Best Face Forward

The photo spread in Maxim‘s July 2007 issue was standard “lad-mag” stuff: leggy models in barely-there bikinis posing seductively against a backdrop of sun, sea and sand. Accompanied by equally provocative text, the five-page feature delivered ample doses of brazen sexuality and exotic scenery. It was yet another month and another far-flung location to pique the interest of Maxim‘s 2.5 million young male readership.

Only this was no ordinary far-flung location and these were no ordinary midriff-baring models. Titled “Women of the Israeli Defense Forces,” the project was shot in Israel using former female soldiers who had traded their boots and fatigues for swimsuits and stilettos.

The Maxim shoot, designed to help redefine Israel’s public image, was initiated by David Saranga, the consul for media and public affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York. It was part of a larger effort to give a new face to the nation as it approaches its 60th anniversary this spring.

Traditionally, Israel’s Foreign Ministry has been responsible for shaping the country’s political image — not for lifestyle marketing. The country’s Ministry of Tourism was in charge of attracting tourists. In a switch, they’re now working together to help rebrand Israel as a lifestyles-oriented destination, a strategy being ramped up thanks to the anniversary.

The anniversary “is a big number and speaks to a sense of legitimacy for the nation,” observes Barry Lowenthal, president of New York-based Media Kitchen. “It also suggests staying power for a country often associated with violence.”

The ministries, of course, have a tough road ahead of them. According to a late-2006 National Brand Index survey of nearly 30,000 respondents in 35 nations conducted by branding expert Simon Anholt, Israel had the lowest public perception of any country in the world — except for Iran.

“Countries are contaminated by their role in the world,” explains Anholt, who has advised countries such as Britain, Iceland, Latvia and Germany on national image-enhancement policies. “Especially if it involves conflict.”

Though a relatively unimportant consequence, the violence can interrupt efforts to put forth a new image. Israel’s U.S. TV campaign from Communications Plus, “Israel — you’ll love us from the first shalom,” for example, was suspended by the Ministry of Tourism in mid-2006 during the three-month war with Lebanon. (It came back on-air several months later.)

Two years on, that war may be long finished, but the country remains mired in a bloody conflict with Palestinian militants that is broadcast daily by international news networks.

Interestingly, tourist numbers in Israel were already improving before some of the ministries’ latest efforts were put into place. Since a near-decimation of its tourism industry earlier this decade, a result of ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip and stalled peace processes with its Palestinian neighbors, the country has been attracting an increasing number of tourists. Last year, a record 542,000 Americans visited the country — more than double the figure in 2002 during the height of the last intifada. But Israeli government agencies are keen to grow these numbers — and public favor — even further.

In the U.S., Saranga’s office has launched a range of initiatives, both virtual and offline, to shift the image of Israel among audiences typically indifferent or even hostile towards the country. “Our research indicated that Israel is perceived primarily through two lenses: militarization and religion,” says Saranga, who worked with New York-based Insight ResearchGroup (IRG) to conduct focus groups measuring Israel’s appeal across the U.S. “What was lacking was a human lens.”

Prior to the Maxim shoot, Saranga developed and launched a MySpace page representing the entire State of Israel. Post-shoot, he launched one on Facebook, as well. He also created a blog, isrealli.org, which offers stories about Israeli culture, from fashion and film to music and cuisine, which was recently updated with a richer video-based interface.

Israel’s Ministry of Tourism has been ramping up the PR, as well. It worked with Sports Illustrated to have the magazine’s 2008 annual swimsuit issue photographed in the Mediterranean resort town of Ceseara and on the Dead Sea coast, and worked as well with French Vogue, which dedicated two articles to Israel as a lifestyle and culture destinations in its February 2008 issue.

The tourism ministry also has been investing in more traditional marketing efforts, mostly in Europe and the U.S. For TV, Communications Plus re-cut a 30-second spot from its “Israel — you’ll love us” campaign, which ran in December. The spot, “60th Anniversary,” features a new logo — a boy flying the Israeli flag as a kite — and contrasts the youth of the nation against the country’s ancient history.

Such ads, says the Media Kitchen’s Lowenthal, “help redirect the conversation, while reaching specific target groups.”

Reaching new target groups was certainly the intent behind the most ambitious project undertaken by Israel this spring: a special 40-page supplement in British Conde Nast Traveller‘s April 2008 issue dedicated solely to Israel and its 60th anniversary. Produced in conjunction with the London office of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism and poly-bagged to 85,000 magazines, the one-off supplement is “intended to expose Israel as a normal country to travelers beyond the ‘ethnic markets’ of Jews and Christian pilgrims,” explains Uzi Gafni, director of the Israel Tourist Board in London.

Adds Roberto D’Andria, cd of Bear Design in London, which develops all of Israel’s U.K. TV, print and shelter advertising: “It also provides Israel with a sense of credibility through brand association. Being linked with Conde Nast automatically gives Israel a sense of fashionability and exclusivity.”

Fashion has played a key role in D’Andria’s current Israel campaign, “Israel — think again,” which, much like the Maxim, Sports Illustrated and Vogue spreads, has focused on the country’s natural beauty. Featuring beach backdrops and bathing suit-clad beauties, the work has actually downplayed Israel the country, focusing instead on specific Israeli destinations such as Tel Aviv, the Red Sea resort town of Eilat and the Dead Sea.

“While Israel has a volatile public image,” says D’Andria, whose firm conducted research on people’s perceptions of Israel, “people were far more open-minded to individual locations.”

So much so that the print campaign resulted in up to four times the number of previous visits to the Tourism Office’s Web site, reports Jeff Upward, director of Total Media International in London, which handles all of Israel’s U.K. and European media placement. “And some 20 times more visits when the spots ran on TV and in the London Underground,” says Upward, compared to the period before the ads ran. He adds that recent print and outdoor campaigns in Russia saw tourism to Israel increase by 130 percent from that country, while a print-only campaign in Italy boosted business by 40 percent from 2006 to 2007 (numbers from Total Media International).

Despite these positive results and a roster of additional upcoming anniversary-related promotional events — including an Israeli cinema festival at New York’s Lincoln Center and an organized “virtual” party on the Second Life Web site, both in May — the long-term effectiveness of such rebranding efforts remains uncertain.

“It will take quite a long time to turn around a country as controversial as Israel,” observes Anholt. “As long as there is no peace or stability, Israel will always have trouble separating itself from its conflicts.”

Nonetheless, Anholt’s study did reveal that Israeli-made “products” are favorably perceived abroad — including the “products” of lifestyle and tourism. Good news to folks like Saranga, who hope their marketing and media efforts will help the public better delineate between Israel-made products and Israel-made policy.

And the new efforts are appearing to sway the masses — at least, the Maxim-reading masses. According to a study conducted late last year by IRG, the Maxim article succeeded in creating a more multi-dimensional image of Israel in the eyes of its readers. Fifty-two percent of respondents found the article “very appealing,” 37 percent said they viewed Israel as “more liberal” and, perhaps most importantly, 74 percent said the article made them look at Israel “as more like the U.S.”

“Even if parts of the public already support Israel, that is not enough — we want them to care about Israel,” says IRG head Boaz Mourad. “Because just like any brand, the more people care about you — the better for your brand.”

David Kaufman is a New York-based freelance writer and editor who contributes regularly to ‘The New York Times,’ ‘The Financial Times’ and ‘Details.’