In its 61-year history as a modern nation state, Israel has become synonymous with conflict and controversy, creating friction with hostile neighbors and, at times, setting itself up as a target for international reproach. But is Israel getting short shrift? Have Israelis been letting themselves down by failing to showcase their strengths? In an interview with Knowledge at Wharton, Wharton marketing professor David Reibstein explores the consequences of Israel’s tarnished reputation, not only for the country in general, but also for Israel’s business community, while also considering whether using better public relations and marketing tactics could improve Israel’s image.

The following are excerpts from his remarks. 

Knowledge at Wharton: Israel is often viewed as a region of conflict. Could you explain what that means for the country’s image, especially within the business community?

David Reibstein: It means a very significant thing on one dimension and that is: Can we rely on Israel, or the region, to be a source of supply [of goods and services] given that the supply at any time might be threatened because of conflict? As a result, it makes it more difficult for companies to depend on the region.

Knowledge at Wharton: What efforts has Israel made to improve this image?

Reibstein: For the most part … I don’t think Israel has really tried to [tackle] that issue head-on, primarily because, in spite of the region’s reputation that it is often in conflict, Israel has been very reliable in terms of being able to continue to produce and deliver….

Knowledge at Wharton: That’s right, especially as far as its business potential is concerned. What would you consider are the major strengths that Israel needs to emphasize?

Reibstein: Israel has a history of having developed a number of great technologies that have come to market and done very well. There is a whole tradition … of innovation. That’s its biggest strength.

Knowledge at Wharton: What do you think Israel could do to communicate that more effectively?

Reibstein: Israel probably is not as widely known for all the things that it has developed [as it could be]. It could do a better job of [showcasing] all that it has brought to the world economy.

It’s been very much an individual business and entrepreneurial effort, rather than a collective effort to say, “This is a national issue and we as a nation need to be doing something to address it.” I don’t think [the latter] has been the country’s approach, but it would be something that the country could do.

Knowledge at Wharton: What do you regard as some of the major obstacles that Israel faces in improving its global image, and how can they be overcome?

Reibstein: [Israelis have a major issue] as marketers. They are phenomenal at the development of technology, as we were just talking about. [But because] of who they are and where they have come [from], they are not very good marketers [of that technology]. There is a lesson in there that they could work on. Let me expand on that just a little bit.

Israel as a nation has had to survive [by being confident that] what it is doing is the right thing. It’s been surrounded geographically by enemies and had to fight for its existence…. [Israelis] needed to have confidence in themselves and [have] the strength to follow through with what they were doing. The generation of Israelis running the country today has been in positions, militarily and politically, where the region has been opposed to them and often the world has been in objection. They’ve had sanctions by the United Nations on numerous occasions and have continued to say, “We believe we are doing the right thing and we’re moving forward.”

As a result, most of us know Israelis [who] have a great deal of conviction and confidence in their own beliefs. That has been a major strength and has allowed them to take product ideas … forward. So often ideas fail because if they hit a speed bump, people abandon them. Israelis have been very good at having confidence and wanting to make sure that things get completed.

The bad side of all that is their self-confidence gets in the way of learning, adjusting and in particular, listening. So the need for marketing research … and more broadly put, the role for listening to what the market says that it wants is not as evident [in Israel].

Israel has developed a lot of technology … and [the Israeli companies that have developed that technology] have made money not by going to market with it but by selling [the businesses producing that technology to other companies]. It’s hard to think of Israeli companies that have a large presence in the marketplace.

Knowledge at Wharton: So how can Israel become better at listening to the market and to, say, world opinion?

Reibstein: It is a difficult task because to a large degree [it] is a cultural blindness…. And it’s personality. It’s a personality that has really been critical for the long-term survival of a nation.

They need to get to a stage where they recognize the importance of hearing from customers and making sure that their views are what the market responds to….

Knowledge at Wharton: What are the differences between Israeli companies marketing themselves to the world and Israel as a country marketing itself as a brand to the world? There are two different challenges. How can they be tackled?

Reibstein: Israeli companies don’t have to be identified with Israel.

They need to first of all listen to what their customers need and want, [and then] offer that, just like any other company would. The country of origin shouldn’t be that big of an issue.

Israel marketing itself as a [nation] requires a greater ability to communicate that this is a region to be sourcing from and doing business with. That would require skills in terms of communicating about the stability of the region or the confidence in a country being able to produce even in the circumstances that it often finds itself in.

Knowledge at Wharton: Some other countries have had image issues, like India or China. India for many years was blighted by [a reputation for] having a “Hindu rate of growth” of only 3% that it would never break out of. And these countries have successfully used platforms like the World Economic Forum in Davos to improve their image. Are you aware of whether Israel has tried such tactics?

Reibstein: I am not aware that Israel has tried such tactics. Again [it comes down to] this belief and overall self-confidence that, “Of course we are good. And of course we as a nation produce good products.” It might be a large tactical error on its part to not have tried [platforms like Davos]. On the other hand, what I referred to earlier is that as a nation, the thing that [Israelis] have going for themselves — an ability to overcome concerns about whether they can be relied upon given the hostile environment that they’re in — is their track record.

Knowledge at Wharton: Are there any special measures that Israel could take to market itself to non-Jewish countries and non-Jewish populations in countries like the U.S.?

Reibstein: The answer is absolutely. In particular, it seems to me that most people don’t buy products based on religion. Most people buy products based on performance. So there is no reason for them to be thinking, “How do we market ourselves to non-Jewish communities?” [Instead, it should be] “We market ourselves by offering good products and good services.” That’s the best tactic they can use.

Knowledge at Wharton: If you were speaking to [Prime Minister]Benjamin Netanyahu instead of me right now, what advice would you offer him about marketing the brand of Israel?

Reibstein: I actually had the opportunity to speak with [President] Shimon Peres. So the advice that I’m going to suggest is not hypothetical but is what I did recommend at that time. What we saw was a nation that was fighting a war, [in] a conflict with the Palestinians [in 2000/01]. And they believed that what they were doing was right and that militarily Israel has always done very well in such battles. But in global opinion, they were losing many of those battles primarily because across the airwaves pictures were appearing of [Palestinian] children throwing rocks [at Israeli soldiers during clashes in the West Bank] and collateral damage occurring. And Israel didn’t care about public opinion. They thought, “Militarily, we’re doing the correct thing. We’re trying to defend our borders” and the world would know that what they were doing was right…. They lost a considerable amount of public confidence. And they have spent very little on [PR] and showing as a nation why they have had to do some of the things that they have.

My recommendation to Netanyahu would be that it is essential that they pay attention to public opinion. And that they need to invest some effort in explaining to people why as a nation they’ve been doing what they’ve been doing. That means educational PR, not propaganda, to lay out exactly what the rationale is. It cannot be driven just by that self-confidence of, “We know what is right and everybody else will just have to put up with it.”