. They have not succeeded in understanding that people view them as more than just a company building buildings. Now every glass that breaks and every window that cracks leads to the collapse of the brand. They must hold an honest dialogue. It is all right to make a mistake and say “something went wrong,” people have a heart and it is possible to talk to them and admit mistakes to them.

No dialogue for Gindi

But Gindi isn’t holding a dialogue. They don’t understand they need to talk not only to those customers in the building that was damaged. The dialogue must be much broader. In the end, we buy images, and we develop with them an emotional relationship. Whoever has a patronizing relationship with you — you don’t want them.

What other company has a lousy relationship with the public?

El Al, the national airline that has not even begun to find its business potential. They have a wonderful brand. The phrase “Your home away from home” [or in Hebrew, “The most at home in the world”] is brilliant, really genius, but they have not managed to give Israelis this feeling. You almost feel obligated to buy a ticket from them and you immediately feel they are screwing you over. You are an Israeli and fly El Al, but screwed by the service, price and customer experience.

Can a bad product with the proper branding succeed?

Good branding with a bad product can crash. The branding of El Al is brilliant, but there is no truth behind it — and that’s a problem.

For now, it seems that the Volkswagen brand has crashed.

That is exactly the problem of dishonesty and not telling the truth. It is still not clear how it will end. But for people who have bought Volkswagen for years and replace one model with a newer one, people who believed in the slogans of a German car from a good home, people for whom the car was really the company — it’s a fatal blow.

By the way, where is the name Peddy from?

It’s the name my parents gave me in Morocco, it has no significance. Just before the Yom Kippur War, when I was five years old, we made aliyah to Israel, directly to an absorption center in Kiryat Yam.

Did you feel discrimination as an immigrant from Morocco?

Over my career I felt more than once that it was hard for me to break through the glass ceiling. For example, when I looked for a job at the beginning, 20 years ago, I removed the mention of my birthplace from my resume. Today, I of course am at peace with it and proud. Later, when I wanted to present an exhibition I made, I sent an email to the curator of the Tel Aviv Museum. She didn’t even answer me.

These branding specialists — maybe you are talking about people pulling the wool over our eyes?

You call it pulling the wool over our eyes, I call it branding, and I’m an expert in branding. My expertise is in the ability to package companies conceptually, to bring them to be precise in their messages and to be more productive. It is a long, complicated process that you go through with the company, and in the end you decide together on the messages. I work with lots of companies, such as Super-Pharm and Mifal Hapayis [national lottery].

What did you do with Super-Pharm?

I branded their new Lifestyle credit cards.

What is the message in branding credit cards?

A credit card is much more than a piece of plastic. It is a feeling you give to someone who holds it, beyond the thing itself, the values and experience you plant inside it.

Why is that every time in Super-Sol, when they try offer customers their credit card, the customers refuse. Even though they are offering a large discount there? Can you explain why people don’t want it?

Because you don’t want to be positioned as someone who is looking to buy cheap.

A sucker, me?

But we don’t want to be suckers either, rather to buy cheap and receive discounts.

I agree. But whoever pulls out the [credit] card with the logo of Super-Sol in a restaurant — how does he feel about it? It’s a good question. I’m convinced that if they would create values beyond the thing itself, you would snap it up. A credit card is more than shopping. It’s belonging.

So how does the Super-Pharm credit card look?

It’s still a secret. You’ll see it when it comes out.

Super-Sol has a gold card.

All of them are gold. In the past, I branded the World Signia card of Visa, which in Israel is marketed by Leumi Card. It is a card in the category of the upper 0.1%, only for those who have over $10 million in the bank. There the mission was to distinguish them from everything else there is, and that is why the design was the exact opposite — solid looking and exclusive and not gold.

Tastes change all the time, what they wanted to show in the past today they want to hide.

True, and that is why we need our finger on the pulse all the time, to be experts in the trends and languages.

Rami Levy succeeded in branding himself as low-price, but people are still willing to be identified with him.

In my eyes Rami Levy is a genius. He gave people the feeling he is on their side, that he wants what is good for them. The consumers believe there is someone here who fights for their freedom. He is not the cheapest, by the way, but he creates a feeling of belonging. People connect to him emotionally.

So he succeeds because of authenticity?

The biggest brands in the world are authentic. Rami Levy comes from a place of need, he is selling them his life story.

Today, Rami Levy is already a billionaire. And not so common-folk as he makes himself out to be, but that doesn’t bother people. You talk about honesty, but he is sort of fooling people.

He still keeps things modest and honest — and that is fascinating.

Maybe Rami Levy’s success means the death of brands? Everything cheap and that’s it.

Not at all. We live in flocks and must feel we belong: To values, form, people. People want to be more different. Do you think football teams will disappear? Or fashion brands? Not at all.

It’s hard branding basic products such as sugar, isn’t it?

It’s hard work, but possible. For example, sugar that comes from the northern mountains. Take for example Atlantic sea salt.

It tastes better, doesn’t it?

You think it tastes better. It’s simply good product placement.

Tell me about a branding failure of yours.

Once I was asked to design cans of pickles. I designed it in an exclusive fashion and the customers and factory owners loved it; as did the studio I worked at. But then we brought it out to the market and sales fell, even though the price was identical. I understood that you cannot sell exclusivity for five shekels. Design is one of the most significant tools in your ability to motivate consumers.

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