Building Israel’s Brand: An Interview with Ambassador Ido Aharoni


Ambassador Ido Aharoni is a public diplomacy specialist, founder of the Brand Israel program, and a well-known nation branding practitioner. He is a 25-year veteran of Israel’s Foreign Service, and took part in the back-channel negotiations between Israel and Palestine that led to the signing of the Oslo Accords. In 2002, Aharoni launched the Brand Israel Group, an independent group of marketing and branding specialists, creating the foundation for what would later become the Brand Israel program. In his role as senior advisor and press secretary to Israel’s Foreign Minister and Vice Prime Minister Tzipi Livni, Aharoni introduced nation branding methods and country positioning strategies as pillars of Israel’s public diplomacy. He was appointed Israel’s first head of brand management in 2007. Ambassador Aharoni is currently serving as Global Distinguished Professor at New York University’s School of International Relations.

Public Diplomacy Magazine Staff Editor Maria Lattouf Abou Atmi spoke with Aharoni about the positioning and possibilities for the place branding of Jerusalem as a tool of Israeli public diplomacy toward Palestine.

The “golden crown” capital city of the world’s major religions is also one of the most contested locations around the world, with Israel and Palestine both laying claim to Jerusalem as their capital. How does Israel’s branding of Jerusalem challenge the Palestinian argument for the city?

Ambassador Ido Aharoni: Your question raises two separate issues: the first is the question relating to the existence of a formal branding effort in Jerusalem. To the best of my knowledge, there is no one comprehensively-designed plan to brand the city of Jerusalem. While there has certainly been a great effort on the part of the city leadership to generate eclectic programming, this hardly qualifies as a full-blown place branding effort. A coherent strategy is still lacking, in my humble opinion. The second issue that emerges from your question has to do with the role of “branding.” Places attempt to brand themselves for a variety of reasons; foreign policy is one motive, but it is not the most important one. Holistic place branding, the kind I believe in, is meant to improve the performance of a place across the board: investment, trade, tourism, image, culture, policy, and exchange. When a place is defined by its problem—that’s bad news. The role of Jerusalem’s marketers would be to aspire to enhance the performance of the city, without shying away from the political controversy on the one hand, but also without letting the problems define the place on the other.

As a sub-brand of Brand Israel, Jerusalem has considerable power and attracts significant attention on the global stage. Under your leadership, the Brand Israel Group launched campaigns to brand Jerusalem as a cultural and creative hotspot, rather than a hallowed historical location. Can you describe the elements that went into this decision and how Palestine’s claim to the city factored into your analysis?

The Brand Israel program, which I co-founded in 2002 and led between the years 2007-2010, did not brand Jerusalem as a separate sub-brand. The strategy was designed for the entire country of Israel, including Jerusalem. The purpose was to highlight Israel’s competitive edge: its ability to nurture and facilitate creativity in all walks of life. The branding of places is not, as one might gather from the way the question is phrased, a political instrument nor a crisis management mechanism. Branding is not about campaigns, logos, and slogans. Those could certainly be utilized in the process, but essentially, place branding is about the ability to implement a long-term strategy for a place. Unlike a political campaign that has a clear deadline, place branding is a never-ending effort. The Big Apple is a strategic personality designed for New York. It has no expiration date. Branding is the deliberate creation of a mental picture through the coordination of activities that attract a number of audiences.

How did your public diplomacy efforts to brand Jerusalem address the Palestinian claim and conflict?

The branding of places is about the place itself and not about its perceived competition, whether political or economic. The first step is to conduct research to identify the place’s weaknesses as well as its advantages. The strategy then emerges from the research. The strategy is the overarching principle that guides all that you do from that point on. It is primarily about Israel and its assets, the attractive offerings it could bring to the table, its relevance to the consumer, and its place in the family of nations. Sadly, some Palestinian well-wishers claim that Israel has no right to promote itself. In their eyes, every place has the inherent right to promote itself—except Israel, because they disagree with some of its policies. To those people, even Iran and North Korea, both habitual violators of human rights, have the right to promote themselves in the world—but Israel does not. This kind of discrimination has a name: anti-Semitism. When you say, “Everybody is welcome to this club, except blacks, Jews, or gays,” that is the epitome of bigotry. The branding of Israel, meaning the effort to put Israel’s best foot forward, is primarily meant to improve the country’s economic performance. It does not and should not come at the expense of any of Israel’s neighbors. In fact, it was the Arab League in 1945 (three years before statehood) that decided to boycott Israel. The boycott forced Israel to develop new markets beyond the Middle East. Today, Israel’s biggest trade partner is the European Union, it is a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and its GDP per capita is approaching the European level. None of those things can be said about the boycotters themselves. Surely, Israel could benefit from a strong Palestinian brand. Unfortunately, their main efforts are not directed at promoting their offerings to the world but rather delegitimizing Israel. It is sad because the Palestinian people deserve better leadership.

In today’s fast-paced media environment, public engagement and responses provide immediate feedback to campaign efforts. What reactions did the Jerusalem sub-brand inspire from Palestinians and the larger international community?

Research indicated that Jerusalem is a better recognized brand name internationally than, say, Tel Aviv. It is a very powerful brand name, associated with holiness and religiosity and, sadly, with conflict, too. The idea is not to shy away from the conflict but rather to make sure that the place is not solely defined by its problems. The same goes for any other place into world. Does Chicago want to be known for its high crime rate or its cultural gems? Obviously, Jerusalem is a city that many millions all over the world cherish and deeply care about, with many Palestinians among them. That is exactly why the administrators of the city introduced, legally and culturally, the complete freedom of worship and the right to open access of holy sites to all. We as Israelis should know why this is so important. During the years 1948-1967, when the Western Wall was under Jordanian rule, Jews were denied access to their religion’s holiest site.

History shows us that although successful brands are based in reality, they can also be aspirational and inspirational, as “I Love New York” was in the 1970s. Can Jerusalem be positioned as a place of openness, or used as a tool to find common ground with Palestine?

Certainly. This is the hope of every person who cares about the city. My own family came to Jerusalem in 1870 from Boukhara, located in today’s Uzbekistan. There is nothing more that the people of Jerusalem would like to see than peace and tranquility.

What lessons does the battle for Jerusalem’s brand offer for practitioners of public diplomacy, particularly those working to brand cities with contested histories?

The battle is political and must be resolved in the realm of politics and foreign affairs. Regardless, the lessons from any place branding are universal: define your competitive edge and then effectively communicate it to relevant audiences.