Joanna Landau March 2019 by Jenni Frazer
If anyone is best placed to talk about the frequently difficult relationship between Israel and the diaspora — how we see Israel, how Israel sees us — it is Joanna Landau. UK-born, she has been shuttling back and forth between Britain and Israel since she was five.
Today, Landau — who, among other things, is Dame Shirley Porter’s grand-daughter — is the founder and chief executive of a remarkable initiative called Vibe Israel. Its mission is to figure out how to “sell” Israel in a completely different way from the hoary “hasbarah” strategies of old. Backed up with ruthless research, Vibe Israel looks at rebranding the Jewish state to accentuate the positive.
Landau is now 45, married with three children and living in Tel Aviv. After sixth form at Carmel College, she read law at Girton College, Cambridge, but says she only really made the decision to live in Israel when she returned to do her army service.
Ten years ago, she began to reassess her life. “I began to think about perception and reality when it comes to Israel, and to wonder why there were not more conversations about how we feel about the country.”
Initially she looked at Israel advocacy but was not convinced that “explaining Israel’s policies improves Israel’s image”.
She was aware of a Foreign Ministry programme to develop hasbarah using marketing and branding, but this never really took off. Instead, after much discussion, Landau decided to create “influencer marketing” for Israel. She explains: “Every country does some sort of marketing for itself, whether in tourism or trade. But Israel didn’t really have it”.
To begin with, funded by private donations, Vibe Israel brought groups of “inflluencers” to Israel for a week at a time. “We would bring, for example, mummy bloggers, from Britain, France, and Spain, to showcase family life. We ran about 40 tours for people from, eventually, 30 countries. Mothers would meet mothers, or people starting small ‘kitchen table’ companies such as making nappy bags. The whole idea was to get people to Israel to meet like-minded counterparts, and not at the level of meeting dignitaries.”
Success was measured in the level of engagement or mentions on social media.
Eventually it became apparent that there was “a way of marketing Israel that was not about the conflict. And we can show what can be done, and use the research to back that up”. Examples of positive Israel stories, says Landau, are Eurovision, last year’s Giro d’Italia cycling race, or even the international success of Gal Gadot as Hollywood’s Wonder Woman.
Vibe Israel hired the specialist company, Bloom Consulting, to conduct interviews with defined groups of people around the world about their perceptions of Israel. The results were fascinating, says Landau, and now form the backdrop to her company’s future work.
The main three groups were Generation Z — respondents aged 14 – 21; millennials — those aged 22- 38; and mothers. In one set of questions British respondents were asked if they had ever heard of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement; only six per cent of the Generation Z group had ever heard of it. The numbers were equally low for millennials and mothers — 18 per cent and 14 per cent respectively.
But before the anti-BDS crowd come out to cheer, there were other results which might not please Israel so much. For example, people were asked how they would rank Israel compared with a selected group of countries. British respondents were asked to make their choices compared with China, Turkey, Russia and Saudi Arabia. The British mothers gave the least positive views and both the millennials and Generation Z put Israel very low in the rankings.
Just as concerning were the responses on tourism, where people were asked to compare Israel with Italy, Greece, Egypt and Turkey. Again, mothers in Britain rated Israel as the least positive, while the millennials and Generation Z placed it very low.
The groups were asked if they would consider Israel a place to study or work, compared with America, Germany or Singapore. Again, Israel came in very low; and when they were asked what would be their first image of Israel, the Israel-Palestine conflict came sixth in consideration. Top of the list, in fact, was “religion” and “a place that is not safe”. Mothers were more likely to associate Israel with “violence and war” while 11 per cent of Generation Z picked religion.
And perhaps the most dispiriting answers of all came to the question: “Tell us about the coolest thing you’ve heard/seen/read about Israel”. The answer from just over half the Generation Z and mothers was “don’t know” or “nothing”, while a fairly concerning 42.7 per cent of millennials came up with the same replies.
Overall, the survey finds that “there’s a slippery slope effect: the younger the respondents, the less positive their perception of Israel and the more indifferent/apathetic they are towards Israel.
This echoes research over the last decade that shows that there is a similar direct correlation between the age of the respondents and their less positive views relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.
Joanna Landau and her team are still drilling down the results of the survey and trying to apply them to a strategic way of presenting Israel to the world. But of one thing she is sure: “We should be showing the entire range of what Israel represents. The majority of respondents didn’t know what Israel does best, or what was cool about the country.” And since a whopping 84 per cent of respondents had never heard of BDS, some thought could be given to whether it was appropriate to devote so many resources to combatting it. There is, says Joanna Landau. “a huge missing element in the way in which Israel presents itself. It deserves great marketing”.