Aharoni speaks on branding

Ido Aharoni is a salesman. But instead of selling a product, he’s trying to sell a country.

On Thursday, the Israeli assistant foreign minister and brand team manager spoke to a crowd of students in Porter Hall 100 about how a nation’s brand identity affects its image and, consequently, its relations both internally and globally.

“Branding a nation is a new emerging process meant to eventually bring an improved image,” he said. “And Israel’s brand image does not serve its interests right now; I believe we can do much better.”

The lecture was brought to Carnegie Mellon by Caravan for Democracy, an outside organization affiliated with the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh, which is dedicated to bringing different speakers from Israel to discuss the challenges the country faces as the only democracy in the Middle East.

“It is time for the Arab world to look in the mirror,” Aharoni said in an interview with The Tartan. “What is the future of a society that nurtures the culture of death?”

Only the citizens of the Arab world can initiate the effort to modify the region’s brand image, Aharoni said.

The Foreign Ministry has been pushing a re-branding effort for Israel over the past several years. Its goal is to shift the widely-held perception that Israel is defined solely in terms of war and religion, and ensure that the country’s positive qualities are defined by Israel itself instead of by its critics and enemies.

Aharoni referred to the popular movie Borat, a comedy featuring a character who goes around interviewing different sources in the U.S., which has falsely branded Kazakhstan as a racist country. The greatest danger a country faces when it doesn’t define its own brand identity, Aharoni said, is that it allows others to do it, and as a result becomes “Boratized.”

There are many ways for a country to build a solid brand image, Aharoni said, including revising its policies, initiating greater tourism efforts to give visitors first-hand experience of the country’s true essence, and increasing exports and foreign investment. These aspects, he said, show the world the identity of a country.

Aharoni explained the psychological antecedents of branding, which includes 20th-century psychologist Erving Goffman’s theory that it is a basic rule of human interaction that people will always try to seek control over the way others perceive them. People send messages and build expectations to build their individual public personae, Aharoni said, which will either attract or repel others. A brand covers all aspects of a personality — and a promise.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is one aspect of Middle Eastern politics that has been staining Israel’s brand image with hostility and confusion for several years, Aharoni said.

“How can it be that such a society is glorifying terrorism?” he asked. The only major problem in solving this issue, he said, is the unwillingness of the Palestinians to curb terrorism. Until that issue is resolved, the process cannot be jump-started.

Aharoni was previously involved in the negotiations that led to the “Declaration of Principles” between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. He was also the consul for media and public affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York City for four years.

Students’ reactions to Aharoni’s talk were mixed. First-year biology and psychology major Josh Weiner believes Israel has done a good job at promoting a positive brand image.

“I perceive Israel’s public image to be one that is admirable. They have handled what has gone on to be a seven-year war properly, minimizing innocent casualties, and they are viewed worldwide as a country that has respect for all groups,” Weiner said.

First-year business major Neil Sethi, however, was not impressed with his views.

“His proposal sounds productive and democratic, but I feel that in the practice of his ideas, he’s too economically oriented — the Middle East must improve its brand image for the benefit of international collaboration and democratic values, not to attract more tourism and improve the country’s economy,” Sethi said.